There are seven floating villages in Ha Long Bay and we were paying a visit to the biggest – Cua Van. This a place where you might get close to the reality of Waterworld, a cobbled together set of boats and floating platforms where the trade is in fish, the youth are only permitted to marry those from another floating village and education is only at a primary school level (inhabitants must go to mainland Vietnam to do further education).
There are barely 300 people here, I see about fifty. What I like about this visit was that we glide around the place but don’t interfere in their daily lives. They try to sell us nothing, we don’t stop and poke inquisitive questions. It is a chance to see an alien culture without tourism trade.
There are usually two options for seeing the village: kayak or being rowed by a guide. The former gives me more freedom to go where I may wish, the latter allows me to both photograph and relax. I choose the latter and settle back, letting my fingers hang over the wooden side; they create sparkling wakes along the boat. I am scant inches from a glassy surface, fish a metre or so below; some are in shoals, some are lazily drifting, then darting away with a flick of a fin. Around this secure inlet the limestone cliffs rise in sharp acclivity, dressed in green foliage. A rusting palette of shacks and homes rise and fall gently in the faintest of waves. Clothes are drying, people are engaged in all kinds of engineering, be it maintenance or construction. I barely hear a voice.
At one end of the inlet, across the waters, drifts the solitary sound of a dance beat. Here there is some television, music is the main entertainment.
For thirty minutes I know I am floating in a world with its own lessons, its own dangers, its own beauty. Yet, there is no war here, no politicking, no screaming sports fans, no social media. The agonies of civilization don’t belong in this place; the opinions and decisions of seven billion people are silenced; here they are meaningless.
There is the merest splash of an oar, the rhythmic pull of a boat, the faint smell of the water, the cry of a solitary black kite wheeling on a thermal over the stone seascape. It is utterly peaceful.
We spend about thirty minutes slowly circling the bay; I idly wonder what it might be like to be the postman out here. In the far distance a guide points out a relatively large building embedded on a narrow strip of coastline – ‘it is the school’ we are proudly informed. We cannot visit; today is a normal school day.
The last part of our circumnavigation is past a small temple that rests on a stone jetty, prodding about ten metres out of the cliff base. An ochre sloped room on white walls and green doors. A flag pole twice the height of the shrine has the Vietnamese flag fluttering in a slight breeze. Eight cracked steps, wide enough for a single person, descend to the water; I spot a black mantra gliding past.
Eventually, we pull back to our mooring point and step onto the largest floating pontoon. Four fish farms are just beside me. Each has fish in various stages of growth. I am told this is sufficient to keep the people fed; a generator hums in the background, more quietly than I’d’ve guessed. There is a large hut where I find I can wander in; it is promoting “Green Lens”, a programme designed to support local youth and provide income whereby you can have your photos taken with and by a local. Unfortunately, there is no one there but I wander into a cool interior and find several art works for sale along with some more information on the village.
I decide to buy one. A water sketch of these boats against a single limestone island. The boy who takes my money is kind enough to sprint out of the room, yelling after the Aphrodite’s launch…they’ve decided to leave without me. Only six of us…you’d think they’d spot travelswithadiplomat 🙂
Here are the homes and people of Cua Van…a life utterly removed from mine but one I’d like to experience, even if for just a short while….
Is this what diplomacy is all about?