Halong Bay, Vietnam: Shangri La or Tourist Mecca to the Nth Degree?

We had a weekend away from the hustle and bustle (total understatement) of Hanoi and went to explore Halong Bay in northeastern Vietnam. With naive expectations, after viewing some gorgeous photos of the area showing a lone boat on the bay, I figured we were in for a quiet respite in Shangri La. We would have this UNESCO World Heritage Site all to ourselves. Well, you know the numerous cruise ships you see in ports in Alaska and Mexico during tourist season? You know the hawkers at every port? Well, we became intimately acquainted with the Vietnam version of this form of capitalism: myriad ships on the Bay, numerous dayboats, kayaks attached to boats, “sanpan” row boats, and flat canoes used to hawk shells and pearls.

Before we even got to Halong Bay, in fact, our tour van stopped at a “special shop” where we saw the offspring of victims of Agent Orange (apparently it alters the DNA so that the children are also affected – horrible) creating a sort-of needlepoint art and where SO many other things were for sale. As soon as we walked in, each of us was ambushed by a saleswoman who followed us around as we looked at the wares: lacquer art, clothes, sculptures (that they would gladly ship to the U.S. for us), kitsch. The pressure was applied immediately and forcefully. It was quite off-putting and I began to wish that we could just turn around and head back to Hanoi. And, of course, as all good cruise ships will do, I suppose, we were greeted with many opportunities to give up our US dollars or Vietnamese dong as soon as we embarked. I was pretty disheartened, initially.

But, pretty quickly, the sheer unspeakable beauty of the region overtook me. This is a mystical, magical place of almost 2000 limestone islands sent by a descending dragon (“hal” – dragon, “long” – descending) to ward off the invading Chinese many centuries ago. As we cruised about the bay and kayaked and swam and explored a wondrous cave (which was too dark for pictures, alas), I was very appreciative of that dragon, indeed.

And, I understood a little better why the Vietnamese people have capitalized on the opportunities for commerce at Halong Bay.

I understood, but I still longed for just the peace and beauty of this remarkable, remarkable region of the world instead of the haggling and pressure.