We have cruised overnight across Tonle Sap lake and are now on the Tonle Sap river. Recent floods have widened the river which is dotted with floating hyacinth, stilted houses and the odd small island. We disembarked this morning to visit the floating village of Kampong Chhnang by small motor boat. As we cruised the waterways children jumped up and down and waved but for the most part life went on as usual at the floating school, the floating shop and numerous other floating businesses.
Finally we docked at the pier and went on a walking tour. The poverty is amazing and yet everyone is clean, well fed and seem to be happy. How little they want from life. Unlike many other places I have visited where a photo means a dollar or two – here the children were more than happy to have their picture taken and then to have a chance to look at the digital image in the camera. Big smiles blossomed when they recognised their faces.
We could see the French influence at the market bread store where baskets of golden baked baguettes were laid out for sale – but the amazing thing was that this was bread made out of rice flour. What a boost that would be in Canada for people with wheat allergies.
After touring the village we got back onto our motor boat and travelled back to our luxurious river boat – what a strange contrast it is. We float down the river in such luxury with air conditioning, ice clinking in our drinks and crisp white sheets on our beds. Somehow it seems a bit wrong.
Junk – the word has bad connotations for North Americans – so the idea of spending a night on a junk in Ha Long Bay was received with mixed feelings. “Don’t worry”, said Huy our guide “You will have a soft mattress and a small private shower.” In fact what we had was a beautiful room furnished in rich warm woods, crisp white linens and a constantly changing view of magical Ha Long Bay.
Now that it has been named one of the natural wonders of the world Ha Long Bay is certainly busy with visitors from all over the world. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for those intrepid travellers who ventured out to this region before it had been “discovered”. It must have been magical. Even with numerous junks and day trippers the area has a certain mystery about it – especially when the mist slides over the sea and wraps around the tall jagged islands.
Our visit there included a ride around a floating village. The village is relatively new, about fifteen years, and was a brilliant solution to the overcrowding of Hanoi. People without homes were offered the chance to come out and start a fishing village and pearl farm which in turn has developed a little tourist industry all of its own. The local people – mostly young girls – ferry visitors around in traditional Vietnamese boats – almost like a gondola in a way. Kids here learn to row from an early age and we saw several very small children lying back in the boats and operating the oars with their feet.
Other highlights of the area include visits to immense caves in the heart of the limestone islands as well as a gruelling 400 step walk up to the top of one of the islands for the “view”. That’s if you can breathe by the time you get up there. Phew! In the heat and humidity that was a mini marathon. By the time we all got down to the beach a dip in the sea was a must – even without a swimsuit. Yes some of our ladies just walked right in with all their clothes on! Good for them!