Weaving next through a series of narrow inlets, we came across one of the bay’s many floating fishing villages, communities where entire families live in shanties no bigger than 150 square feet. Shacks are mounted on rafts that are supported only by Styrofoam-like blocks; low net fences are erected around the perimeters to stop toddlers from falling in. That the fragile hamlets stay afloat in the vagaries of Vietnamese weather is a marine marvel.
At one village, Vong Vieng, residents came out to greet our Minnesotan guide, Kim McCluskey, by name. A six-foot-three lumberjack of a fellow, with a red beard, Kim is easy to spot among the Vietnamese. In 2003, when he brought his first kayaking tour through Ha Long, he was shocked to find three orphaned girls living on a primitive raft; the roof was a mere sheet of plastic. The two older children, struggling to support the youngest by harvesting oysters, had torn-up feet and bloodied hands. On a good day, they earned 30¢. Kim collected all the spare cash the kayakers had with them and gave the girls some 800,000 Vietnamese dong, or $50. He went on to raise $3,000 back in Minnesota—enough to build the sisters a well-constructed floating home. With the help of his partner, Jean Gendreau, he has since raised enough money to build five schools in northern Vietnam (go to suninmyheart.com to donate; more on Kim and Jean, below).
Stopping to meet the eldest of the orphans, Mai, now 24, I learned that the first thing she and her sisters did with the $50 windfall was buy two more blankets (they had been sharing one). “This home meant so much to us,” she said, speaking through our interpreter.
Listening to her, I felt humbled. The fact that gas drilling was threatening my weekend house angered me, yes. But the reality was, I own a second house. Mai’s entire little home was half the size of my cottage kitchen.
With my problems put into perspective, I was ready to cope when, later that night, a second typhoon warning was issued. We would head inland a few days early to paddle the three lakes and rivers of Ba Be National Park.
Finding Calmer Waters
Forty miles south of the Chinese border, Ba Be is known for its limestone and evergreen forests. For more than 2,000 years, the region’s scattered villages have been scarcely populated by some 2,100 ethnic Tay, most of whom are subsistence farmers or fishermen.
Our eight-and-a-half-hour drive to Ba Be took us through a countryside that was vividly, verdantly green in more shades than one language can name: chartreuse patchwork quilts of rice paddies; shiny lime-green leaves of tea plantations clinging to the edge of mountain slopes, whose peaks dis-appeared into cloud forests; the rich viridian of thick jungle canopy. The roads were thronged with mopeds, whose drivers apparently used their baskets to carry entire farms to market; it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see flocks of ducks, chickens or four or five fat pigs at a time being transported in a single basket. Mopeds, we were told, could even carry the occasional water buffalo.
By early evening, we reached Po Lu, where we stayed at the village chief’s house. The space was sparsely furnished (our beds for the week: mats). But what our host lacked in furniture, he made up for in food. The meals, cooked over charcoal fires, were labor intensive but superb. I never expected to be tucking into a plateful of morning glories, but there I was, eating the trumpet-shaped flowers as if they were spinach leaves (which, once cooked, they resembled). Lunch and dinner came in nine courses, from plates of exotic mangosteen and dragon fruit to traditional seafoods and spiced pork, each dish decorated with vegetables intricately carved to look like ikebana flowers. It’s amazing that we could still fit into our kayaks.