Letters From Vietnam: To a Family Friend from Abroad
28th November 2018
Mr. McCray –
I’ve been in Vietnam for the better part of a month now. For a large majority of that month, I’ve been on a small island in the world-renown Ha Long Bay. The island is named Cat Ba and it is one of the only inhabited islands in the bay.
Most people who visit the island only stay for a few days, however, I got caught up with a good crew of foreigners and quickly grew an admiration for the place. It’s a pretty sleepy island, but I’m so hopelessly in love with island culture ever since my time in Malta, I didn’t mind its slow days.
People here are much more relaxed than on the mainland. Though, I’ve only spent time in one other city of Vietnam, Hanoi, which is the crazy capital. I probably haven’t been around enough to make such a judgment, but from my experience on islands, Cat Ba seems to follow the same way of life as the rest.
People here just don’t seem to care about the rest of the world. Not in a bad way, though. In the best of ways. They’re not concerned with keeping up with the Western world like it seems the rest of southeastern Asia is. Most places in Asia try so hard to simulate what they see on television or on the internet. But not on the island. They’re concerned with their own lives and hardly try to accommodate the world of foreigners who visit for a few days. I love it.
The island is beautiful. A mountainous terrain full of green luscious forest that looks like giant heads of broccoli from a distance. Surrounding the island are other smaller islands. Very few of them have beaches, most are just mountainous rock mounds jutting from the South China Sea. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.
There are over 2,000 rocky, jagged islands in Ha Long Bay. Most are covered in trees that create an excellent blue-green contrast with the sea. I did a tour through the bay on one of my first days on the island. It was something special.
There are a few walking trails in Cat Ba leading to peaks that allow for 360-degree views. Some days I will take these trails to the top and spend an afternoon in the breeze. The trails are not maintained well, however, and the vegetation is a pain to hike through when you don’t want to be completely invested in an afternoon hike.
So, I have found an alternate route that I like to walk at sundown each evening that stays the course of a semi-maintained road. Along this route are just as many gorgeous views, a flowing river, and tons and tons of local people outside enjoying the nicest time of their days.
The Vietnamese on the island (about 10,000 people) all love the hour-or-so they can spend at sundown when the sun isn’t bearing down on them and they have enough light to enjoy various activities. Old men sit on street curbs just like old boys, gangs of kids roll out on bikes with soccer balls and disappear up the mountain, and young parents take their infant children out for walks. It’s all such a simple but wonderful thing to watch.
During the other hours of the day, locals stay hidden from the sun. Tourists outnumber locals on the streets. Many are going to the beach, some are up early for boat tours, and others are just wandering about. It seems tourism works differently on the island as it does in the rest of the world. Nobody has an agenda, nobody is in a rush, and nobody seems particularly struck with awe – which is strange. I haven’t figured that part out yet.
I like to walk around the neighborhoods of the island. I’ll take my camera with me and capture people in their everyday life. Poverty is overly-present, but it seems like most aren’t bothered by it. That must be an island culture effect.
Sometimes I become nosy and peer into the homes of locals as I walk by. Few have front doors. I know, it’s not right, but I do it. I’m just interested to know how they live. I can never get a long look, but most homes are pretty gloom. Unpainted walls made of crumbling cinder-blocks, without furniture, and without any natural light.
One of the most inconceivable things I’ve noticed is that many families have invested in an LED TV that stretches the width of their walls. These televisions are always on bright, lighting up the one or two rooms the home consists of. Sometimes, the light from the television is the only way I can see the inside.
These huge televisions look completely out of place and it’s hard for me to fathom the priority some families have to own the TV. It’s not my place to judge, I’m just amazed at the contrast of the house and television.
I leave in a few days. Unfortunately, I will not have answered the main question I asked myself when I arrived in Vietnam. I wanted to figure out if there was any pent-up resentment leftover from the war decades ago. Any traveler you meet will tell you the Vietnamese have long forgiven us for our treatment of the war, but who could know better than the locals themselves?
I’ve had a few conversations about the war with young locals. They don’t seem resentful, but they wouldn’t. It’s the generation before them that might. I haven’t got the opportunity to ask anyone of that generation. Perhaps it’s a question I’ll have to wait to figure out.
I wanted to thank you for your donation to the kids in the village of South Africa. My Grandad and I were so moved by them last year, and I’m so happy there are people who want to support them for their upcoming school year this time around.
Their semester begins in January. I’m in touch with the leader of the Against All Odds Youth Organization and he will be heading to town soon to buy supplies for the kids at a cheaper price than in the village. Among the things they will buy with the donations are required book covers and uniforms.
I can’t wait to receive a picture of the kids donning their new supplies. I’ll be sure to share it on Facebook.
Thank you again,