The trade-off with hiring a local guide and driver in Vietnam, as with anywhere else, is that at some point you are taken hostage, driven to a workshop for lacquer paintings or pottery or marble statues and trailed by sales people until you buy something. It is expected and even understandable, yet we were surprised when our guide led us to a young woman in a white lab coat and mask, holding surgical tools and peering through a magnifying glass. We’d landed at a pearl farm.
A petite hostess standing nearby explained that they catch oysters in Ha Long Bay, pry them open and remove a piece of the membrane. The membrane is combined with a white ball-bearing-sized core, she continued demurely, and then shoved into the oyster’s gonad. Sure enough, the oyster surgeon had clamped the shell open with a speculum and was inseminating it using tweezers. D and I nodded along as if we weren’t at all surprised that male oysters are made to give birth to cultured pearls.
The impregnated oysters are then strung on racks and lowered back into the bay where they get follow ups every two years to monitor the growth of the pearl baby.
She explained the quality rating system (lowest B to highest AAA) and led us over to the next station where she pulled out a two-year oyster and extracted the pearl toddler. She held it up, “What do you think?” We answered in Canadian, “Oh, what a lovely pearl, pretty colour, unusual shape” until she tossed it offhand into a beaker and said, “This is the worst, not good for jewelry, we grind it and eat it” and then stamped “suckers” on our foreheads and sent us into the shop.
While mercantile tourism might sometimes be the downside to using a guide, the upside is getting to chat at length with locals and gain even some small insight into life in Vietnam.
In Hanoi and Ha Long in North Vietnam, we talked about the 1000 years of Chinese rule, the 100 years of French occupation and the American War, as it is called here. And while Canadians default to weather (it’s been cold and damp here being rainy season), Vietnamese small talk revolves around traffic. Population of cities is given in people and scooters, so how big is Hanoi? 8 million people and 5 million scooters.
Hanoi itself is a hectic, slightly dingy city with mostly uncontrolled intersections where scooters, cars and pedestrians mix together like cement and wood (the Vietnamese equivalent to oil and water). They slide by each other without sticking. To cross the road, our northern guide advised us to “walk slowly and confidently” with predictability of movement being the key to not getting squished. Our charming guide in Central Vietnam would instead call out, “Sticky rice! Be sticky rice” when it was time to cross.
In the cities, Vietnamese houses are 9 feet wide and 3-4 storeys tall to maximize a family’s storefront access, literally, since every house turns their first floor into a store. It allows the family to make a little additional income. Only the front is decorated, primarily in the French Colonial style with pastel colours, dormer windows and ornately balustraded balconies. The long sides are unrelieved, windowless cement in resignation of the neighbour who will build right up against it. The houses are powered by external cables that tangle into elaborate spider webs netting the city and hooked into boxes mounted on poles on each corner. If power goes out, another cable is added since it would be impossible to isolate the specific faulty line.
The 4-hr drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was a string of house-shops pretty much the entire way so D and I played silent bingo of how many times our guide mentioned the year a highway was constructed (usually after having been bombed by the Americans); what unusual item was being carried on a scooter (live chickens to propane tanks to 3ft bonsai trees); and the location of the monkey spies (the human radar traps police set up in treehouse blinds to hunt speeders).
Hoi An in Central Vietnam is completely different. It’s a small, charming place made up of two ancient towns that Japanese and Chinese traders settled across the river from each other, to become the second last stop on the Silk Road. The old town is filled with tailors and restaurants, and is strung with colourful lanterns that cause you to bump into each other as you walk around with faces lifted at night.
The walking bridge over the river that originally separated the two towns is called the Japanese Bridge and holds a Chinese temple where people pray for a peaceful Mamazu, a dragonlike sea monster with a head in India that causes droughts, a tail in Japan responsible for earthquakes and the body in Vietnam causing floods.
Mamazu is often angry, though, as floods submerge the Old Town once or twice every year. The floodline from this past November was higher than my fingerstips when my arm was extended straight over my head. They are deadly since according to our guide, 75% of Vietnamese can’t swim. She said parents are too busy scratching out a living to teach the kids and with the East Sea (South China Sea on the map) nearby and rivers all around, they keep the kids safe by convincing them there are monsters in the water. A project started where foreigners come to Vietnam to teach swimming lessons to lower the death toll, since on average 10 children drown every day in Vietnam. The name of the project: Monster Swimming.
Vietnam is a mix of modern and traditional, a small narrow country with 95 million people that fits 30 times into Canada and whose people differ in personality, accent and sometimes language from north to south. It is fiercely independent and incredibly resilient. Mamazu, eat your heart out.