Several thousand people live in floating villages in sheltered areas of Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay.
Our guide explained that these floating villages have become more heavily populated in recent years as tourism in the area has grown, because it is cheaper to get space on the water than it is to buy or rent land. The housing structures and platforms are simply remarkable — even more so when you look at them and consider the fact that they regularly have to withstand typhoons.
Boats are the lifeline here — they deliver fresh water and fuel to the villages, they shuttle students to and from school on Cat Ba Island, and they provide a wide variety of livelihoods. Most of the people in these villages earn their keep the water. Some engage in fish farming, raising fish in floating pens:
Some families take advantage of the tourist trade — their are floating restaurants, tiny floating B&Bs, and places that sell water or fish to passing tourist boats. We stopped at this platform to pick up water for our second day out:
I was mostly fascinated by the dogs. Almost every family has one or more dogs to protect their stock from the various sea birds that would happily have fish for supper.
Many of the villagers go out to the bay to fish, some during the day …
…and others at night. This is a squid boat — the squid are attracted to the lights:
And this is a boat that catches lots of little tiny fish, also at night:
Here are a whole bunch of fishing boats all huddled together for some unknown reason:
The fishermen and oyster collectors without motors on their boats go into the same tiny caves and lagoons that the tourists do:
The boats vary greatly in shape and design, but all are on the small side:
And of course, there are the tourist boats — you might feel like you’re out in some remote corner of the world, but that feeling never lasts for long. We even came upon the boat we took last year during fall break sitting at anchor:
And of course there are plenty of tourists in kayaks …
You don’t see anyone swimming — except tourists — unless they are diving for shellfish. Part of the reason may be these scary-looking jellyfish, which we came across more often than I would have liked:
Cat Ba Bay looks peaceful now, but it was the site of great upheaval during the Vietnam War. The US Navy mined many of the channels (I’ve just learned that some mines are still out there — I’m happy to have gained that information only after our trip was over). On our last day in the region, our guide took us to see a giant hospital that was built in a cave high up on Cat Ba Island during the Vietnam War. It’s impossible to imagine truly spending time as a doctor or a wounded soldier there, but they have tried to give the visitor an eerie impression of what it might have been like.
The hallways are long, dank, and dark (or they would have been prior to the recent installation of electricity):
This staircase leads to the secret lair of the communist leaders (who had a super-secret escape route that seemed to involve dropping two flights down a narrow shaft into a large pool of water):
We also visited a hill on which first the Japanese (when they occupied the country) and then the Vietnamese mounted cannons to attack approaching enemy ships:
The view from the hill — now just bucolic — gives a great sense of the possible complexities involved in defending this area: