The legend of Halong Bay is that a celestial dragon defended ancient Vietnam by breathing fire on pirate invaders and spitting out hundreds of hot emerald stones into the north sea. The gems become islands which formed an impenetrable wall to other invaders.
Today Halong Bay protected from the sea but vulnerable to a daily invasion of tourists. It is a busy thoroughfare of sailing boats and day cruise ships. By day the bay is alive with the sights and sounds of 8200 visitors daily.
Select cruises offer overnight stays and in the late evenings and early morning it’s possible to experience the quiet solitude of the bay.
On this morning I was awake at dawn. The early morning light had just broken and the only sound was the gentle slap of water against the fisherman’s oar. It was a quiet awakening to a brand new day.
If we were having coffee I’d be having iced ca phe da and you’d be having hot ca phe sua nong. We’d be sitting in a hip Vietnamese cafe waiting on our banh mi sandwiches. On the wall behind us a flickering screen would play a reel of old Saigon street scenes filled with people moving with jerky imprecision. All around us we’d hear music from the ’70s, old disco and throw back rock.
I’m nodding my head to the Bee Gee’s “Tragedy” and trying to remember what I was doing in 1977. Studying for exams. Thinking about university. Watching Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever.
I stir my coffee with the bamboo straw and take a sip from the blue enamel tin cup. Vietnamese ca phe is strong and black, made with metal filter drips placed over a coffee cup pre-filled with a layer of sweet condensed milk.
Last year I went to Vietnam for a leisurely one week photo crawl through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City.) On the pathways around Notre Dame Cathedral, students drank sidewalk ca phe and nearby alleyways hid coffee making cubby holes. Reggie, my Saigon guide, told me not to buy the sidewalk ca phe because vendors roast the beans with cheap corn and unknown fillers.
At 21 years old, Reggie was a good looking hipster dude. He wore long shorts, horn rimmed glasses and a newsie cap. He liked plaid shirts, risotto, film photography and Irish girls. He reminded me of my teenage son.
Which means his parents could have been my age. Except that in 1977 Saigon they would’ve been in a different world. Reggie said that after the fall of Saigon, his father was in a trại học tập cải tạo (re-education camp) for twelve years. He said it quietly and didn’t elaborate. He’s an only son whose lifestyle reflects indulgent parents. Parents like me, but with different memories when hearing “Tragedy.”