Author Rajesh Talwar is back with his new book Where Elephants Danced And Dragons Flew: Travels Through Seven Asian Nations (Bridging Borders). Through the nine memorable essays in the book, Talwar brings alive the life and culture of seven countries he visited in Asia. In Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, he discovers a stunning, unearthly landscape, while in Hanoi; he encounters the nation’s inefficient bureaucracy, even as he befriends bright, young students.
The book is divided into two parts – Part 1, titled Travels in South East Asia has four essays: three on Cambodia and one on Vietnam. Part 2, titled In Chinese Territories, describes his travels and impressions of Hong Kong, Singapore and China.
Following is an excerpt from the book from Chapter 1 Long and Short of Travels in Hanoi and Ha Long. Read on:
Small green hills appeared now as our bus came closer to the destination.
We reached Ha Long Bay. Every day hundreds of tourists come to see this world heritage site. Our bus was one of many that arrived from different parts of Vietnam. Several large hotels dotted the area for people to stay in and explore the area at greater length.
What was there to explore? Quite a lot, actually. Aside from the standard tourist offerings, such as kayaking, swimming and shopping, there were sixteen hundred islands and four fishing villages to explore.
Many years ago, I saw Tomorrow Never Dies, a fittingly bombastic title for a James Bond film. The film’s villain is a British media baron who hides a nuclear device on board his stealth boat, which is parked in Ha Long Bay. On this visit, I learned that shooting actually took place in Thailand, not in Vietnam as per the script, because the producers couldn’t get permission from the government. That was in 1997. Today Vietnam is much more open to such offers, and to overseas collaborations and business in general.
Outside the magnificent bay itself, what you see all around is barren land with small scraps of green, so to speak. The bay is much visited by tourists from around the world, but the surrounding area and its infrastructure could clearly do with improvement. This would encourage still further tourism, as people would be more inclined to stay over for the night or even longer. It is another matter that Vietnam also needs to conserve the beauty of its natural habitat, including several pristine beaches, and not have it overrun by unregulated tourism.
Nicole bought us tickets for a cruise to the central part of the Bay. Just stepping onto the large boat, being in the waters and taking in the unusual landscape was enjoyable, perhaps even thrilling. An ancient Vietnamese poet described Ha Long as a ‘rock wonder in the sky’. Another Vietnamese writer, Pham Van Dong, asked himself: ‘Is the scenery in this world or somewhere else?’ The landscape does have a quaintly futuristic feel to it, as if it did not belong to this era. Here, you will not find green or rocky Mountains with the traditional shapes and slopes found in most places. The divine artist has played around with new, unusual and outlandish forms. Once you arrive, it becomes easier to comprehend the Vietnamese myth that once huge fiery dragons lived here and protected the country. The islands and islets, so the myth goes, were originally spat out by the family of dragons as jewels and jade. Unlike in the west, the dragon in China and Vietnam is a symbol of power but also of good. Part of the myth is that the tall limestone rock structures appeared magically on the waters without any warning, forcing invader ships to crash against them.
As our boat drifted along, one of the guides on board threw a quick question at the group he was managing.
‘What would you say about my country if you had to use only one word?’ he asked.
‘Traffic,’ volunteered a tall young man with sandy hair.
‘Pollution,’ said the brunette sitting next to him.
Many Vietnamese wear masks while riding motorbikes. The hospitals are full of people with breathing problems.
‘You don’t want to know,’ said a third one.
‘Awesome food,’ said a fourth, using two words, but possibly trying to compensate for the criticism of his over-frank fellow travellers.
‘The last person got it right,’ said our guide.
As if on cue just then, the food – all Vietnamese local dishes – arrived. Nicole helped me manoeuvre my way through the cuisine, figure out what was chicken and what was beef, since I did not eat the latter. In general, she taught me how to eat Vietnamese food more intelligently. We stopped near a fishing village, and then our boat went on a little ahead towards a school built on a small island. Boys and girls were smartly dressed in uniform. A class was in progress, even if tourists on boats came by several times a day as if they were visiting a zoo.
We moved to a particular spot on the bay close to some magnificent limestone skyscrapers. We would stop here for an hour. Some of us stayed on the boat to take photographs or just enjoy the view. For others this was an opportunity to do a bit of a wandering about on the small motorboats that were available, or even to do some kayaking.
When time was up, our cruise vessel once again chugged through the waters, this time in the direction of some huge caves – what the colonising French termed the ‘Grotte des Merveilles’. Within their large interiors could be found long, protruding stalactites and stalagmites. In this array of sharp yet delicate natural white sculptures can be discerned the shapes of humans, animals and birds. Unless you have an unusually discerning eye, you need one of the guides to point these out to you.
A naturalist would have been dissatisfied with such a short visit. A geologist would have been still less satisfied since, as Nicole informed me, the limestone in the bay has gone through not five million, not a hundred million, but five hundred million years of formation in different conditions and environments.