The Inestimable Value of a Good Tour Guide (or Two!)

Jul 12, 2014

[Delayed post, sorry. Written July 11]

No Internet on the refurbished junk we are on so I can’t look up the origin of this kind of wooden boat that we spent the night on in Ha Long Bay, but I am pretty sure the average passenger experience wasn’t air conditioned cabins with marble baths and jetted tubs. So I wouldn’t chalk this up to authentic experiences, but it has been a pretty interesting side trip in unexpected ways.

The first half of yesterday was spent in a bus, transferring our small crowd of 47 from Hanoi to this increasingly upscale Vietnamese holiday spot. The bay itself is lovely — something like 2000 rocky islands spike out of the water like so many craggy dragons teeth in desperate need of braces. I imagine it is terribly perilous in a fog.

It is a beautiful place, but there are many, many “luxury junks” out here and rich Vietnamese have been building condos and small mansions in the town where the boats launch. All the wealth is really incongruous with some of the hard scrabble areas we passed through. I hope it trickles down. I know a two dollar tip here is received with real gratitude, which makes me feel both glad and guilty.

And that brings me to the really fascinating part of the day. Our guide and our tour manager are both excellent and neither deserves to have his name mangled by me as I am about to do, but let’s call them Tang and Son. Sounds like a family business, but Son’s name really is Son. It’s Tang that I am not sure about. (Ed note: turns out it is Thanh. I think.)

Thanh was born in 1975, Son is somewhat younger. Their English is perfect and easy to understand (though he’s never been out of the country, Son’s accent is a fun-sounding hybrid of deep south US and Australian.). They are both incredibly well read and have heads full of data. Listening to them is an education and a joy.

It wasn’t so much what was in their heads that impressed me yesterday though, as what was in their hearts. Terribly trite, sorry, but both these young guys exposed their feelings and emotions in an effort to help us understand what it was like growing up in post-war Vietnam and it was remarkable and touching.

In both cases it was the story of boys who grew up poor, sometimes desperately poor, and frequently hungry, in the command economy of socialist Vietnam. Their circumstances differed but Son remembers being a hungry child running his finger inside the rim of the jar of cooking lard for a forbidden treat (“it was a beautiful thing”) and Thanh’s extended family lived crammed on top of each other in a couple of rooms in a neighborhood in old Hanoi where everyone else lived the same way.

There is no question that these kids had tough, tough lives. The US had bombed and abandoned them and they were pawns in a larger battle between China and the (then) Soviet Union. Space, money, food, and education were at a premium. And yet Son says that knowing no different at the time, they were sure they lived in the best country in the world. Thanh says the other families that lived cheek by jowl with his became his family too: cherished aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers. They did not have easy times but they didn’t live in constant dissatisfaction with what they didn’t have.

And then Vietnam decided that the command economy wasn’t working and they loosened the rules against independent business and property ownership. Bill Clinton opened trade relations and international money flowed in. Work began to pay off and people could buy homes and open a shop below, and have a little more than they did before. And they saved and their kids went to college and they got better jobs and accumulated more stuff and more space to out it. There was a new world of possibility and growth and improved quality of life.

It worked for Thanh. He is smart, educated, well-dressed, very good at what he does. His circumstances have clearly improved and he now lives in another part of the city, but when he tells his story his voice is raw with the loss of the cramped but well-loved urban village he grew up in.

It worked for Son who is in charge of keeping this whole tour/cruise running smoothly. Sharp, personable, good looking in the business suit he puts on to greet us, he is doing well too. He’s proud of his family story — his father went to college after he was injured in the war and was able to send his kids to college too. He is a comfortable member of Vietnam’s growing middle class, but he cherishes his memory of a stolen moment with the family lard supply and his conviction that he lived in the richest country ever.

Both men told us where they’d come from so we would know their country a little more deeply than the average tourist who oohs and ahhs at gorgeous scenery and ancient temples and sleeps easy at night in high thread count sheets.

I am incredibly grateful to both of them. This is a complex and wonderful country where everything is in flux and they helped me see it through their eyes as well as my own. It’s been a truly amazing tour so far.

What? This is a food blog? Oh, right. Well as far as the food on the boat in Ha Long Bay, no one was too impressed, although their efforts to accommodate the vegetarian in their midst were endearing (if peculiar.) Jerry called it “junk food” — not so far off. But it will get better.

Rain storm out the window now. Lovely! Time to pack and get out. We fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia, this evening. More adventure ahead.

Jul 12, 2014

Jul 12, 2014

Jul 12, 2014

Jul 12, 2014

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