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Vietnam's miracles of balance

  • 15 May 2007

On the main road out of Hanoi, just across the Red River, a police motorcycle escort cut in front of us, then manouevered to surround an old red school bus. When the convoy U-turned, we saw that the bus was full of seated Vietnamese dignitaries. Standing up, all the better to gawk around, was Bill Gates, an American in the country to give money from his charitable foundation to support a program of childhood vaccination. His many millions were welcomed, as were individual travellers' handfuls anywhere in Vietnam. Hostility to the aggressor in the American War is confined to such sites as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon (although that was first called the American Atrocities Museum) or in the propaganda film shown before the tour of the Cu Chi tunnels which praises the 'Monthly American Hero Killer'.

We headed east after Bill’s departure, past a grim and as yet unoccupied new town, brick factories with fields of kilns around them, the ubiquitous coffin-makers. This is the chief coal-mining region of Vietnam, the bleakest part of the country that we had seen in the course of three weeks journeying from south to north, reversing the historical momentum of the war as we went. In Mao Khe dust thickened the air; settled grey on leaves and people, on the four live pigs strapped on a cyclo and on their way to market, on ducks in ditches. Then the landscape began to change. A mountain range emerged through the haze. We would approach them to the edge of, and then into the South China Sea at Ha Long Bay.

This is the sublime region popularised by the film Indochine, where it was a punishment post for the French officer who romanced Catherine Deneuve. Now the harbour was crowded with junks taking crowds of tourists down rickety gangplanks and aboard, stretching the capacity to survive intact Vietnam’s greatest visual asset. But once on, all became quiet.

Our junk cruised among miraculous karsts, 3000 islands of limestone that are the peaks of drowned mountains. Here were sea caves, narrow water alleys between islands, giant keyholes through cliffs, range upon range receding dimly into the distance. Deep inside one island was a vast grotto of stalactites and stalagmites. A low cave opening led us into a lagoon all enclosed by high cliffs on which brown monkeys capered. Sellers of food and drink and curios