Saturday, December 30, 2006

Day 14 - Tam Coc

Should we or shouldn't we? That was the question. After the Mekong tour, we'd had enough of what being a sheep was like. We'd thought our Dragon's Pearl experience would be different. Having paid a vastly larger amount of money only to find that it was pretty much the same, we were now pretty much convinced that another tour was exactly what we didn't want for our last day in Hanoi and in fact in Vietnam itself.

Which was, of course, why we'd found ourselves handing over $30 to a tour agent the evening before. Now we were sitting on two stools outside the the tour office watching the morning bustle as we waited for our tour bus. We were off to Tam Coc via some temples in the old capital of Hoa Lu.

"Ha Long Bay on land" promised the advertising. We were all set for karsts. Clearly, we couldn't get enough of them. Karsts were all we lived for. What it felt like though was that we were really living for hours of bone crushing misery on tour buses. This one was relatively empty when we got into it. By the time it picked up it's last passenger, a lone Japanese, it was so crammed that she visibly recoiled in shock as the door slid open to let her in. "It's just like the Tokyo subway!" I encouraged her in Japanese.

Hours later, we were poured onto the gravel outside our restaurant. We'd had our appetites whetted by the site of four men carrying an enormous dead pig, skinned and gutted up the road nearby. All of a sudden, kosher seemed the way to go.

Just beyond the restaurant was a flailing mass of rowing boats. The Vietnamese had capitalised on the local beauty by building quite an impressive dock and lake housing something like 200 long narrow rowing boats. Each was manned by a desperate farmer. Allow me to explain.

Some decades ago, when the tourists realised they could come here without being hit by shrapnel, someone paid someone to row them along the river through the karsts of Tam Coc. Someone told his brother and pretty soon there were hundreds of someone's wanting people to row them through the fast disappearing mystique of the idyllic valley. Competetion for this new trade among the local people, devastated and impoverished by war, was fierce. Things got to a head not so long ago when registration took place and a rota was established. It was decreed that whoever wanted to row could do so only they had to do it once a fortnight and do it only once.

While this spread the wealth so to speak, it meant that it spread it so thinly that it now provides hardly any supplementary income at all for the local farming community per individual. This is communism in action in fact and, just like in capitalism, it results when taken to extremes like this, in greed of the most insidious kind.

So, amateur capitalists that we are, we suspected nothing too extreme as we lowered ourselves into our boat. The rower was a middle aged woman with a smattering of French and no English whatsoever. I quickly dragged my French from the bowels of my subconscious where I'd last left it after a less than memorable five days in Paris 15 years ago. We got on okay. She explained how much she got paid for the two hour row and how many children she had and how dependent she was on all this and, fools that we were, we didn't really see anything coming.

Meanwhile though, the scenery was amazing. Picture if you will silence of an intense nature, stillness of water scattered with pond weed and the thrust of immense limestone upward so shearly it almost screams as it rises from the shallow, still waters. Got that? Good. Now add in approximately fifty boats of noisy, camera toting tourists, rowers calling out to each other, boats of touts trying to sell you photos of yourself and louts amazed at the obvious, generating echoes in a cave that is only slightly higher than your own head as you pass through it on your boat. It was a curious mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Again, it was Vietnam concentrated.

The ride took us through this stunning landscape and two caves until we came to what was suddenly The End. All this consisted of was a few bamboo poles across the river. You could easily have got out and waded further. But no, the tourists had their own defined area and we had to make do with that.

On the way back, the softsell got harder. We pulled alongside another boat and a small metal trunk was brought on board. From this, regular souvenirs were revealed as if they were the treasures of the orient. We really weren't interested. She persisted. We really weren't interested.

We pulled up closer to the dock. She slowed her rowing and went into overdrive. Apparently, there's a whole family starving in Tam Coc now because we didn't give her a dollar tip. You know, the irony is, we would have tipped her had we not been pressured to. And the pressure was intense. As I got out of the boat, a guy on the dock grabbed me forcefully pushing me back towards the boat screaming "Tip! TIIIIIPPPPP!!!!" at me.

I fought my way to our tour guide who was standing in a yellow suit and high heels on the dock. Then began what was by far the most bizarre insight into Vietnam we had while we were there. I asked her how much the rowers get paid for their two hour fortnightly trip. It was a paltry $2 and the price was fixed by, who else, the tour operators.

"But we paid $15 each for this trip." I began.

"Oh but you pay for much more than the rowing," she countered, "You have to pay for me all day but them only two hours." She'd done little more than walk us around some temples earlier and give us some memorised details of their history. Hardly taxing stuff.

"And," she continued unashamed tapping her head, "You pay for my thinking." I was amazed. I wanted to push the boundary here.

"But Vietnam is a socialist country." I ventured. "Aren't you supposed to treat each worker more equally?"

"No!" I was surprised at her conviction. "We need to change this country but change comes too slowly."

What could I say? She was young and the winds of change were definitely blowing through her hair. I honestly don't think anyone would have said something as boldly as that ten years ago in Vietnam. Change seemed, to me at least, to have come so rapidly the country was almost falling over its own feet in an effort to modernise. How she could be impatient with it I really wasn't sure. When she had been born the country was dragging itself from the devastation of thirty years of the most intense and brutal war the century had seen. Now its cities were screaming maelstroms of development. It bewildered me.

Back in Saigon we headed over to an Internet cafe. It was there we learned the sad news that Sheena's grandmother had passed away probably very close to the time that I'd had this conversation. Being 90 it wasn't exactly unexpected but it still came as a shock to Sheena especially. And, as if it knew she needed comforting, the Internet cafe cat walked across her keyboard and curled up on her lap. It was kind of crusty... but comforting at the same time.

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