Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, July 7th

A different country

A tiny portion of Halong Bay

One evening we went to see the Water Puppets perform. This is an artform created by the fishermen and farmers of the Red River delta nearly a thousand years ago. It involves puppeteers behind a screen, with wooden painted puppets on the end of long sticks that extend hidden under the water, giving the puppets two dimensions of movement, rather than the usual one. It's cartoonish - infused with humour, the form tells simple tales of the life of the peasants of the area - a duck farmer protecting his flock from a fox; a fisherman battling a difficult catch; planting and harvesting rice. And it's accompanied by Asian music that for once manages to avoid making your ears bleed. The performance runs several times a day in a custom-made theatre and lasts just under an hour. The troupe occasionally tours - if you ever get a chance to see them, do. It's a delight.

The late Johnny Cash sang of Ireland's Forty Shades of Green (a song he allegedly, and prosaically, scribbled down as he flew across the country on his way into Dublin on a transatlantic flight). Ireland's well-deserved green tally, however, is nothing compared to Vietnam's thousands of greens. The lush paddy fields, what's left of the jungles following exfoliant and overfarming, the verdant hillsides, jostling against each other in the richness and subtlety of their green hues. It's an assault on the cones of the retina. Scattered within the paddies are traditional family gravestones, very Chinese in design, built on little mounds of earth, either naturally higher than the fields, or tumuli constructed specially - tradition dictates that graves should be built on a hillside, but in the flat plain before the mountains of Indochina, these mounds are the highest things around - or within the villages very regimented enclosures, communist in design, of war graves.

This thought occurred to me for the second time in ten years as I gazed over the countryside on our two-day minibus tour to Halong Bay. The bay, a few hours from Hanoi, is a collection of 1,969 islands - this figure according to our guide - sticking sugarloaf-like out of the water in the same limestone that extends north to Guilin in China, and all the way south to make Phi Phi. Here again I had been ten years ago, but again I recognised nothing.

Whereas before the journey to the bay had taken seven hours, at least one of which was spent queueing up with hundreds of trucks, cyclos, cars and buses, all waiting for a rickety wooden ferry to cross one of the wide, red rivers, this time it was all dual carriageway and high bridges, and three hours had been mercifully sliced off the journey.

The bay, breathtakingly stunning, a 270° panorama of improbably shaped karsts, lined up against each other and fading to the horizon in the heat haze, was recogniseable, but the rest of the setup wasn't. Buses pumped thousands of tourists out like toothpaste in a factory, into a restaurant, then from the restaurant to a huge fleet of tourist junks that all chugged along in vaguely the same direction. We meandered through the islands, stopping once to visit a cave (along with everyone else) that Ho Chi Minh had commented "surprised" him - it is now called "Surprise Cave", to swim at a beach where I got zapped rather badly by a jellyfish, and then into a quiet cove to stay the night. Quiet until the arrival of the drunken English tourists on one of the many other boats in the cove, jumping from the roof repeatedly into the early hours of the morning.

The night was hot but we had a fan, and though the generator was next to our cabin we managed a very sound sleep, waking early for breakfast, then a bit more dawdling along, another stop for a swim, where I managed a jump off the top deck and a dive off the second deck, which jarred my back somewhat, and then back to the tourist assembly line for a final lunch and the three hour trip back. It was fun, though, despite the mass market of the place: I quite enjoyed not having to think - being cattle for a little while, being told what to do, where to go, having food ordered for me.

Our visiting friend Peter summed it up for me as we bounced along the renovated road, with tall, thin buildings now looming over the paddies, and the highway dotted with actual petrol stations now, rather than people with milk bottles full of watered-down yellow fluid that masqueraded as four-star: "This is a different country for you now, isn't it?" It really is.

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