While in the same geographic region, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Vietnam could not be more different. Think East meets West capitalism, Muslim and Buddhist influences, respectively.
In 2012, my friend Ming and I experienced these contrasting countries. We were sent to Indonesia and Vietnam to give media training workshops to agribusiness professionals and spent a night in Hong Kong on the way to Jakarta. The former British territory was fun to explore with Ming as his parents came from north of the metropolis (rural New Territories), so he knew it well. While he grew up with the Hakka language, his Cantonese was good enough to get us around Hong Kong.
I remember walking past a million neon lights to get to a traditional Chinese restaurant Ming knew, where we sat outside in the heat of the night. I laughed because he ordered a pot of hot tea.
“The dishes and utensils are not always clean at these kinds of restaurants so it’s a tradition to wash them off with hot tea,” he explained.
When I went to the bathroom and saw dishes piled up in the sink, I was glad he carried out this tradition. I doused my utensils a second time in the tea. After dinner, which was tasty in spite of being tinged with tea, we went to a cool bar with live music, where we danced with British ex-pats. Then we went to one of many late-night foot massage parlors.
“Do you want smooth treatment?” asked the girl doing reflexology on my feet. I said yes in my hazy, jet-lagged state, not understanding that this meant scraping off every shred of calloused skin. I was so tired that I dozed as she went about “smoothing.” When I woke up, there were curls of skin everywhere! My feet were smooth as a baby’s bottom.
The next day, we flew to Jakarta, officially the Special Capital Region of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and largest city in southeast Asia. Located on the northwest coast of Java, the world’s most populous island, Jakarta also serves as the diplomatic capital of ASEAN. For us, it was all about traffic and high-rise buildings as a sprawling metropolis. Sadly, our only “cultural experience” there was a dinner organized by locals, at a Japanese steakhouse in a mall.
Our work destination was the agricultural university town of Bogor about 60 kilometers south of Jakarta. It is nicknamed the “Rainy City” because of frequent rain showers, even during the dry season. But it is better known for a presidential palace and botanical garden – one of the oldest and largest in the world. Founded in 1817, Bogor Botanical Garden contains more than 6,000 species of tropical plants. We saw a handful of them from a terrace in the garden where we had lunch. Just as memorable were hauntingly beautiful calls to mosque.
The next work stop was in Ha Noi, the capital of Vietnam, in the northeast. It is unofficially the motorbike capital of the world, with far more motorbikes than cars on the road (at least at that time)! We were also struck by the number of art galleries, which exploded after the fall of communism in the late 1980s. Creativity always soars following repression.
Ming and I dined with colleagues at authentic places this time, including a traditional Vietnamese restaurant on a boat and a fine French-Vietnamese restaurant with colonial décor. Vietnamese cuisine is characterized by spices (i.e., chili and cinnamon), herbs (think basil, mint and coriander), textures and fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, ginger and vegetables. It’s a melting pot of culinary influences from China, Cambodia, Laos and France, which ruled over Vietnam as a colony from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.
Another great cultural experience was watching a show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which included Quan Ho and Chau Van singing, drumming, and puppets acting out a dragon dance, buffalo fighting, farm work, a horse race, coconut picking and the transformation of a carp into a dragon. Quan Họ Bắc Ninh folk songs, UNESCO-recognized intangible heritage, are typically exchanged between men and women during yearly festivals in northern regions.
Our work wrapped up on a Friday, so we took the next day, Ming’s birthday, to celebrate it in Ha Long Bay. Via a tourism company, we got a ride 165 kilometers from Ha Noi to the bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. We passed rice field after rice field, where Vietnamese farmers donned traditional hats. At the bay, we jumped aboard a wooden junk boat with fully battened sails for a half day tour. Amazingly, we had the huge boat to ourselves! Ming always wanted to be a captain and in that circumstance, he could pretend to be without the hassle of actually steering. Ha Long Bay is not easy to navigate with 1,969 islands!
Most of these islands are made of limestone with majestic peaks and greenery, a so-called Karst landscape, making Ha Long Bay magical. What’s more, these islands are largely uninhabitated and unaffected by people. No wonder the bay is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Vietnamese refer to it as “the descending dragon bay,” but we called it a fairytale.
The only disruption to the visual feast was the bay’s murky “emerald” water, which did not look clean in the least. It contained several fish farms, where tourist boats like ours could pull up and buy the catch of the day. Our lunch was made from that day’s catch of crabs and fish – charming and delicious – but we tried not to think about the water from which they came.
We stopped on Dau Go (“Wooden Head”) Island to descend into Thien Cung (“Heavenly Palace”) Cave. It’s the largest cave in Ha Long Bay and loaded with stalactites and stalagmites, which are highlighted by colorful lights. Like all caves in the bay, this one is associated with a legend that explains its formation: A long time ago, a dragon king lived in the cave, which helped locals defeat invaders. One year, there was a severe drought so crops failed and a brave, beautiful girl went to ask the dragon king for help. He fell in love with her at first sight and they married in the cave, raising 100 children there. The true story is that Thien Cung Cave was accidentally discovered in 1993 by fishermen who took shelter in it to escape a bad storm.
We were lucky to discover it as tourists and be able to create our own legend: Ming was captain of a junk boat, which he sailed to a lair of dragons and lived to tell about.
All photos are from Unsplash.com except for the last one which comes from VisitHalongBay.com. Given that this trip was 11 years ago, I cannot locate my own photos!