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Tradition and Modernity Meet in H? Long Bay

I'm in the back of a stuffy tourist van bound for H? Long Bay, barreling down the middle of a barely passable, pothole-filled road just east of Hanoi. After ten days working on World Monuments Fund projects in Cambodia, I figured a few days of vacation on a cruise among the bay's countless limestone karsts would be nice and relaxing. Which it probably will be, if my traveling companion and I survive this shuttle bus ride from hell. So for now the driver is screaming at someone on his cell phone as he swerves back and forth across the road trying to dodge the oncoming traffic, the potholes, and random bicycles, pushcarts, tuktuks, and water buffalo. The woman in front of me just unwrapped a lox-and-onion sandwich, and as the smell of it blends with the heavy Hà N?i smog, we're all turning a bit green. Ah, the joys of international travel.

Now this is better. We're at the dock aboard our 36-cabin boat, hibiscus-and-mango cocktails in hand, waiting to cast off. The bay-scape is even more dramatic than we expected, with thousands of jagged stone islands jutting from the glass-smooth waters. H? Long literally means “descending dragon bay,” named for the legend that the countless karsts and islands were created by the flailings of a family of dragons sent by the gods to defend a young Vietnam from invading hoards. Although this is a vacation, I made sure we chose an itinerary that would take us to C?a V?n, one of the four floating fishing villages that are listed on the 2012 World Monuments Watch. I'm of course a bit ambivalent about visiting a village at all, because one the reasons for being listed in the first place is the threat that encroaching tourism poses to the distinctive traditional lifestyle of the villagers.

Although tourism may well threaten traditional ways of life, the villagers seem to have adapted to it well, as the locals have established that only they are allowed to give tours of the village, and have struck what are apparently rather lucrative deals with the tour operators. Four at a time, we boarded small rowboats piloted by village women. The boats are "basket boats," vessels unique to coastal Vietnam that are woven of split bamboo then coated with tar as waterproofing. Nguy?n Thi H?i, our rower, didn't seem to speak much English (but more than the Vietnamese I speak), but happily pointed out the sights as we rowed up one of the “streets.” The houses are modest, single-story affairs with one or two rooms and usually a wide front porch. They float atop pontoons of either plastic barrels or blocks of styrofoam and are anchored to pilings, then lashed together to form somewhat regular “blocks.” There are similar floating buildings that serve various municipal functions, and we passed one that was clearly a school. What struck me was just how normal it seemed—everyone was going about the same daily routine you'd see in any small town: tending their children, preparing meals, mending fishing nets, and sometimes just talking to their friends (on cell phones; everyone seemed to have one).

Being fishing villages, there are obviously boats everywhere. Many are “squidders,” vessels outfitted with large halogen lights that attract the cephalopods while night-fishing. There are also extensive floating aquaculture fields, some with subsurface netting that contain farmed fish, while others support weighted baskets where mussels, clams, and pearl oysters are cultivated. At one point we passed what was obviously the H? Long version of a convenience store: A large rowboat laden with fruits and vegetables, dried fish and noodles, and a vast selection of condiments, snacks, and beer. And, oddly, dogs are everywhere, scampering on the floating walkways that stretch between the houses.

Although the visit was brief, I feel incredibly privileged to have had a glimpse at a truly unique, one-of-a-kind community, and a way of life that I hope World Monuments Fund in some small way has helped to preserve for years to come.