Back in February I discovered a new love. Her name is Viet Hai Village, located on Cat Ba Island in northern Vietnam.
The island is one of few populated islands in Ha Long Bay. It is considered a territory of the once heavily bombed Haiphong City. It is home to approximately 13,000 inhabitants, of which nearly 4,000 actually live on the water - not on land. On Cat Ba Island, floating fishing villages are as commonplace as city housing back in Illinois.
The name “Cat Ba” originates from the more historical name, “Cac Ba,” which translates as “Women’s Island.” Local legend suggests that centuries ago, women of the Tran Dynasty were killed and their bodies floated to the island. Allegedly each of the three bodies washed up on different beaches and were later discovered by local fishermen. The indigenous people of Cat Ba are said to have built a temple for each woman and later named the island “Cat Ba” in their memory.
Cat Ba Island, located approximately 1,054 miles from China, later became a hub for both the Vietnamese and Chinese. Relations were hospitable between these countries until 1979, when the third Indo-China War erupted in response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which had helped end the Khmer Rouge.
Consequently, relations between China and Vietnam were destroyed. This led to Vietnam’s eviction of about 30,000 Chinese, which included many fishermen from Cat Ba Island as well as Chinese families who lived in the village now known as Viet Hai.
I used the assistance of a tour guide during my maiden trek through Cat Ba National Park and into the valley where Viet Hai Village exists. On tripadvisor.com, a traveler’s review states that this journey can be completed on your own without the use of a guide. I have no idea which route that traveler took, but that review was not true of my experience.
My guide, “Linh,” led me, along with a group of about fifteen tourists, through thirteen miles of heavily forested jungle trails which were not distinctly marked for foreign adventurers. The trails led us up and over three mountains, which often required us to climb and sometimes scramble on all fours over slippery, rocky terrain. It was far from easy, and there is no way I could have found my way into Viet Hai without the direction of a guide. The journey was exhilarating.
Linh led our group to the home of a local fishing family, where we sat for a Vietnamese lunch. While waiting for our meal, we wandered around the home to take in the surroundings. It was like something out of a dream.
My partner, Dain, and I stood together in the middle of the valley, in silent honor of this beautiful gift of adventure we had been given. The valley was as green as it gets, with wide open farmland stretching for a few miles. Buffalo worked in the fields alongside local people who wore conical hats to shield the sun.
Every few minutes, puppies ran by chasing the village children, who were particularly curious about foreigners.
“Hello!” The children emphatically greeted us with the only English they knew.
“Hello!” we replied, equally curious about the rural kids who call this magical village home.
The children were elated by each playful interaction with a foreigner. The corners of their mouths curled up every time their friendly greetings were reciprocated. Their eyes, already so full of light, flickered with the satisfaction of successfully communicating in a foreign language. My eyes swelled with tears as life’s simple things enveloped me in their grace.
It was mid-February, but in Viet Hai the temperature was a comfortable 75 degrees (Fahrenheit). Dragonflies and butterflies filled the air, roosters crowed, farmers sowed. Nothing was in a hurry, but life was in dreamlike motion.
We were far removed from the modern world. We had little concept of the mass panic and danger spreading across the globe over COVID-19. We had no idea that we were experiencing the calm before the storm. But an inner knowing told us to soak in every drop of goodness afforded to us by the present moment.
I look forward to sharing more of those moments with you in future pieces. Thank you for being part of the journey.