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Whitewashing History

A whole bay of traditional dark wooden boats, all painted white. Was this someone’s idea of a joke? Were they drinking?

This was the general sentiment overheard on the dock in Halong Bay while I waited to board my junk, the Halong Jasmine. A sister boat with both the Halong Violet and the Halong Ginger, each used to have a distinct look and character, all stemmed in the tradition of centuries of boat building. Now they are all white.

It would seem that earlier this year a regulation was passed by the local government, demanding that all junks plying the waters of Halong Bay be whitewashed. Why? There are theories, but nobody seems to have a solid answer. One explanation is that a government official was so overwhelmed by the beauty of all the white yachts in Sydney Harbour, he felt the same would translate well in Vietnam. Another is that this regulation was passed so the boat operators would have to bribe officials to relinquish the bylaw, therefore lining pockets. Either way, the end result is the same: “We don’t like it.”

The nice thing is that once you are on your boat, you don’t really notice. The rich carved woods on the junk’s interior, beautiful sunset and breathtaking panoramic scenery are happy to distract from all that new paint. The drink in your hand doesn’t hurt either.

The situation brings to mind the story of Guy de Maupassant, the 19th Century French author. Guy hated the Eiffel Tower so much that after writing many strongly worded letters to his local government, he proceeded to dine regularly under the tower itself. This was the only place in the city where he could avoid looking at it. This being said, I do suppose there are people out there who think this change is good. You can be the judge.

Either way, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site. With over a thousand limestone karsts bursting through the water towards the sky, morning mists that seem to cling to all the right spots as the sun rises and a sunset that will rival even those on the beach during your honeymoon, you won’t be disappointed. A one-night stay from Hanoi is generally enough, so it is a great add-on to a voyage through Vietnam.

When Mike Poppe came back from his Asia research trip and told this story, not a soul believed him until he showed us the proof. Now we’re wondering if we know any guides with connections to a Vietnamese paint stripping company…

There are theories, but nobody seems to have a solid answer.

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