National Geographic : 1997 Dec
By LYNN HILL Photographs by BETH WALD S" THAT are you look ing for up there?" asked Nguyen Mien, a fisherman who'd seen me scaling a cliff on one of the 3,000 tiny islands scattered throughout Ha Long Bay. My friends and I were climbing the most technically difficult towers during a four-week trip to Vietnam. "Nothing. I climb for fun," I explained, saying that for me the sport is like dancing or martial arts. I struck a tai chi pose (below). "Oh, like this!" he said, pretending to challenge me. Nguyen and his family live like nomads on the bay, mooring their boat with others in a "floating village" in the Gulf of Tonkin, 40 miles east of Haiphong. When we visited his flotilla of 30 or so vessels, we found women cooking, older men repairing nets, and children hopping from deck to deck like the pirates who are said still to roam these waters. There are many communi ties in Ha Long like this one, which is five hours by boat from the mainland. Setting out at dusk with oil lamps hanging from their bows, fishermen return at dawn to trade squid, crabs, prawns, and other catches with mid dlemen for necessities such as vegetables, fresh water, clothing, and fuel. We met a woman cooking on a barge (right) who travels from vil lage to village with her hus band selling coal. Six years ago, when my friend Todd Skinner first vis ited Quang Ninh Province, he was astonished by all the karst towers strewn across Ha Long Bay (whose name means "de scending dragon"). Remnants of an ancient seabed carved by wind and water, they offer arches of overhanging rock, sheer walls, and caves drip ping with stalactites. Todd invited Beth Wald and me to return with him and climbers Paul Piana and Scott Milton. In December 1996 we rented a fishing boat to explore the bay. And by the end of our stay, the fishermen were call ing me nguoi nho nhan nhu nguoi minh leo treo thoan thoat, "the woman who is as small as we are and can climb any cliff."