there’s johnny: vietnam, halong bay pt 1

February 6, 2019

I find my Zen where it always waits for me; on the water. Kayaking on the other side of the world I am at peace. Daisy sits in front of me. Her conical hat prominent in my foreground, the expanse and wonder of Halong Bay, a stunning canvas, shines brilliantly in backdrop. I paddle our kayak past the emerald green water and limestone monolithic IMG_3377islands that populate Halong Bay; over 1,600 to be not so exact. Some are hollow and you can walk through caves carved by water long ago. Every individual island has a name. Ha long means “descending dragon”. Dragons are big in Vietnam. The legend of Halong Bay goes a little something like this; when Vietnam was first becoming a country, the Gods sent dragons to help protect the land and it’s people from foreign invaders. They descended into the bay. The islands the shape of a dragon’s spine made permanent by jewels and jades spit from the beasts’ mouth. And so the bay became unnavigable to foreign invaders. Then there is some science stuff about tectonic plates and volcanic activity erupting forming the many jungle islands. Who believes that nonsense? I prefer the bit about the dragons. How do I find the words to describe this place? Ancient. Mythical. Fantastical. Parts of Peter Jackson’s King Kong was shot here. If a giant gorilla sat atop one of these islands I wouldn’t even flinch. I almost expect it. In terms of places I have been, I can only compare Halong Bay to Niagra Falls or the Grand IMG_3271Canyon. The sheer magnitude of it’s natural wonder is astonishing. The gentle rocking of the kayak on the water calms me. Our boat leads the group towards a welcoming beach on one of the islands. I can only hear about half of what Daisy is saying. I do catch when she calls out to the rest of the group, “watch out for the crocodile”, then flashes me that irresistible Daisy joke smile. I check in with Ash and Sip off to my right, and steer us parallel so Daisy can snap a good photo. Every breath is precious here. I work to memorize each detail. All the while I push myself to paddle hard. I am a one man operation against plenty of two’s but no way I’m gonna loose our leader status. Arms, back and shoulders engaged. I’ve jumped into the middle though. Here on the water, bad form, a show stopper deserves it’s opening act. And so many parts of getting here have weight. A proper introduction to the national treasure that is Daisy, for instance. Meeting Ash and Sip who somehow manage to leap into my heart. The facts, phrases and anecdotes I pick up as Mr. Handsome drives us from Hanoi through poverty and rice fields to Halong Bay. No choice but to go back and jog forward again. But one more moment of peace on the water first. Can I get an Om?

The night before is a new traveling low for sleep. The room is hot, the bed uncomfortable and every little noise catches my ear. But really, it’s me. During one pee break I spend an awful long time considering the white hose next to the toilet. It looks like a faucet spray hose you’d find atop your kitchen sink. Delayed night mind eventually finds it’s way there. It’s a bidet. What does 100 years of French occupation get you? French press coffee and a clean asshole. Running tally. There is a bidet in every bathroom I visit in Vietnam, including a public bathroom in a park. Thus concludes the bidet recap section of this blog. Eventually I cry “Uncle” to the long night. I get out of bed and workout with the elastic band I travel with while watching British CNN. There has been a terrorist attack carried out using American military equipment suggesting illegal arms sales. The phrase “no news is good news”, has unintentionally become the slogan for our time.

At 8am I am picked up in my hotel lobby by Swan Cruises for my trip to Halong Bay. The vision provided by Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Hanoi episode of Halong Bay had me conclude “I will go there”. The bus pulls out of Hanoi. When I first see Daisy I think to myself, interesting, the tour guide is 12. Daisy’s real name is Zhou and at first I decide I will respect her and call her that but I never do. The guides all adopt English names. See, once she’s yelling “team Daisy ready?” and we all cry back enthusiastically “ready!”, it’s basically settled. Daisy might stand 5’1” and weigh 85 lbs. Might. What she lacks in size she more then compensates for in personality. A born comedian, with electric charisma and a blindingly bright demeanor, this tiny girl is our fearless leader for the next two days. We’re so damn lucky. My favorite is watching her crack up at her own jokes, which she does often. I love people who love to be silly. She’s not 12, she’s 23, majoring in English and Russian at University. Let that crack your cold war brain open. The allusion to the Russians being, “good to her father” is part of the complicated web of life we are all caught in. She introduces our bus driver simply as Mr. Handsome. He never removes his sunglasses. Or speaks. But somehow he projects a calm protective demeanor that makes it feel like Vietnamese Secret Service is escorting us on our trip. Along the drive to Halong Bay Daisy fills us with lots of useful information. First, what to shout before drinking. I write it down as it sounds to me in English to remember,  Mode hi bar. The response to which is Yo!. We practice. I also learn thank you, which sounds like saying come on, but with intonation like you are annoyed. It feels funny every time. What else? It’s Day 2 of Tet. Today it’s traditional to visit your maternal Grandma, then go see a monk, where you shake pencils (or something that loosely translates as), in a bowl and with the one that falls out the monk writes your New Year’s future! More leaning?!! In Vietnam you count the 9 months in Mom’s womb when calculating your age. Dog meat has all but disappeared from Vietnamese cuisine thanks to the younger generation but fake dog meat has become all the rage, and story after story about foreign invaders, death, destruction and starvation. This land has been invaded, fought over, occupied and war torn it’s entire existence. Chinese, French, Japanese, United States. It’s an exhaustive string of horrors. Outside the bus rice fields are interrupted by dusty dilapidated towns. Rundown store fronts advertising coffee, electronics and karaoke are the norm. Glancing beyond, narrow streets don’t stretch far. Trash is plentiful. On mopeds 2, 3 and 4 people balance precariously as they zip down the  grimy road sporting surgical masks. From the safe and privileged view out the bus window, the towns appear muted, dull and mucky. The rest is rice.

The bus is also where I meet Ash & Sip. “Same food for you, or are you normal?” was the first point of connection. Daisy innocently checking our dietary restrictions for the boat searched for words and came up with that phrase. See, Sip is a vegetarian, (whom Dasiy asked first) and Ash is not. We burst into hysterics. Sitting adjacent to them on the bus IMG_3376I’m next and proudly proclaim I am a “normal”. For the rest of the trip we makes jokes about Sip’s abnormality. Ash & Sip are British, from Northampton, reminding me we’re just a colony, since my sister lives in Northampton MA. Ash and Sip are of Indian heritage, Ash relates a story from earlier in the day when a local refused to believe he was from England. Brits are white. Ash rocks salt and pepper hair  with beard and glasses. He’s quick witted, inquisitive, devil may care and comfortable in his own skin. Sip is thoughtful; she really listens and weights her answers. She projects warmth and strength. We chat for most of the bus ride to Hanoi. When we climb on the boat they claim me as their own when we’re assigned our dining arrangements for the two day excursion. We eat all our meals together, stick together on tours, are the last to retire to our cabins at night, too busy talking and drinking the night away on the top deck. We talk food, drink, Brexit, Trump, guns (every foreign country I go to they want to understand America’s obsession with), family, religion, our dogs, sports, their courtship and more. I am surprisingly affected by the depth and immediacy of the friendship that forms. And funny enough, Ash & Sip are on their honeymoon. They’ve engineered time to take a whole month traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia, which segues into the other hot topic, vacationing.

I am the only American on the Swan Cruise. And the only solo traveler. Couples from England, Italy, Austria, Germany, Sweden and Thailand are my companions. Traveling isn’t just a hot topic between Ash, Sip & I, it’s a general go get to know you for everyone aboard. And this is where, ladies and gentlemen, it sucks to be an American. You want to jump to your feet and puff out your patriotic chest at that remark, be my guest. We suck. The standard amount of vacation days my European counterparts receive is 24. You read that right. That’s the starter amount. “Plus bank holidays?” Ash begins to calculate. “8 more, so 32?”. While some confess you can work those days and receive holiday pay, my Austrian friends are quick to tell add they are required to use every vacation day allocated, powered by the belief people are happier and more productive when they take the proper time to relax. No one can understand that I am in Vietnam for only 1 week. My new friends agree you need two weeks to fully let go. “If you only go away for a week, how can you ever relax?” Ash asks. I tell him the truth, “I don’t”. They have all traveled so much more than me, I am bursting with jealousy. Okay Europe is a cluster of small countries but also I hear about Morocco, India, Korea, Thailand, Brazil, Japan, Australia and more. It’s not just the vacation aspect. I do believe from having experienced so many other cultures, seen so many places, traveled so much of this world, they are fundamentally better positioned to have a broader perspective. To demystify the “other”. To understand all that unites us. I start making a list on my phone of the top places I want to go. As we all swap favorite trip stories I long and so grows the list long.

My cabin on the ship is fantasy come to life. I want to spend six months living in it at sea, not two days. The food on board is outstanding. We eat oysters steamed with onions and herbs, grilled prawns, stuffed crab, fish wrapped in banana leaf, chicken & rice, mystery soup, vermicelli noodles and drinks, drinks and more drinks. I get some wine cause how cold I not? I drink a bottle of the 2017 Concha y Toro Chardonnay (lemon, lime, green pepper, minus acid, light body). I am confused but must note, the majority of wine available in Vietnam is from Argentina and Chile. Huh? Mostly aboard the Swan Cruise we sit on the top deck and marvel at the site of Halong Bay. No matter how many times I put my phone away, I reach for it again, to try in vain to capture a new breathtaking view. Everyone is wide eyed. “Can you believe?” heard again and again. The day is overcast, contributing to the otherworldly effect.

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When it’s time to head out in kayaks, I try to play the good samaritan. The Swedish couple is in their 80’s. The wife wanted to go for a swim on the beach but neither believes they can rock a kayak. So I find Daisy and make the argument that since I am alone, I can ferry the older woman. I’m surprised to see hurt in Daisy’s eyes. “I thought since you’re alone, we’d go together”. Daisy instructs our group to have whoever is stronger sit at the back of the kayak. When it’s our turn she sizes me up, “I think I better sit in back”, beat, infectious smile and laughter. She hops in the front of the kayak. She doesn’t even take a paddle. “You’ve got this” she encourages and points where to go. Paddling close by the these limestone islands jutting to the sky is even more surreal. And we’re finally back at the beginning. Our kayak pulls up on the beach. First. Some basic exploration of the island sends my imagination and sense of wonder into overdrive. Not many people are swimming but I do. I swim out far and float in the tranquil rocking of the water. I dream of dragons and fabled creatures. I try to let go, lost in the moment, stretching time.

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