February 7th, 2019
Continued from part 1…..
From a dead sleep, I bolt up in my bed. At first, I think a helicopter is circling the boat. They’ve found me!! But this isn’t a movie so I step out onto my cabin’s balcony to see what I can see. We’ve drifted close to a fishing boat. It’s all lit up, shining loud in the darkness of the bay. I’m forced to shade my eyes against the brightness. The fishing boat’s engine hums. I watch for a moment but I’m so tired I retreat back inside. I check my iPhone, it’s 2:30 AM. I flop back down into my bed. I wonder what they are catching. My brain sorts through details of the night before. I remember Daisy gently asking us not to participate in the squid fishing demonstration because fishing or hunting during the first days of Tet is considered bad luck. I float over the spring roll cooking class from earlier and the puzzle game we couldn’t solve. I remember hanging on the top deck drinking and laughing with Ash and Sip until my eyes started to shut against my will. I thought for sure tonight I’d sleep soundly. But after the fishing boat wakes me up I am tossing and turning. How are they avoiding the bad luck of fishing during Tet? Probably have no choice, I hypothesize. I continue to roll and readjust convinced eventually I will find a comfortable position in which to lie. Soon the sun dawns on my third day in Vietnam. Begrudgingly, I take a pass on morning Tai Chi. Instead, I lounge on my balcony, trading off between reading my book and gawking at Halong Bay as we drift through. I don’t want to miss one limestone island. Before I know it it’s time for breakfast, more importantly, coffee.
After breakfast, the boat drops us off at one of the larger islands in Halong Bay for some cave exploration. With Ash & Sip as my companions, we climb narrow stairs adorned with jungle foliage, surrounded as always by stunning vistas of the bay. Then we take a step down and disappear through a small opening into the island. A few well-placed floodlights cast moody shadows and bring the cave to life. Floor, walls, and ceiling have been contoured by the tide; the water having sculpted scoops, slides, points, crests and drippings. There is no guide here or information provided. We are left to our own imagination. I find myself wondering, when did the water come up this high? The cave entrance must be three stories high. How long ago did it carve these shapes? I dream science fiction dreams. It is, after all, like stepping into another place in time. Traffic has bottlenecked at the entrance and exit to the cave. No one is managing the flow of bodies as several boats have now dumped their passengers for cave viewing. It’s getting crowded as we head out to a little beach on the other side of the cave. A Shiba Inu sleeps curled up in the sand. I look around trying to figure out to whom he belongs. I decide he belongs to the island. Or better yet, the island belongs to the dog. A little mange, but otherwise hard to imagine when I have seen a mutt look so peaceful. He’s quickly the hot photo op for fellow tourists. Ash jokes this dog is gonna be all over Instagram. He’s an influencer, I counter. Then I point out to Ash that Sip is snapping a shot. Then I do too. Deep breaths on the beach, more cave exploring, up the stairs and back down onto the boat. Halong Bay is flying by. Too fast, way too fast; slow down.
Back on board the boat, it’s time for more breathtaking scenery. Perched on the top deck along with my companions, the cameras’ never stop clicking. “It’s just amazing” is uttered more than thrice. Our team has been separated by those staying on for 3 days and those of us concluding here with 2. There are only 5 of us left, myself, Ash & Sip and an Austrian couple. But we’ve still got Daisy, so it counts as winning. It’s our final afternoon aboard Swan Cruise so we do the only sensible thing; we drink. I abandon tepid wine and shitty bear for a mango margarita. Sip uses her fancy camera phone to pose a photo of me. “You’re single, right? We need a good dating profile pic”. We talk more about travel. About life. Ash and Sip ask if I would ever live in England. I’m lost in a daydream of a Hugh Grant styled romantic comedy. Ready to move. Life is about to be so clever all the time! And I’ll have quirky, devil may care, friends! I do worry a bit about missing baseball. We joke and drink and joke a little more. Sooner than I would like we are exiting the boat. In a flash we’re back on the bus, Mr. Handsome revving the engine to take us home to Hanoi. We’re merged with another group who takes umbrage we’ve spread out given the false information we had the bus home to ourselves. They’re rude and Sip is ready to throw down. I have a proud Team Swan Cruise moment. The ride home is full of chatter and sadness. Once more with feelings, all of Halong Bay has gone way too quickly.
The bus drops us off one by one. My friends go before me. It’s hard to see them go. The sun is just setting when I hug Daisy goodbye and say farewell with a fist bump to Mr. Handsome. I walk up the block to my Hotel. Once inside, I am uncharacteristically undone. Is it lack of sleep or Hanoi or saying goodbye or all three. Either way, I can’t sit still. So I do what I do. I bang back out into the night.