I’ll be completely honest: I never wanted to go to Vietnam. Well… in a way. It’s not like I was drugged, blindfolded, and brought here against my will, but this place just never seemed near the top of mind when I imagined the world and what to experience. I’d heard from friends that it was nice, seen beautiful glossy photos in travel magazines and all that, but this never stirred up any real desire in me the way the Louvre, the fjords of Norway, or the pyramids of Egypt did. Its rain forests just didn’t seem all that different than those I’d seen in Latin America; its cities seemed overcrowded and probably not all that interesting; its beaches nothing more special than those in the Caribbean which was practically my backyard (relatively speaking). There are times in life (frequently for me) where a man needs to learn how wrong he’s been: this was one of them for me. Our time in Vietnam was perhaps the most memorable few weeks I’ve ever had.
We arrived in Hanoi after having read horror stories about the town. No rule of law. Crossing a street is suicide. Everyone is out to scam you. Not all of this turned out to be completely untrue, but this really did not diminish the visit. We checked into the Sofitel Metropol, a very decent hotel in Hanoi’s French Quarter, and were greeted by French speaking Vietnamese women (even though I speak nether French nor Vietnamese, this gave a sense of opulence to the place that I can’t properly explain). The pool was clean and quaint and the waiters brought fresh fruit and cocktails out quickly. This hotel was an oasis in the middle of the most hectic city we’d ever been. Hanoi is insane, but was also somehow charming. But after a few days, we were happy to leave.
Next, we boarded the train and settled into our beds for the night. The whistle blew, and the cars lurched forward as the engine began to pull us north towards Sapa. This was not a fast train. It crept up the river valley slowly and carefully resulting in the 150 mile journey taking up the entire night. And in the morning we were in Sapa. The day before in an urban spider web of scooters, telephone wires and pushy street vendors; and now surrounded by mountains, rice paddies, and Hmong village people – Sapa is a bona fide Asian paradise: the hillsides are all segmented into terraces paddied with rice, cows wonder around seemingly aimless through villages and fields alike, the family pet and milk source one day, a feast the next. Although Sapa seems among the most popular excursions out of Hanoi (based on it being plastered all over every tourism office we saw in the city), it is still peaceful and a welcome escape after having braved Hanoi.
And then there was the boat. Ha Long Bay. The place where the legends say dragons descended and formed this endless expanse of peaks protruding from the foggy waters. If you’ve ever seen a National Geographic about Vietnam, this is the front page. I’m not sure what I make of the dragons story, but dragons or no dragons, it was a sight to see. We had a berth for two on our “junk” which we shared with a few Brits, some Aussies and couple with whom I never spoke. The Aussies as it turned out were to be engaged one night – so I bought them all whiskeys and we moved to the top of the boat. Squid fishing is best done at night under the lights, so we took turns at this as the night progressed into quite a memorable one as we anchored under the stars in the bay. The stars began to move about the sky a little faster and the ship seemed to leave its anchor as I went drink for drink with an Aussie. I found this to be inadvisable.
In the morning I made my way down the narrow ship’s hall to breakfast from our cabin and I was greeted by my newfound Aussie and Brit friends with a jovial “good morning director!” Slightly confused, I looked at Mrs Grimes, who reminded me of my foot thumping on the deck of the boat (unfortunately right over our cabin where she slept) the night before. It then came back to me that among other things, I had been directing the group in song the night before (I believe this to “In The Jungle” from the Lion King, which I can’t rightly explain). I’m not sure it’s anatomically possible, but I could swear that I was sweating whisky on our hike the next day with a 500 ft elevation gain under sweltering heat and humidity. Such is the cost of making Australian friends, I guess.