Life is fleeting. I live my life based on the fact that time doesn’t exist forever for one person. While I know this to be true, it’s a lesson I’m sure I will visit over and over again.
Minutes before I was to board a 13 hour bus ride I received an upsetting email about the passing of a good friend’s father. This is the only way I receive bad news on the road, by email, and it never comes at a convenient time. I’ve been friends with this girl since I was 12 and knew her family well. Her dad would pick us up from movies, let us borrow his car, and drank with us when we old enough. I’ve eaten cheesecake with this family on holidays and been scolded by them for getting into trouble with the law. Her father was apart of my life, but more than that, he was a damn good father to his kids, one of the best I’ve ever known. It was too early to be his time.
Within 20 minutes of my bus ride, I was a trying-to-hide-myself-from-crying mess when the bus backed into a tree smashing one of the windows. Luckily, no one was seated next to the window, but of course after a quick clean up and some cardboard they sat someone down later on. It was at this moment I was reminded just how fleeting life is. There could be a quick car accident and you’re gone. Or a cancer could be slowly creeping in your bones making you so sick there is no recovery. No matter how you go, we all have an expiration date. That’s why we must live for the moment and appreciate all you have around you. In particular, who you have with you.
This is dedicated to Jim Bressler. He was an amazing person and will be sorely missed.
I last left off before my tour of Ha Long Bay, one of those places you see pictures of and think, “I MUST go there!”. At least that’s what happened with me. We were sorted for three days and two nights, one aboard the ship we’d be cruising around in. It sounded adventurous and fun and still I never knew quite what to expect.
What stood out most about this tour (other than the breathtaking scenery) was the worst tour guide I have ever had. Ever. He was rude, angry, and downright mean to us all. From how he spoke to us to the rules he set, there were even fines we were to pay for disobeying him. (Seriously.) At one point, when we asked to go to our rooms, he said we couldn’t because “he couldn’t control us then”. Sir, we’re on a tiny boat with 6 rooms, it shouldn’t be that hard to lose us. And I didn’t pay money to be controlled by some self-righteous foreigners hating prick. (Bitterness much? I think not.) He literally yelled at me for being a vegetarian, at Jim for writing our names wrong on a piece of paper, and at some other tourists for asking for a glass with their water. Apparently, glasses are only for wine (regardless of the fact that it’s 1 pm and no one is drinking that overpriced crap, they couldn’t spare one of their 40 glasses). I really could go on and on about this douche bag but there is no need for so much negativity and I’m pretty sure you trust me when I say his rudeness never ceased to end.
Luckily he was only our guide for 24 hours but it seemed much longer than that. On the bright side, our group bonded on the fact that our guide was the biggest dickhead any of us had met in Asia so far. The booze and karaoke also helped.
Another downer to this trip was the fact that it was raining on and off the entire time. It wasn’t the worst thing that could happen (our guide was actually), but it did make our pictures less than National Geographic status. It also stopped us from lounging on the upper deck which consequently packed us into the dining area like exhausted sardines with a lot of luggage.
Our second day and night was on a large island where we were meant to hike around on but instead sat in our hotel rooms as the rain had been pouring all night and morning, making it a difficult and dangerous trek. Luckily in the late afternoon the sun came out and I rushed down to the closest beach, as did everyone else.
The next day not a cloud could be seen, just in time to go home. Nice. But first was a bus trip to the other side of the island where we needed to catch the boat from. Despite the sun shining and the high volume of tourists that visit here, the roads had not entirely emptied of the rain. Specifically, one stretch of road had turning into a full on river, no joke. There were a few minutes of “What the fuck?!?!” and “What are we going to do?” and “But what about all of our luggage?”. Then as the locals rowed up in their tiny hand made row boats it became obvious they knew what to do as this has obviously happened before.
So we piled our backpacks and ourselves two or three at a time into these rickety boats with water inside as well and were literally rowed down the road. It was hilarious. Mind you, there were several tour groups of people and even locals crossing, motorbikes and all, and it took a good hour or two to get the 50 people in our bus across. At the end of the rowboat tour, it became too shallow to row so we had to get out and walk (not too far) but still in water swimming with foot long worms, enormous crickets and spiders, and other creatures I care not to know what they were.
On the other side a bus eventually came to get us and we all piled in laughing because that’s all you can do in situations like that. This is stuff that the word ‘adventure’ was invented for. It means unexpected events that make for a more authentic experience. At least in my dictionary it does.
Our final day was spent soaking in whatever sun we could and chatting with our new Dutch friends. Because if there’s one nationality of people I will always make friends with, it’s the Dutch. They’re fun, easy-going, and speak perfect English. And no, I’m not giving up my dream of living in the Netherlands one day. (I also make great friends with the Irish and Germans.)
Despite hearing all about the tour, I have neglected to describe what Ha Long Bay actually looks like and why it’s so beautiful. You know that saying, ‘a picture says a 1000 words’? Well, it’s like that, so you’re better off googling it, but in the mean time I’ll attempt to paint a picture.
While cruising along the calm blue water you can watch the numerous green mountains jut directly out of the water all around you. It’s shocking, and the mountains are huge and have no beach or coast line; it’s almost as if they have sprouted out of the ground overnight. We were even able to walk around the inside of one because it is a large cave (I don’t know if they are all caves) and what was a naturally beautiful sight had become a Disneyland-like event. Mystical stories are told and true geological explanations are entirely ignored, even when asked about. Brightly colored lights are used to illuminate the magnificent stalagmites and stalactites, making you feel you are inside of a jellybean Matterhorn. The overwhelmingly beautiful part was just how vast this cavern was; I have never seen anything like it and wished that was enough for the Vietnamese tourism board rather than splurging on those Christmas lights. Oh well, to each their own I suppose.
Directly after getting back to Hanoi from this trip we were on an overnight bus to Hue located in central Vietnam. When we arrived it was raining all day which put a damper on our plans to see the not-so-many sights we had planned to see. But we weren’t wasting any days so we bought some hideous ponchos (and some road beers) and went marching out in the miserable sideways rain. Palaces and temples are never in short supply here and despite the whole ‘same, same’ reality, we were still going to visit all we could.
The next day was fortunately sunny so we set out to hire a personal boat tour to cruise down the Perfume River and visit a few more temples and pagodas. Our kitschy long boat was brightly painted, had a dragon head leading us, and was run by a tiny old woman. No different from all the other boats on the river. I would proceed to describe the sights we saw but it’s a lot easier to say, ‘same same, but different’. Yes, they were beautiful. Yes, they were worth visiting. But no, it’s worth blogging about. I’d rather talk about Hoi An.
Hoi An was the next town we went to visit, not too much further south than Hue, but this city has a purpose. Well known for their tailors, it’s impossible to leave this place without getting something made. It’s truly hard to resist the seemingly endless row of shops of women begging to make beautiful things just for you, and for damn cheap. Their work is meticulous and ranges in everything from bathing suits to wool coats. You name it, they sew it. And can do so in as little as 12 hours, it’s damn incredible really.
When I say you can get anything made, I really mean it. Flip through one of their many magazines or surf the internet for whether you want, pick one of their fabrics or describe what you want, and they will make it happen, no pattern required. And they can do this with shoes as well. The bottom line is I can’t wait to win the lottery so I can come back here and get everything I’ve ever wanted, designed and made just for me.
I went considering getting a wool coat (because I’ve always wanted a mustard yellow coat) but nothing more. I left with a coat, 2 dresses, shorts, a bathing suit, scarf, and sandals. The damage could have been a lot worse. Mandy and Jim came knowing they wanted to get a few things, and they got much more than that. The bottom line is we were all happy with our purchases but all needed to visit the post office and send boxes home (I’m sure we’re not the first foreigners to do that).
My favorite part of this whole experience though was chatting with the women. They speak great English (how else can you be such a good salesman?) and are constantly making cheeky comments that keep me laughing. From grabbing my boobs constantly to offering money to see Jim’s penis, we were always being sarcastic and having fun with these ladies. And arguing over the price is essential to the whole experience, regardless of how cheap you’re being. It’s the principle really.
It was essential we got out of town as soon as possible as every day we spent there we ended up buying more stuff. Plus our next stop was Nha Trang, a beautiful beach town with great night life and it was calling our names. But I’ll keep that for next time as I don’t like overwhelming my readers all at once. (Too late?)
Alright, one more story. You ever wonder what Wal-Mart must do with all those leftover Christmas things that sing songs? Well, the answer is they’ve shipped them to Vietnam and installed them into cars. I thought it was maybe just a few cars, but no, all over this country, cars, trucks, and buses have music that plays when they are in reverse. I suppose it’s handy because if you ever hear Silent Night you can assume a truck might be almost running you over. But it is odd how it’s almost always holiday songs. And most of the people here are Buddhist or non-religious. Strange, but I’ve slowly been considering getting one for my car back home. Just a thought.