Halong Bay always seemed like one of those places other people go to. You know, those people who take extraordinary photographs, have Condé Nast Traveller raving about them, have seemingly never taken a bad photograph and who are so naturally at ease with everything they encounter within the world. The more I live, the more I realise these people don’t really exist; they’re just like you and me. Halong Bay seemed otherworldly in the most wonderful sense but fear still held me. Fear of the unknown, of fulfilling the words of caution others had ‘offered’ without experience.
Coming from a busy city I haven’t spent much time at sea or in the water in general. Occasionally I go swimming but then I get freaked out about germs, rush home and spend longer in the shower than I did in the pool! As soon as my bus pulled up at the harbour, I started to feel a little anxious. The moment I put the life-jacket on, I felt nauseated, sweaty and I just kept thinking about drowning. I just wanted to get on the main ship for some sense of stability though, secretly, my initial thoughts all related to getting back to dry land the following day.
I made my way onto the main Junk boat, and to my little cabin with comfortable little bed with crisp, cool white linen. The awe-inspiring views as the boat made it’s way through Halong Bay. Hundreds, no, thousands of islets surrounded the boat, giving me goosebumps – each one seemingly more lush than the last. It was a place of firsts: I kayaked around the islets, slept on a boat and, most importantly, realised that my dreams are all attainable. I wanted to push myself, to live outside of my neatly planned life of books, manicures and stained glass window ogling; to live what I read, to explore the impact of formal education, my beliefs and to confront my fears. The kayaking was a mistake; it was one step too far outside my comfort zone and something I will never do again. I couldn’t enjoy the view because I was too scared about dropping my oar and, naturally, the fear of my kayak drifting into the abyss as a result. Petrifying.
The adventure was only beginning. We docked at one of the islands for a little mountain climbing, as one does in sandals and a bikini… There, high-above sea level, in the company of ravenous mosquitoes I spent a good hour just staring out at Halong Bay’s beauty, patiently waiting for the sun to set. I soon headed back to my boat for a strong martini and the silence of life at sea.
I awoke feeling refreshed and calm. It turns out sleeping on a boat is a pretty blissful experience. I still recall my morning boat shower; it’s amazing how quickly we become desensitised to the seemingly-new and strange. Having survived the previous night’s shower, with surprisingly-good water pressure, the morning was a breeze. I stepped up on deck, sat down with The Economist and started to cry. It was a magical moment of feeling connected to our universe and myself. I hope I never forget that sense of possibility. Just me, my favourite magazine and nature’s beauty. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life thus far.
It turns out that my Halong Bay experience, my second and third days in Vietnam, not only opened my eyes to a new part of the world but also set the foundation for my entire trip. Vietnam welcomed me; its people exude warmth and curiosity, the food is spicy and delicious and everywhere you look, even in the main cities, there is an abundance of greenery. Once again, I realised that as expensive and exhausting as travelling is, nothing enriches your life more. I’ve only been to Vietnam once, so I am clearly not an authority on the country. However, people with lives vastly different to mine, citizens of country deeply scarred by war and Western greed yet with a culture of kindness, education and learning from history. People who affirmed that our differences exist to unite us, rather than divide. I have met never people who have experienced the horrors of war, mass rape, violence and oppression yet whom, astonishingly, show openness and forgiveness. I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat but first I think I need to visit other distant lands – China, Iran and India – which have long since been calling my name!