The journey up the coast of southern Vietnam was inspiring in its beauty, unique to the rest of Asia I had seen, though still hectically riddled with travelers making their ways north or south, as there are only two directions to go along the narrow country. Despite the throbbing, infected wound that was reminiscent of cheese pizza and had my foot swollen to the size of an eggplant, I hobbled my way happily from beach to beach, glad to be traveling in the company of old friends. I had spent too many months making and leaving half-loves, memorable yet ephemeral as two hands parting in opposite directions; fingers slowly sliding from palm to tip and knowing the space filling the void of the connection could only grow wider with time. It was a comfort of which I didn’t realize the necessity to see the faces of people I knew I would see again after we parted. And so, despite the fact that I had grown to much prefer the freedom of traveling alone, I was thankful each day to see the faces I was scared before I was beginning to forget, or who were maybe beginning to forget me.
From one city, one beach, to the next, from the first bowl of spectacularly authentic pho in Saigon, through the magnificent sand dunes at Mui Ne, the country treated us well. Though we shared a wide disappointment that there is such a thing as a bad bowl of pho in Vietnam, we continued our journey northward. But once we boarded the bus from Hoi An to Halong, past the DMZ, and into a land that had been so brutally and needlessly devastated by the American military just forty years ago, our luck accordingly changed.
Believing we were to be on a twenty-two hour bus straight from Hoi An to Halong Bay, we were immediately jolted from the fanciful reverie of a luxurious sleeper bus throwing celebratory fistfuls of Valium in the air like confetti. The first three hours were spent in a cramped minibus with the backpacks of the traveling Westerners stuffed in the aisles as high as our shoulders. Once we were herded onto the large sleeper bus, it tumbled only further downhill. As the bus rolled on early into the night, I had a ten pack of Valium at the ready to drown out the horrific shrill of the Vietnamese ballads and constant horn honking as the bus overtakes another into precariously close oncoming traffic. The awful consistency of these two sounds offend the senses on every Vietnamese bus without exception. Just as I was about to swallow the pill that would lay my body blissfully limp, the one thing you can expect to happen if I am on any moving vehicle happened: we crashed.
Though it was only a minor run-in with the car ahead, the bus and the car pulled into the nearest restaurant to work out the terms of the negotiation. As you can expect, in Vietnam, this is not an exchange of insurance information. As Barbara, Marina, and I sat eating yet another disappointing bowl of pho, our eyes wandered around the strange establishment. A glass case full of men’s underwear displayed in cardboard boxes printed with tanned, western men in tighty-whities lined one wall beneath a rack of what appeared to be second-hand shirts. Another held a case of various toiletries: shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and the like, and a smaller shelf on the opposite wall kept a minimal selection of cheap local vodkas. Well, at least if we were going to be stuck somewhere, we were provided with everything we might need.
As we waited in resigned curiosity, seven Vietnamese men sat at a table covered in food they weren’t eating in an unsettling haze of cigarette smoke. If I didn’t know better I would have assumed they were planning an assault on American tourists, or doing some high stakes gambling, or just playing a friendly game of Russian Roulette. Then again, who’s to say they weren’t. After passing three hours in the restaurant/underwear/convenience store/internet cafe, we finally boarded the bus again and got back on our way. Handing out Valium like candy to the equally exhausted travelers around me, we settled in for the stone sleep the miracle drug provides.
When we awoke, groggy with the haze of cramped traveling unconsciousness, and looped on Valium, we wandered aimlessly around the bus station in Hanoi like escaped mental patients too drugged up to know where to run. We were supposed to be taken to Halong Bay, but the night bus was four hours late and there wasn’t another bus for ten more hours. There was an Irishman (yes, I know, yet another Irishman) whose path I had been trying to cross who was to be in Hanoi that night, so I transparently voted that we stay the night in Hanoi and head out to the bay the next day. But since we had already paid twice as much for our bus ticket as everyone else with the promise of going straight to Halong, we put up no verbal fight as an uncomfortably pushy Vietnamese man shoved us onto a random bus as we attempted to confirm where it was going. “Halong Bay? Halong Bay?” was all we could say, and with no verbal confirmation we were thrown on the near empty bus and attempted to fall back to sleep.
We were jolted awake just over an hour from Hanoi. A man grabbed my arm and pulled me from my seat as we were pushed off the bus. “Halong Bay????” we asked again and again in desperation. It was raining, and there was no bay in sight. No signs at the small and relatively empty bus station, no tuk tuk drivers crowding around the bus that exist in any and every tourist destination in Southeast Asia. Something was wrong. This couldn’t be Halong City, but the man forced us from the bus regardless and left us with our bags as the rain started to soak through what little clothing we had. Back in the south there was always at least a helpful soul, someone who spoke enough English you could trust to get you to where you were going. But the disdain we felt here as helpless Americans was palpable, and I thought for a moment I was glad I was too hungover to visit the war museum back in Saigon, that I might understand too well why they hated us as much as if we three girls had been fighting the war ourselves.
After fifteen minutes of getting on and off the bus, soaked with the rain being screamed at in Vietnamese and screaming back in English in an exasperated fantod of miscommunication, a young boy with decent English made his way on the bus we were insisting take us to Halong. This was not the bus to Halong. It never was. We were only about seventy kilometers from Halong though and this nice young lad was willing to take us in his taxi for ₫500,000. After paying $30 for a $15 bus ticket that took us twenty hours north, we adamantly rejected his offer to swindle another 25 bucks for an hours drive. But this was the scam, this was the way, and everyone there, including us, knew that we had no choice but to get into that fucking taxi. We negotiated it down to ₫450,000, and collapsed into the backseat of the suspiciously friendly boy’s cab, beaten, exhausted, drenched, and grasping to the last bit of hope that this guy might actually take us where we we had been trying to go for more than thirty hours.
As the rain continued to drown the Vietnamese highway, our cabbie threw on a CD of nineties pop hits and for the first time in too long we curled into the comfort of a smile and a laugh at the ridiculous disaster as we sang along to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Eventually, through the foot of water that swirled halfway up the tires of the motos pushing through the flood, we made it to Halong City. Of course upon getting out of the cab the driver began to demand more money claiming it was further than he thought, but you could not have shaved a sliver of patience or a single dong from any of us. We gave the man the money we told him we would pay him and left him complaining in the sharp staccato stabs of Vietnamese as we walked into the nearest guest house.
Exhausted and annoyed, we knew the stress of the last two days was not going anywhere until we were on a boat in the bay that is told to be the most beautiful place in Vietnam. But Halong only continued the frustration as no one seemed to speak or understand any English. I find it incredibly hard to believe the owner of a guest house that books boat tours in one of the most popular tourist spots in the country literally doesn’t know the English word for boat. As we wandered from place to place with Barbara’s notepad bearing a picture of a boat sailing across the sharp points of choppy sea you learn to draw in kindergarten we were told again and again that boats do not go when it’s raining. When they said to come back in the morning and see how the weather is, we took our pad of paper, drew a pizza on it (props to Barbara), and went to find the minor comfort of some greasy western food and watch a movie in the room as the rain continued to fall.
Thankfully, as we woke the next morning, the sharp blue of freshly cleared skies excited us from bed and we actually managed to book a boat tour. Provided it didn’t start to rain of course. After we had some pho for breakfast (yet another bowl of relatively tasteless oil), and as always, a beer for me, we made our way to the marina to finally board the vessel. The short five hour trip twisting through the mountainous bay promised to return us to the harbor in time to catch the last bus to Hanoi at seven PM. We were actually on a motherfucking boat. It was almost unbelievable, so close we were to giving up and heading to Hanoi having never seen the bay, unwilling to waste time getting ripped off in the tiny harbor city that offers little to nothing in the way of food, courtesy, or nightlife. But we made it.
The wide marina opening up to the bay of more than three thousand limestone islands, millions of years in the making, was crowded with hundreds of Vietnamese boats, most of them seemingly identical. And as the boat adjacent to ours began to pull out into the jade waters, we watched in disbelief as the side of the ironically named junk boat crashed through our windows and thin, sharp, shards littered the dark wooden floor in front of us. You have got to be fucking kidding me. Laughing and silently hoping that this accident would not end with us watching a boat full of Vietnamese men argumentatively smoking cigarettes as they castigated each other, we were thankful when the crew simply swept up the glass and we pulled away into the magnificent bay.
Feeling as though we had finally been through the worst we enjoyed a perfect day in the constantly breathtaking waters. Around each towering bolt of limestone lay hundreds more in every direction and we marveled happily in the warm sun, sure that our luck had turned. As the boat returned to the harbor while the sun was setting (and we realized they had actually skipped two promised destinations on our tour), we knew our window to catch the last bus was limited. But when we arrived at the deserted bus terminal just after the sun had made its exit, there were no buses or employees to be found. Only locals insisting that there was no last bus to Hanoi and we would have to pay for a taxi for a two hour journey. Of course none of this was translated in English, only in pictures of buses and adamantly shaking heads followed by the hundreds of thousands of dong they were willing to make the journey for. We were stranded. Again. There was not a single piece of me that was going back to Halong City to spend another night, but another fifty dollars for a taxi was ridiculous, considering the bus is less than three bucks a person. We continued to draw pictures of buses over and over again just pointing and writing the time and insisting that one was to come for us. We walked away from our final offer of three hundred thousand into Hanoi City waiting for them to follow us and accept. But they didn’t. When we walked back yet again we learned it was only to a suburb outside Hanoi and now, knowing our desperation, they had us. The next offer we got was one million dong. The sun had abandoned us long ago and we wanted to cry, hungry and stranded in the frightening uneasiness of the eagerly darkening parking lot.
As we stood with our bags, speaking a list of options we didn’t have, a bus driving by stopped briefly outside the terminal and locals began to unload the unmarked packages that mysteriously fill the luggage compartments of every local bus. And then Barbara saw it: Hanoi. Written on the side of the bus in huge yellow letters, we grabbed our bags and fled tantivy out to the street and onto the bus before it had the chance to pull away. Fifty thousand dong a piece and we squeezed ourselves into the last seats with our backpacks stacked high in the aisle. As the bus driver tried to short us out of about twenty dollars in change, Barbara’s anger had given in to pleading and she could only beg for him to please just not rip us off again. The three starved and defeated American girls had lost their last semblance of fire or determination. We just wanted to get to fucking Hanoi. Settling for him to steal about nine dollars from us instead, I popped a few Valium and swore to leave Vietnam the next day. After one night in Hanoi, I hugged the closest friends I had seen in six months, closer now for the trials we had been through, and told them I hoped to see them again soon. As I walked away we all knew it probably wouldn’t be for years. With that I was back to traveling on my own, on yet another twenty four hour bus, this time to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. I got out of Vietnam without looking back and wondered with a mischievous smile just who would be the next to stumble in and out of my life in another tiny disaster.