Upon hitting Asia, we quickly discovered that despite many travelers’ intentions to get off the beaten path, it is difficult to do so. The well-trodden road exists for a reason: it contains a majority of the world’s most breathtaking and exciting destinations. Even the die hard backpackers we’ve met seem to follow firmly established routes laid by their predecessors with minor variations here and there. This is not a criticism, rather a musing. There are simply not many places left in the world where you can go without finding others who want to go there as well. Makes sense, right?
Even so, we always strive to find ways to experience places on our own terms, without the trappings of tour busses and guides who are trying to sell you something (see You’re Not Having the Lunch?). For the most part this is a viable strategy, but every now and then, a package deal is our best or only option. Vietnam, which has only opened its doors to tourists in the past decade, has compensated for its late entry into the trade by inundating visitors with tour options. Every third storefront seems to be a travel agency, and every hotel, massage parlor, and CD store sells tours on the side. After a few hours of careful research, we booked our tour to Halong Bay through our hotel, the Golden Sun. We knew the company we chose was also recommended by the Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel, a source we trusted, and looked forward to 3 relaxing days of cruising.
Now that we’re back, we realize that while you give up control when you hop on that tour bus, you often gain something even more valuable in return: friends. While our tour was fun, amazing at times, what we enjoyed most was the people we met. We were concerned the first morning when we gathered in the lobby of the hotel to wait for our pickup. Two older European couples, both of whom had snarled at the kids previously, were waiting as well. Would we be sharing a 20-passenger boat with 4 people who wished we were on another planet? Fortunately they were picked up by other guides and we were the only ones from the Golden Sun to board the Ocean Tours bus that morning. We joined a happy British couple and a more subdued Spanish couple on the bus. Over the next twenty minutes we picked up an American woman, a British man, a French-Canadian couple, and a pair of Belgians…what, no Germans? Highly unusual for this part of the world.
Part of joining any group is the initial sizing up. In an instant we judge people based on their appearance and demeanor. We all do it, even though we know we shouldn’t. The irony is first impressions are almost always wrong. I can’t imagine what people think of us at first glance; if they give us some time, I hope they learn we’re not nearly as scary as we look. Our group looked mellow, but we would soon learn they were daredevils and enthusiasts in disguise.
After a bumpy four hour bus ride (they’re always bumpy in this part of the world), we settled in to our junk for lunch. The tables were set for 6, and given that we are 6, we didn’t get to share the meal with anyone else. Well, that’s not quite true. Sven, one of the Belgians, had opted for a seafood free menu, as had I and the kids. The staff were a little disconcerted by this fact since all the food is served family style and they couldn’t figure out how to divide it between tables. They suggested that Tom switch places with Sven, which he might gladly have done (after all, who really wants to dine next to people who eat with their fingers and have an 85% chance of spilling something on you?), but we didn’t think the unsuspecting young man was ready to take on a wife and four kids, even for one meal. We laughed over the confusion and traded food between tables. Poor Molly, one of the Brits and a fish-eating vegetarian, something the Vietnamese are apparently not accustomed to, was still served pork, chicken, and beef throughout the trip despite her constant reminders to the waiters that she did not eat meat.
After lunch, we toured some beautiful caves and then docked at a nearby beach for a swim. During this time, everybody had a chance to talk about their travels and swap stories. Some had been together before in other parts of Vietnam. Dan, one of the Brits, had come from Laos, and I picked his brain about the country, which Europeans oddly call Lao. Lauren and I reveled in our American-ness and discussed politics, education, and families. A good 10 years younger than we are, she was thrilled to learn that you actually can travel with kids. She is planning on a family of her own and was worried that now would be her last chance to indulge her travel bug. We assured her it wasn’t, though after spending three days with our kids, she might think otherwise. You can check out her blog at www.girlsgoneworldwide.com. Lauren started her trip with her girlfriend, Beth, but only four days in, they had a motorbike accident on an island in Thailand. Lauren’s knee was scraped to the bone and required serious debriding and stitches. Beth’s leg was broken and they had to return home to the States so she could have surgery. Ouch! Lauren returned to Asia once Beth was stabilized and the two will be reunited once her physical therapy is completed.
After dinner, during which the Andruses were again left to themselves, the guide told us we could take a night swim. We were anchored in the breathtaking bay along with a few dozen other boats, and the calm waters were particularly inviting after a hot afternoon. Though there was a ladder for swimmers to descend into the water, Dan, Molly’s boyfriend, thought it would be more fun to jump from the middle deck. In any “first world” country this would be a legal no-no for the boat operator, but in much of the developing world (and New Zealand) anything goes. The jumpers had a ball but were careful to avoid the women in rowboats who serve as floating convenience stores for cruisers. With one carefully placed dive, Tom was able to splash one. She didn’t appreciate getting wet but still called out, “Vodka, beer? You buys some Oreos?” after he landed.
With a solid 11 hours of togetherness under our belts, the group gathered in the dining room and soon everybody was engaged in Andy’s toothpick and card games. The boys and Tom joined in while I herded little people. The next morning the jumpers resumed their antics from the top deck before we boarded another smaller boat for the ride to the island where we would spend the night. The island was beautiful, the kayaking heavenly, the setting serene. The guys played pool, the little kids frolicked with an adorable Vietnamese girl, and I sighed with fulfillment. It might have been perfect had they not seated us on a slope for our dinner on the beach. Each of us toppled from our plastic chair at least once and Tom had to fight for his seafood, since he once again was seated with the meateaters.
We returned back to Hanoi the next day. During a rest stop, we gathered the group for this picture to help us remember the new friends we had made and the experience we had just shared. If some of our expressions are amused or surprised, it is only because a bus was just about to back in front of the camera which Tom had set up on a tripod.