The final day broke over Vietnam. On a creaking, wooden ship in a secluded cove of the South China Sea, the old crow and I greeted the morning sun.
It’s all a blur. How we got here, to the finish line in Ha Long Bay, barely makes sense. From the time we entered the time warp over the Arctic Circle the day after Christmas, things began to get weird. But now, the bizarre seems normal.
Our journey sounds like an epic tale on paper. But in actuality, the grueling jungle hike, the constant game of planes, trains and automobiles, the relentless rain and the parade strange cuisine were all just day-to-day routines. By that, I mean we took each step one at a time, one day at a time, and ultimately — no matter how bizarre or treacherous those steps were — we ended up here, on a 40-foot relic of boat that feels more at home at the start of the last century than this one.
We named it the Shing.
“Emerald dragon,” our guide says. “Ha Long Bay was formed by the mother dragon. They say this island is her head, this is her tail.”
Truong, the guide/business man is a peculiar duck. He speaks fluent English with a querky French inflection, and he leaves us almost entirely to our own doings on board. Born on the shores of the bay, at Cat Ba Island, Truong spent five years as a realtor in Hanoi before organizing tours for a local cruise group that houses its offices in a coffee shop next to a karaoke bar. The Shing is the largest of five ships in their fleet, and aside from Truong, the Captain, two cooks and some squid, we’re the only passengers on board.
The Shing is a diesel-powered, wooden colossus with hulking gunnels and fragile masts that presumably once held sails. It resembles a tug boat crossed with a Mississippi River steamboat. And, except for a deep draft and a distinct, asian decor, it would be right at home on Beale Street Landing.
Cruising through the limestone maze of Ha Long Bay feels like being on the last boat to Skull Island. Overnighting on the crusty boat is an ode to another time. And everywhere you look, the views are jaw-dropping.
It was here in Ha Long Bay that Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond crossed the finish line of their Top Gear Vietnam Special in 2008. Nearly a decade later, it’s the same place we gathered to put a final bookmark on Souled Out Vietnam.
There are entire villages of people here who are bound to the water, their families never—or rarely—leaving the fishing boats they call home. Nearly all of those boats run on two-stroke engines that putter like helicopters in a haunted, watery soundtrack.
The Shing spends the better part of two days plying its way around the bay, ocassionally making stops to swim and kayak and stare into the scenery. And as we transfer from a pair of those shoddy, yellow kayaks back onto the boat, Justin hits the nail on the head.
“I never thought I’d be here,” he says. “Heck, five years ago, I never thought I’d be outside of Tennessee.”
Yet, here we are. Or, there we were.
It feels strange to be leaving Vietnam.
The place grows on you quickly: the teeming streets of motorbikes, the fresh food and friendly people. It’s not at all like the war-torn nation depicted in American movies. Yes, it’s true — you can’t hide from the war here. The government won’t let you forget it, and the people love movies like Forrest Gump and Good Morning Vietnam. But from Saigon to Hanoi, nostalgia for the war seems mostly limited to specialty shops or old stories, the conflict’s long-lasting affects being born out more by the persisent afflictions of chemical weapons than cultural relevance.
To a man, the Vietnamese people we talked to were more eager to praise American tourists for being polite, and the American President for coming to eat Bun Cha in their restaurants, than they were to discuss the war. If pressed, they’ll tell you that everyone is welcome in their country now. But they’d much rather point you to their favorite local cafe or share a meal with you.
“Pack my bag and let’s get moving
’Cause I’m bound to drift awhile
Though I’m gone, gone
You don’t have to worry
Long as I can see the light.” — Creedence Clearwater Revival
On the way back to port, Jeremy and I sat on the ship’s weathered bow. And there, we realized something: the pair of us were actually part of the very first Souled Outside journey, back before it even had a name. That trip was just over a year ago—a spontaneous December trip to Colorado that mostly resulted in a lot of half-cooked pizza rolls and snowshoeing.
1,000 miles seperate Denver from Memphis. 8,400 miles separate Memphis from Hanoi. And we’ve probably added 20,000 miles on top of those this year. In the process, our unnamed group of two has added maybe a dozen more global explorers to the fold.
More importantly, we’ve met countless other people on the road. And I think that’s what travel is really all about.
Sure, the landscape photos and travel check-ins get all of the glory, but the dirty secret about travel is that it isn’t about the places you go at all. Indeed, if there’s one thing I’ll take away from Vietnam, it’s that travel is all about the people you meet.
SouledOut Vietnam is dedicated to:
Cam & Becca
Charlotte, Waylon and Sparrow
Kenneth & Tiffany
Andy & Anna at O’ Gallery Hanoi