Ha Long, Ha Long must we sing this song… A Beautiful Day in Vietnam



If I can’t see ‘the island’ back home, I know that it’s raining. Or else, that it will be sometime in the very near future. Islands are fairly black and white in that sense.
They stay put.
Although still unpredictable, this small droplet of observant common sense derived from a fine-tuned intuition has proven more useful and informative than many weather forecasts. Strange how a place can become so familiar that you tune into it’s weather-warnings and signals as naturally as if each gust of wind were it’s very breath.

This morning, over 6,000 miles away from home, the fog is so thick that most of the boat tours out into Ha Long Bay from the mainland have been cancelled. I can’t see the ‘islands’; big chunks of grassy rock and land protruding at random from the still, grey waters like stubborn weeds or sudden video-game obstacles to be navigated – an image which makes progressive sense after the go-karting and uncontrollable chaos of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city.

 I admire our guide’s positivity. “Sun come out later”, he reassures us.
“You will see. Trust me.”
So I do.

The Northern bay of Vietnam is colder than I’m expecting. The ‘cruise’ ship’s blind persistance through the eerie silence of pre-dawn waters sends a chill down my spine, along with a twinge of regret that I failed to check the weather conditions for today. No matter. Experience has taught me that storms always lift, and that even through the most deafening downpour of rain– the islands always stay the same.
Making the most of my short time in Vietnam has meant bypassing several stops I had previously intended on, but there hasn’t been a draft of the guidelines I’ve drawn for myself where Ha Long Bay does not feature.
One thing I notice as the waves become more stable is that the sea breeze here doesn’t quite cut the skin like it does back home. The chill I’m feeling is purely due to movement – our progression through the still air the only instigator of activity for several hundred meters around us – the distance from our boat to the next stationary vessle, a ‘party boat’ still lying sleepily comatosed in the early morning haze. Several small fishing boats have passed since setting out from the docks, a familarity I can’t help but admire – it takes a special kind of storm to perturb the fishermen in the West of Ireland too.

As expected, our approach to the main attraction slowly brings clarity to the previously foggy mounds of matter. The mainland view might be good, but the towering mountains rising from the surface of the water like proud statues of Gods overlooking their kingdom are even more impressive up close. Colours saturate every glance. Pure nature, pure height, depth, and growth dwarf every man-made structure I’ve ever laid eyes on.

All attempts I’ve made at reassuring myself this trip it won’t be in vain fall overboard, as I stare in awe around me. These aren’t islands. These are natural works of art.


Distilled Dexterity – Part 1

Part 1.

A young, pale, and thin yet attractive male nurses a pint alone, at a table in the starboard bar near the railings.
Frequent traveller. Definite thrill seeker. Possible homosexual.

I amble up to the bar, and order my Jameson and ginger-ale – an old college favourite
that has since made it’s subtle return to my life, this time regulated in more ‘mature’ and sociable drinking habits (if that is at all possible). Making a point to sit opposite him, I perch on the edge of my neighbouring starboard deckchair, body language echoing the uncertainty and impulsive purchase of this boat ticket – I have one hundred euro to my name.

He nods furtively, a definite Irishness to the pursing of the lips and subsequent sup of Heineken as he glances to the ground and shifts in his chair.
Maybe he’s not gay.
Secretly chuffed at the attention, yet wary of the fact that we are clearly both for want of a better phrase, in the same boat, and merely looking for some company with whom to pass this 2 hour ferry journey into the unknown, I smile meekly at him, before also averting my attention to my silent glass of distilled dexterity.

I’m painting a wonderful picture of my nationality already. We’re not all alcoholics, I swear – just overly sensitive with an extreme lack of self—belief and direction…hence the whim of solo travel being heeded.
A old man shuffles past on a walking stick, marvelling aloud at the ‘wonderful European weather’, to nobody in particular.
We exchange glances again, like ignorant schoolkids whose teacher has just been overheard talking about having an actual social life.
The man passes on.
I sip again to fill the lapse of thought, and busy myself with the never ending friendly fire of blue-on-blue that is the horizon before me, and the journey ahead.

Somewhere in between going to get my third Jameson and braving my way down the steep, narrow steps from the bathroom, I stub my toe on a rogue floorboard and stumble forwards slightly, catching myself and straightening up just in time to pass his table.
He didn’t see. He couldn’t have.
Fat chance.
‘You alright?’
A conversation is struck up. He too is travelling alone. He too is escaping Ireland and a fruitless Summer in the hopes of procuring a job on the continent. He too has only a limited budget on which he intends to get there. He too has had a few drinks.

As our ramblings progress, the exaggerative sides come out, and laughs  accompanied by large gestures, heads thrown back and hands on stomachs turn into long-winded and in-depth personal stories and reasons for our need to get out of this country.
‘Want another?’
He stands to make for the bar, hands digging into his combatted pocket as he goes. For some reason I’m a bit giddy, not because I fancy him, but because sharing my story and actually speaking aloud my unplanned intentions for this Summer has once again made me realise the extent of the possibility there is for it. I could do anything I like. Go anywhere. Within reason, obviously, but there is a certain element of excitement here that I’ve never experienced the like of before, and I currently want nothing more than to keep it there.

A waitor is clearing away tables around me, and turns to me, his hands full of empty drinking vessels and an exasperated look on his face.
‘Sorry miss, we have to clear this side of the bar. Downstairs only after 8pm.’
I comply a little too eagerly, grabbing my purse, backpack, and glass while jumping up quickly. I’m just about to make for the bar when I notice that Sam (blondy’s name) has left a set of keys on the table, along with a shiny sports jacket on the chair. I make the decision there and then that my new drinking buddy is moving seats with me, and tug at the jacket whilst fumbling with the keys in my other hand. It comes loose, yet my heart skips a beat when I hear a gentle ‘flump’ as something from one of the pockets slips to the ground. I jump forward, dropping everything else in a futile attempt to save it.
Too late.
His wallet has just gone over the railing.
In the split second it takes for the ‘splash’ to reach my ears, a million thoughts rush through my mind and I end up spilling my last drop of ginger-ale all over the floor in an attempt to grasp the exhalation of smoke that is the wallet– it’s gone as quickly as it escaped the jacket-pocket. Stock still, the realization of what has just happened takes a moment to settle.

I have just thrown a stranger’s wallet over the side of a boat and into the sea. The finality and futility of the moment it took for the small rectangle of Sam’s leather identity to become lost forever hits me like a slap from a wet fish.
‘Oh. Shit.’
What else can I do? I giggle.
“What’s so funny?”
He’s back, two dilapidated cocktails in hand and a dopey look on his face that reflects the last hour spent consuming alcohol and watching the Irish clouds become slightly less-gloomy versions of themselves as we neared France.
‘I-um….I have your stuff! We have to move downstairs!”
“Oh cheers, thanks a million!”

As he turns to lead the way to the other bar, I hesitate.
I figure I have two choices. One: I come clean, own up that in my tipsy turvy rush to gather up all of our things to bring downstairs, the wallet had accidentally come loose from his pocket and slipped into the unknown depths of the Irish Sea, now sitting alongside lost Viking relics and various other tourist memorabilia swallowed up over the years. This option (i.e, the truth) terrifies me. And so I rather irrationally choose to select option two: I play dumb.