Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | April 26, 2010

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Sunset Ha Long Bay

We woke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain hitting hard on the windows.  The wind had picked up dramatically and lightening streaked the dark sky above Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.  My only thought at the time was a simple “Rain, that sucks.” I rolled over and went back to sleep.

A few minutes later I felt a rumble.  I briefly thought it was a roll of thunder, but then I realized the rumble had been felt, not heard.  Had we run aground?  I looked out the window (I had shut the curtains this time, no more flashing the local fishermen) but we appeared to be in exactly the same location as earlier in the night. Maybe we dragged our anchor, although how that could have caused such a strong rumble was unclear in my sleep-clouded mind.  I rolled over to continue snoozing away.  That is when I heard footsteps running in the hall above us.

“You might want to get dressed,” Matt pointed out.  Good idea.  I wondered to myself what the Vietnamese phrase was for “abandon ship.”  The tender tied outside our room started up its motor and took off, adding to the mystery. We looked out the window but saw nothing other than gray-green water spotted with rain and outlines of the dramatic limestone islands that surrounded us.

The running stopped, the tender came back, and eventually our engines started up and we were motoring forward. We figured whatever the problem was, moving the ship to a new location would solve it.  We went back to bed, although fully dressed this time, just in case.

At breakfast the following morning, we learned that we had collided with another boat. Apparently we had slept through quite a lot of commotion. A smaller boat accompanying us had dragged its anchor in the storm.  When the wind kicked up, both boats swung around, but unfortunately they swung right into each other.  In the end, the damage seemed minor: a slightly banged up hull and a broken window in the crew quarters.  But there had been great excitement, including a fellow passenger up on deck wearing his life jacket, ready to evacuate.  Clearly, collisions were an ongoing theme for this trip.

After breakfast, we docked and bid goodbye to Ha Long Bay, climbing back into vans for the drive to Hanoi.  Our brief car-free respite was over. We were once again plunged into horn-honking chaos.  We had water and snacks in the van, although tequila and Valium would have been more useful. The insanity of drivers in Vietnam was even more evident in the light of day. Finally we turned off the main road and into a quieter area.  Our bikes were waiting for us in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.

If our previous rides had been about the landscape and the scenery, this one was all about the people.  The ride was flat on small paths, too small for cars (thank heaven), so we only had to dodge pedestrians, bicycles and the occasional motorbike. Plus the chickens, dogs and water buffalo, of course.  But the biggest thing slowing our progress were the delightful people of Vietnam.  Cries of “Hello, hello!” drifted towards us as we rolled along.  Our pace was slow to begin with, and it seemed I was stopping to photograph someone or something every five minutes.  We crawled along at a snail’s pace and had plenty of time to interact with the village people (as opposed to the Village People).  I stopped to take a picture of some scenery and realized that someone in the village was taking a picture of me.

The highlight, however, was when we stopped in front of a preschool.  Children were in the doorways looking at us, calling to us, waving at us.  As we stood there, more kids joined the crowd.  Soon enough, there was an amoeba-like jumble of arms, legs, smiles crawling towards us.  “Hello, hello!” They got closer and closer, to the point that I had trouble focusing my camera.  I put the camera down and put out my hand. They weren’t quite sure what to do.  I tried to high-five, but that was lost on them.  Finally, I held my palm there and a bold but adorable little boy with the beautiful dark eyes took his hand and smacked mine.  Laughter and squealing ensued.  Smack, smack, smack, as hard as they could, laughing all the while. The giggling and shouting seemed to go on forever.  Finally, when it appeared that every single child in the school was now gathered on the side of the road, we apologized to the teachers for disrupting them, said goodbye and started to move away.  For a moment it sounded like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy leaves Munchkinland: dozens of high-pitched little voices saying “Good bye! Bye! Bye-bye!”  We pedaled off down the road with the fading sounds of laughter and good-byes hanging on the breeze.

Vietnamese preschoolers


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