My last day in Vietnam was happily spent on the water. A morning practicing headstands and playing around on paddle boards left me feeling like a child again. An afternoon kayaking around the bay in low tide and stopping off at an island shrine left me feeling content. I was lucky enough to have knowledgeable, fun, and interesting guides who inspired me with their stories of leaving their home countries in pursuit of the lifestyle they wanted. The bay has a powerful pull on those who visit. It allowed me to open myself up to another world and to take in everything that was offered through these experiences in such a short amount of time. I know it will not be the last time I visit Asia.
I arrived in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam with surprising ease. A sleeper bus to a taxi, taxi to a ferry, ferry to a bus. It sounds like a lot, but it was worth it to get to a place like this. I stepped off the bus into Cat Ba Town, an incredible little town on the south end of Cat Ba Island that acts as a gateway to the bay filled with floating villages and fishing boats.
I immediately booked a two-day, overnight tour with Asia Outdoors, a company I had read about before ever leaving the states. The first day we departed into the bay and sailed passed giant limestone karsts erupting out of the teal green waters. Some were spotted lightly with green foliage while others look like mini jungles.
After anchoring in a cove, we took a long boat to Moody Island. I was giddy with excitement as I was about to do what I came to Vietnam to do, rock climb. I couldn't wait to try new routes and a new rock surface. The jagged limestone provided more hand and foot holds but left us with some additional scrapes and bruises. The incredible view of the bay was our reward for climbing 40+ feet to the top of the routes. When I wasn't climbing, I collected shells, snapped photos, and took solitude in the quiet beach.
I had heard about the bioluminescent plankton that can be activated when disturbed in the bay. After anchoring in open water, we hopped into kayaks and paddled toward the karsts. Hugging them closely at the base, I looked up in awe of these massive formations. It was surreal and humbling to feel so small next to them. I stuck my paddle in and pushed it back and forth, illuminating the plankton like glitter in the black water. Later, I'd jump off the boat into the bay and watch the tiny plankton light up and glide off my arms as I raised them out of the water. I laid on the top deck, dreaming of the next day on the bay as the boat rocked me to sleep under an orange moon, surrounded by immense shadows.
We ascended into The City of Mist to touch the clouds. I was referred to Tuong, a guide in Sapa, Vietnam, by a friend of mine. Tuong had been a guide for many years and although as young as I was, I left all inhibitions behind as I hopped on the back of his motorbike to tour Sapa's incredible landscape. The beauty here is truly remarkable. Mountains jut up from the earth untamed. Rice paddy fields filled with water from irrigation dot the landscape by the hundreds like glass stairs leading to the heavens.
For the first time in a long time I felt like I was truly living in the moment. Taking in the sites and sounds. We passed corn crops, rose and artichoke flower fields, and tea plantations. Water buffalo walked along the road with their owners and dogs roamed free. Teenagers washed their motorbikes at the base of a waterfall. Big orange butterflies fluttered right passed me. Any time we zoomed by a villager with their eyes heavy set on me, I simply smiled and they quickly returned a warm, friendly smile back.
We stopped at a small restaurant in the Hmong village for lunch and in another village that is farther away from the city and from tourists. The man who's house Tuong showed us built it himself over the last 20 years. You could see the effort in the beautiful wooden doors. But upon entry, it was apparent how extremely poor they were. Beds scattered along one big, open room. Hard concrete floors. A large boulder in the middle of the room that they had no choice but to build around. Nonetheless, our host was smiling and graciously poured us all a cup of tea. We finished the day by sitting on little plastic stools with our guides, sharing rice cake and cheersing with our first bia hoi, fresh Vietnamese brewed beer.
It's funny how quickly your perspective of a place can change. The first day in Sapa, I had felt unwelcome and estranged in this foreign land. Today, I was revived and in awe. I wrote this journal in my head as I rode on the back of the bike, wind in my face. This is what I love about traveling, you question everything you know about yourself, about the world, about other people. It's hard and there's a lot of improvising, but you learn to listen to your gut and to let go and embrace whatever comes at you. If I was ever looking for inspiration, well I think I may have almost found it.
A two-day overnight trek in northern Thailand left me speechless. I met Chai, the guide and a native Karen tribe member and we began our trek into the jungle and to the Karen village. We hiked about an hour and a half passed rice paddy fields and lush landscapes. The mountains are breathtaking. Although in his 50s, Chai was a strong and youthful soul whose eyes tightened and lit up when a smile spread across his face. He taught us about the native flora and fauna, like one plant that crumbles into a red "paint" when you rub it between your fingers. The villagers used to use it to dye their clothes. He also taught us games the children play and I thought back to how similar life around the world can be when you're young.
During our trek we passed sections of jungle where orange robes were tied around various trees. Buddhist monks mark the trees as sacred in hopes of bringing an end to deforestation in northern Thailand. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall and took a dip. Another 90 minutes put us through a couple villages, a school, and finally to our home for the night. I was astonished. The view was amazing, overlooking rice fields and mountains.
I helped Chai and our host prepare dinner. I stirred vegetables in a large wok over an open flame while the sun set in front of us. I slept in the open air underneath a mosquito net and fell asleep to the sound of frogs and insects buzzing.
Awaken to roosters and a gorgeous sunrise. Our host served us pancakes and fresh papaya. They showed us how to extract rice with a wooden mill operated by one's own foot. After that, the woman of the home puts the rice on a bamboo mat and filters it through. It was almost rhythmic in sound--the wood banging, the rice crunching, the sifting on the mat.
We ended the tour with an hour-long ride on a bamboo raft down the Wang River. It was quiet and calm. I let the sun warm my face and the water wash up around me.