after another 24 hours of traveling, I am home. I settle in and begin to unpack. for the first few days I wake up in the middle of the night not knowing what country I’m in. and already I wonder: what will I remember most?
memory is strange. it picks and chooses. it changes moments, maneuvers them, works them. things fade, and others become brighter.
I know that the difficulties will fade. things that once held the weight of the world, moments of fear and frustration and discomfort – standing frozen in the middle of the street in unceasing traffic, showing up 24 hours late for an overnight train, the sight of a spider the size of a baseball scurrying up my apartment wall – will become less so, become lighter. have already become funny in retrospect, thankfully.
the good things, the truly unique and exceptional, will become brighter. the first bowl of bún riêu. the first sip of vietnamese coffee. the look of the streets at night on the back of a motorbike. the mountains in Mai Châu, the beaches in Hội An, the blue-green water in Ha Long Bay.
there are things that will become lost entirely, and it is sad to admit that the loss is inevitable. but writing it down slows this process. even when the writing is a simple recollection – I did this, and then I did that – there is a kind of magic to it: it pins the moment in place, leaves a mark, a record. I’m in awe of that magic. I’m grateful for it, too.
as soon as we step onto the van for the three hour trip to Halong Bay, I feel relaxed. Hanoi has been wonderful, but it is intense, overstimulating. a sensory overload. I am happy to be headed somewhere peaceful.
we have booked a junk boat cruise, three days, two nights. we are in a small boat with two families, eight of us total. there is a woman from Australia traveling with her two boys, and a man from Israel traveling with his two boys. the kids are close in age. they make fast friends, not the least bit impeded by the fact that the younger Israeli boy speaks no English. they play a card game called “spit.” they slap the table and yell “spit” and giggle endlessly.
we are cruising Bai Tu Long Bay, the smaller, less traveled bay, though we still see plenty of other junk boats as we go. the presence of the other boats does little to distract from the landscape. the mountainous islands loom large. I read that “halong” translates to “where the dragon descends to the sea,” and that legend has it that the islands were created by a dragon. it makes sense. the islands look to me like seamonsters, like dragons, ancient creatures, mythic, almost as if they are living and breathing. I half expect to see them turn their heads, their craggy faces staring back at me.
when it’s sunny, we eat on deck, fresh seafood from the bay, along with a few other Vietnamese dishes. a sweet and spicy tomato soup with prawns, clams with lemongrass and chili, light, crisp salads with chopped peanuts and sesame seeds, pork and plantains cooked in a clay pot, more prawns, grilled this time, fried fish. breakfast is more western: eggs and toast and sausage. Bradford drinks Halong Beer and I drink fresh fruit juice: pineapple, watermelon, lemon.