After a day to myself, I was ready to insert myself back into the group. Thankfully, the group welcomed me with open arms. Some other time I will have to write a separate blog post about what appears to be the Russian style of travel, but I will say this: from my experience, Russians know how to suck all the marrow out of every trip. From sun-up until late into the night, it’s go-go-go, see-see-see, and, to hear my colleagues tell about it, they all spent the previous day thoroughly immersed in the sights of Hanoi.
This day was for a rest, of sorts. We were traveling to Ha Long Bay for a night cruise on a party boat. First up, a four-hour bus ride to the Bay. Now four hours is a long time and after the heat exhaustion I nearly suffered the previous day I was worried about getting a cool spot on the bus. But I needn’t have. As usual, my Russian colleagues were anxious to avoid blowing air so I got a seat directly under the vent. This gave me the chance to look at the Vietnamese countryside in cool comfort.
The roads were good and we quickly made our way to the first stop– a bathroom stop/tourist trap where sellers tried to convince us to buy giant marble sculptures (where would we put them?), silks, and crocodile leather. The funnest people on the trip were already picking up beers. Given the uncertain upcoming bathroom situation, I opted for a small iced coffee.
When we arrived at the bay, it took us a little while to get on our boat. Overall, the entire Ha Long Bay cruise experience is a masterful example of logistical operations. Somehow, hundreds of tourists are seamlessly loaded and unloaded onto dozens of boats day after day.
A little commuter boat takes you to the cruising boat and cuts down on the amount of traffic at the shore. Waiting is minimal. Confusion is absent. Our commuter boat deposited us onto our three-tiered cruiser where we were immediately served a hearty but unmemorable lunch. We stashed our luggage in our cabins and reunited on the top deck, marveling at the view as we headed toward the caves.
I make it sound like it was just me and twenty Russians, but in reality there were a few other foreigners sprinkled through as well. Here we’ve got UK, Brazil, Russia and our Vietnamese host, Toan.
The caves in Ha Long Bay are on at least one list of the Seven Wonders of the World, but I can’t say I really experienced them fully. Our group was so large that it was kind of impossible to navigate together.
Plus, our tour guide’s English was fairly incomprehensible to most of the Russians. I think it works like this: there’s a spectrum of accented, non-native English, and Vietnamese and Russian Englishes fall at either end of that spectrum. I spent some time translating from one English into another but eventually just gave up and joined a different tour group as they toured the caves. The crowds in the caves were a problem because they made it so hot– it was less like being in a cave and more like being in a sauna. Considering how badly I’d been reacting to heat lately, I tried to just complete the circuit as quickly as possible. Here I am in one of the Seven Wonders of the World and all I can think about is how to get out. See? I’m not good at this Vietnam travel thing.
I breathed fresh air while waiting for everyone else to exit the caves. Can’t complain about the view!
After the caves, we watched the sun set over the bay.
We had a celebratory dinner, drinking wine and laughing. I sat next to Toan, the lone Vietnamese person in the group. We talked in Russian all night, about what, I do not remember. It is entirely possible that it didn’t make much sense to either of us. Across the table, Lidia Ivanovna admired the glowing pineapple that came with our dessert.
After sunset we gathered on the top deck to relax. The boat staff started playing pop music down below, but no one was enthusiastic about it. Our colleague Sasha took matters into his own hands and got the staff to not only bring the speakers up to the roof, but also to bluetooth his phone to the stereo system. And, voilà, the Russian discotheque was born.
A bottle of vodka with some mango on the side helped everyone loosen up, most especially our valiant leader Sergei. I’ve never seen the guy so laid back. Given the range of ages to satisfy music-wise, Sasha masterfully DJ’d a mix of 70s and 80s tunes. But he really brought down the house with Boney M. Ra Ra Rasputin is a song that every Russian must dance to. It’s like a law or something. We had people dancing on tables, on chairs…one guy did that Russian dance where you’re kind of squatting down and kicking your legs out. Maybe this video can give you a feel of the love Russians have for this song?
Dizzy from the drink and the dance, I went to bed. In the morning we drank coffee on the top deck while we waited for breakfast. On the boats around us, people were doing calisthenics. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less, but my colleague Gulnara got us all to at least touch our toes.
We cruised to a little island, named after German Titov, the Soviet cosmonaut. Fourth human in space! In Vietnamese his name is spelled Ti Top.
While we were waiting for the beach to open on the island, Toan came over to me in his bathing suit and we had what can only be described as one of the most surreal conversations of my life. “I used to hate Americans!” he said. “Hate! In the war they killed my best friend. He died in my arms while I carried him like this.” He stretched his arms out and mimed the carrying of a body. “I was wounded. Here, you can see the scars,” he said, pointing to streaks across him abdominal flesh. “But now I love Americans!” he said. “We are friends now. All that the politicians do–that has nothing to do with us. Not me, not you. I love you!” And he picked me up in an enormous hug. I found myself, again, clumsily apologizing for a war I had nothing to do with, but nonetheless feel responsible for. And then it hit me: the Vietnamese are not angry at the Americans because the Vietnamese won the war. THEY WON THE WAR. When you win you can move on. Why is this such a controversial thing to say? It’s never, ever said in the United States. We talk about the withdrawal of American troops, and how we left the conflict, etc., but let’s be honest: we lost the war. We lost the Vietnam War. And that’s one of the reasons it’s such a painful, shameful chapter in our nation’s history. In contrast, here in Vietnam, it was a devastatingly difficult time, but they kicked out the aggressors and got on with the business of building their country. What’s to resent? They already dealt with us.
I thought about this as I swam in the cool bay waters and as my colleagues played volleyball on the beach. Then we packed up and headed back to Hanoi.
Later I would fly back to Moscow, still puzzled by my own reactions to this trip. Vietnam was inviting yet difficult for me. The heat and the crowds made it uncomfortable, but the friendly people warmed me in a good way. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I have to invest serious time in a country and a culture before I can truly enjoy myself there. I’m no longer a tourist.