A common theme from anyone that has done some traveling is that often you find the comfort of home in the arms and words of a stranger. There is something about being able to share your innermost feelings, with someone that doesn’t know you from Adam, that is incredibly freeing. There is no judgement, and if there was, hey, there is a very good chance that you will never see them again. I think that being in this space people are the most honest and true versions of themselves, or perhaps their most idealistic. In our travels from Dong Hoi to Cat Ba we had a couple of these experiences, each unique and precious in our memory. Sharing dinner or a few beers, the conversation flows easily even across cultures and language barriers. The feeling is reminiscent of the electricity between two old friends sitting down together after a long absence; words tumbling out as if the words can’t stand one more minute on the tip of your tongue. Truly intoxicating. Honesty with strangers is easy, as we grow, I strive to find this honesty with myself, and those I love.
After our adventure that never was in Phong Nha, we tracked back to Dong Hoi sharing dinner with a fellow traveler and public bus mate. We swapped stories and learned about different locations both behind, and in front of our travels. After a long wait at the Hoang Long bus station we hopped on the overnight bus to Hai Phong. Fyi, don’t use Hoang Long if you are ever in SE Asia; their sleeper buses are permanently reclined. Hopping into our too short top bunks we uncomfortably drifted off to sleep. The bus dropped us on the side of the highway, and a quick Grab brought us to our ferry out to Cat Ba island. Ha Long Bay is one of the most iconic sites in Vietnam, but that unfortunately means that there is a ton of tourists and too much traffic. At the suggestion from one of our hosts in Vietnam, we stayed up on Cat Ba island because it was a little more laid back and you could still see all the beauties of Ha Long bay without having to fit it into one day trip. We couldn’t agree more, if you want to appreciate the beautiful limestone islands that jut out of the ocean but want to do it on a budget, Cat Ba is your place. The food was fantastic in the city, plenty of vegan options for Mandy, and all pretty cheap.
We spent two nights in Cat Ba, but our best day there was doing a boat trip through Ha Long Bay. Our gracious host at the Coffee Scent Hostel facilitated a relatively cheap excursion ($17 per person) and we didn’t regret it. The limestone islands vary in size as the shoot up out of the ocean, but there are some 1,600 islands that create a unique landscape. As we cruised between the limestone behemoths, we were taken out to a small kayaking adventure which was a blast. Mandy and I able to kayak through several natural caves, and again made our mission to pick up as much trash as we could that was floating in the water. A couple of French gals were doing the same. The sad truth is in SE Asia, for every one of us, there is 100 others who throw their trash everywhere with no regard. Still, it was refreshing to not be the only ones who gave a damn!
After some lunch, and a stop for swimming, we went to Monkey Island. Here we took a small skiff off our main boat and onto the island. Immediately there were monkeys everywhere. Although adorable, they are little thieves! We were well aware from our time in Costa Rica, but several tourists had their drinks or food stolen out of their hands. One monkey took a beer, ran up the tree, and started drinking it with earnest. Monkey see monkey do?
The monkeys were cool to see up close, but the highlight of the island was a steep climb up to the top of the island. Roughly 50-60 of us climbed to the top only to find out that there wasn’t a way down and we all had to turn around and climb down the way we came up. What followed was a fun and interesting game of navigating down the mountain, helping others where you could, and explaining how far was remaining to those still trying to get to the top.
After the trip we were treated to free beer at one of the local restaurants (See a theme here? We always find the free beer!). We sat down with a couple who were in their 60’s, true wanderers. They had lived in several different countries and shared their life stories with us. They encouraged us, validated our decision to quit our jobs to travel, and talked of how important it is to be true to yourself. They both had made hard decisions in their lives, including him convincing his then girlfriend to marry him and follow him to a different country only months into dating! Most of all what we came away with after their conversation was the world is one that is full of opportunity, you need only open your eyes and heart to receive it. Too often we put our nose to the grindstone, and we forget to look up. Look up, talk to a stranger, and again, pick up that piece of trash.