Friday, June 3, 2016

Halong Bay: Prejudiced

Day One of our Halong Bay cruise had been absolute perfection. Sailing in and around hundreds of tiny islands dotting the teal waters of the South China Sea between northern Vietnam and China felt like heaven. When I awoke just after dawn on Day Two to find our junk already sliding past a seemingly endless array of these adorable islets, I wanted nothing more than to spend my morning up on the sun deck watching the beauty unfold.

Our itinerary, however, laid out a different plan.

7 a.m. Transfer from Victory Star Cruise to rowing boat to visit Vung Vieng floating fishing village. Rowers are local girls wearing traditional costume. It the opportunity to see the fisher's (sic) daily life with the primary features of the charming nature.

Well. That sounds all fine and good.

But honestly, I did not care one whit about a floating fishing village, whatever that might be. I'd been hoodwinked into a tour of a Vietnamese fishing village once before, and the place turned out to be a bunch of bored women sitting around in those red plastic chairs that inhabit every corner of Asia, and a pack of staring children wearing rubber flip flops.

^ Do not harsh my buzz, Victory Star. Just let me live in your dream world for just a few hours more. 

When I realized that my daughters had every intention of joining the outing, I felt the first pangs of guilt. Since when am I Suzy Stick-In-The-Mud who turns down adventures to stay with the safe and familiar?

Most likely, I reasoned, the side trip would be a total bore. Mother and daughters would suffer through the morning together and then have a great story and a strong Boredom Bond coming out of it.

And in that pathetically narrow-minded condition, I boarded the tender headed for Vung Vieng.

^ Oh. Wait. We're riding in cute little wooden boats? And we do nothing but sit and goggle around at the scenery? Hmm. Alright. 

And when I realized that all the rowboats were streaming off in the same direction, disappearing into an unseen passage between the islets, I was intrigued. 

I felt like I had fallen straight into the plot of Dr Seuss' Go, Dog. Go!
Why are they going fast in those cars? What are they going to do? Where are those dogs going? Look where they are going. They are all going to that big tree over there.
^ Once we threaded our way through the passage and came round another corner, I saw and I understood. Scrappy little homes, painted discordant but intentionally coordinated colors. Quiet, save a few random boys doing chores and a handful of barking dogs. 

Okay this was somewhat cool. 

Side note: There was a kooky pair of Brits with us, husband and wife, probably in their thirties. As we drifted by the houses, the man looked out of the boat and remarked in classic British precision, "It's not too deep here. I can see the bottom." In her perfectly clipped accent, dripping with sarcasm, she casually remarked, "In you go, then." 

This became the go-to comeback line for the rest of our trip. "In you go, then." 

 ^ But, charming as the quirky house boats may have been, my world was rocked when I saw what came next.

An opening.
A pass-through.
A magic portal from one world to the next, evidently carved by forces of water and clearly our new destination.
To the tree! To the tree!
Up the tree! Up the tree! What will they do at the top of that tree?
 ^ I took a million pics. But as we drew closer and began to pass directly under the massive rock, I put away my phone and just drank in the scene.
A dog party! A big dog party!
As we floated underneath, then turned round and paddled back out the way we came in, my mind's eye split into dual screens, one filled with the gorgeous beauty in front of me, the other recalling that classic scene in the picture book, where dogs of all size, shape and color are gamboling in party mode across the top of a giant tree.

Though I'd always envied their celebration, I couldn't help but think my morning was turning out much better.
^ In the moment, I could barely believe that this was actually happening to me. Even now, it mostly seems like a dream.

As we slowly circled back to our starting point, I gladly admitted to myself that my early doubts about the journey were wrong, wrong, wrong. Thank goodness I pushed back against my silly prejudices and gave the floating village of Vung Vieng a chance.

And as I climbed out of my rowboat, grinning with pleasure and filled with satisfaction, I felt just like the dog who speaks the final words on the last page of my storybook:

"And now do you like my hat?(asks his frustrated lady friend.)
I do! What a hat! I like that party hat!"

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