Halong Bay is stunning. We cruise on a Chinese Junk called the Dragon's Pearl, and spend the night anchored in a quiet firth. The junk, all dark wood and golden lit, felt like something straight out of an Agatha Christie novel - Death on the Nile - but oh so Indochine.
Our guide tells us that the seasons are changing, and the collison of warm and cool air results in the misty conditions. It casts an air of mystery on the limestone islands. At one point on the cruise, I put on Into the West from The Return of The King and I feel like Frodo off to the grey havens with Gandalf. Talk about having a soundtrack to your life!
If I had to describe the Halong Bay experience in a sentence, it would be this: This is the rare trip where the reality is better than what has been advertised and what I've read and imagined all combined. Nothing disappoints. From the cool misty conditions the first day, to the sunny morning the next day where most of the passengers trade their parkas from the night before to bikinis and shorts and jump into the turquoise water. The food is unbelievable, the service outstanding and the company, a happy blend of eclectic personalities from all over the world.
D braves the cool weather (about 18 degs) on the first evening and joins two other kiwi boys as they jump off the second-storey deck into the water. It's a 9-metre jump, one crew member says. I video the whole thing, wrapped in a jacket and scarf! But the next morning, I get my turn and have the most wondrous swim in the middle of the ocean. The whole atmosphere is exhilarating. Two older ladies from America do the 9-metre jump and one exclaims that she's always been scared her whole life and has never done anything like this. It's one of those moments where everything seems tinged with possibility.
So now we've been back in Hanoi a day, and Halong Bay feels half a world away from the chaotic energy of the Old Quarter.
This morning we go to the most excellent Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where a temporary exhibition is being held on Bao Cap, the period in Vietnam where everything was state controlled and subsidised, and all essentials were distributed based on your rank in society and size of family. I'm normally a zip-through-museum type person, but this one had me completely mesmerised. I think it was the combination of first-hand accounts of people who went through that period in history, the honesty and candidness that came through in the exhibition, and the fact that all this happened relatively recently, in my lifetime at least (1975 - 1986).
One thing that came through strongly for me was how communism as an ideology can never work, as humans are simply too individualistic and need to feel distinct from each other. Then there is the fantastic little ditty I see at the exhibition that perfectly encapsulates Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, while simultaneously showing that humour and hope are present even in the most difficult of times:
Ok, since writing the above, some distressing events have occurred. D has been suddenly struck with a severe case of gastro-entitis. All happened very quickly, and MIL and I went with him to the nearest medical practice of repute (5 km away). He was put on a drip and is staying overnight for observation, and will be looked after by the good nurses (and doctor) of Hanoi. Poor D, to be so sick away from home is so much harder. At least he has his mum and wife with him.
It's past midnight now and MIL and I have just gotten back to the hotel and had a quiet dinner of baguette and spring rolls. I'm knackered and still a bit affected by poor D's suffering. Think I'll go vegetarian tomorrow, and will also try to stay away from the alluring smoothies and fruits that are in every cafe. I don't think I can do the same for cake though. Hanoi is a very cakey city (and I mean this in the best of ways).
To all of you reading this, I wish you all the best of health. You never really think about good health until you're struck with illness. That's my big takeaway learning this trip I guess. To not take the basics forgranted (yes, I love you, oh big toe) and to celebrate the everyday miracles (like the continued existence of self-same good toe).
Oh, and I'm going to buy D some floral shorts to celebrate his (hopefully speedy) return to health.