The van that picked us up from the hostel was gloriously air conditioned. So conditioned that it almost felt cold when we got in. We piled into the van and off we ventured down the highway. Traveling in a motor vehicle was not more relaxing than walking. Narrowly avoiding vehicular homicide every few moments, we pressed our way through the city and up towards the mountains in the east. The ‘highway,’ like all the roads here provided no guidance as to lanes. Right of way is given to whoever drives the fastest. You pass whenever you deem it necessary. Right side, left side, no-one really seems to care.
Driving through the country was a strange blend of old and new. Farmers tended their rice paddy fields beside highways and power lines. Beautifully adorned buildings with ornate balconies were blocks away from children playing in unpaved alleys. The constant contradiction of ‘have’ and ‘have not’ was even more pronounced as we moved from the city. So much for Communism. Construction projects stood out, abandoned; as if the state decided the funds were better spent elsewhere. A beautifully arching overpass curved across the highway to… nothing. Oxen and cows would randomly wander across the highway, eyeing the mopeds and vehicles with unveiled irritation.
Mountains gave way to valleys. Valleys gave way to narrow roads and bustling towns. It was almost three hours before the sparkle of the sea could be spied between buildings and the majesty of limestone crept up on the horizon. A sparkle, half hidden by signs and storefronts, beckoned to us. I craned my neck to see and opened the window. The unmistakable scent of the sea toyed with us, a sweet and seductive scent above the gritty diesel smell of the fuel. And there it was. The water. We drove across a massive suspension bridge and wove our way down the side of the mountain; slicing and shimmying our way through sharp curves on tiny roads.
Halong City opened up before us. Shops, hotels, businesses and boats lined the shore. Buildings were painted in the vibrant, saturated hues reminiscent of the Caribbean. Limestone formations were thrust upward from the ground at odd intervals, offering the illusion of mountains. The van pulled up to a large building beside the pier. The smell of the salty air was more prevalent now; a melange of flowers and brine, heavy as the humid air. We unloaded our bags and walked in. Ushered to waiting rooms sorted by cruise ship, the Indochina Junk lounge was both luxurious and decadent. Both a convenience store and a snack stop- the lounge showed off hats, ice cream, sunscreen and bottled water.
Excited, we grabbed our things and went to our assigned room. We met two couples from different parts of Australia and were told we were waiting for a couple from Canada. I went upstairs to pay the bill.
The upstairs office reminded me of an episode of CSI. A woman sat behind a desk with a guard at her side. I handed her my credit card. She handed it back, shaking her head. I handed her a different one, confused. Maybe my bank forgot I was in Vietnam. She handed it back to me and shrugged. Scared now, as the guard narrowed his eyes, I handed her my Discover card. She looked at it, arching an eyebrow. No one takes Discover. No one in the world. She shook her head.
“Maybe you go to ATM. Only 30 minute. We take you on motor bike.”
No, no, no. Not on one of those. Not with the three hours of near-death experiences I witnessed in the van. I hesitated, and looked in my wallet.
Deciding it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission; I handed her my corporate spending card.
She ran it. I signed it. And I walked down the stairs, pale and jittery.
“What happened?” my sister asked, concerned.
“Well,” I started, taking my seat and ordering a drink. “I might lose my job when I go home. But we’re getting on this cruise.”
The ice-cold drink arrived and I took a long sip. I was living for today. I was living for this week. And as soon as this Canadian couple showed up– I was living a dream.
Purchasing card be damned. We were off on an adventure.