It is now January 4th. The guys left yesterday – I cried, of course. Louis has stayed another night and we’ve decided to head to Ninh Bình together. We’ve been told it’s “Ha Long Bay on land,” and have heard from various people that it’s meant to be beautiful. At only 2 hours away by train, it seems worth the excursion.
We take Louis’ backpack with us and head to the train station. We will do some touring around the limestone karsts, then I will catch the train back to Hanoi and Louis will get a bus down south (or spend the night).
We buy tickets for 120,000 dong each (€4.50) and settle in on the train. We can’t find seats next to each other, so I entertain myself with staring out of the window. A food cart comes by, and the vendors dish up all sorts of warm meats, rice and foods I don’t recognize. It smells enticing, but my brain is too slow and they are gone before I am able to process whether I wanted to order something or not.
The ride takes a little over 3 hours and then we are in Ninh Bình. We walk out of the train station and: “wait, where are the mountains?”
“Oh my god, we are such stupid bitches.”
“We probably should have at least Googled this place, shouldn’t we?” We are, per usual, howling with laughter.
Ten minutes later we have figured out that we need to go to either Tam Coc or Trang An, I have played with a puppy and we have found a taxi willing to drive us to Tam Coc. We’re absolutely killing it.
We drive 10 minutes to Tam Coc. We also realize we have been terribly overcharged. The upside is that we can now see the limestone karsts. It will be worth it. There is a little harbor of sorts that is teeming with boats. The men and women rowing them row with their feet.
We grab some lunch and though the food is definitely old, we are hungry and there aren’t many other options. Right, boat time. We pile in, backpack and life jackets in tow. The lady rowing our boat begins to chat with us.
“Monsieur, madame. Where you from?” she inquires.
“England.” We’re trying to keep things simple, so sue us.
“How many babies?” She definitely thinks we are married.
“No babies yet,” I say. Louis is sitting in front of me and I can practically see his grin through the back of his head.
“Me, I have four babies.” She points to Louis and shows her four fingers, driving her point home.
“So we should have four babies?” I ask.
“Yes, yes four babies.”
“Did you hear that, Louis? We’re starting a family.”
We sit and enjoy that for the millionth time, someone has thought that we must be romantically involved. I am in love with the innocence of the interaction.
Our boat ride takes us 3 kilometers down the river. We float between the karsts, we float through tunnels beneath rock. We marvel at the dexterity with which these women row with their feet. We make note of how few men do the rowing. We see farmers trudging through knee deep water. I wonder whether they are harvesting or planting, but I don’t find out.
Close to the end of the route, we pass a flotilla of vendors. Each of their boats is loaded with snacks and drinks.
“This seems like a tough way to try and sell something,” I say. “You’d have to float by, think to yourself: oh hey I’d like a beer, and then row all the way over the get something. I don’t see how it works.”
We round the bend and turn back, ready to complete the 3 kilometers back to Tam Coc. That’s when I suddenly understand how it works. The flotilla has dispersed and as we row back up the river, they row to the various boats and latch on, offering up their wares.
A woman brandishes beers in Louis’ face. In the face of discomfort he says “alright then, two beers please.”
Before we are able to process it, she hands over two beers. She also, however, passes a can of soda, a bag of sugarcane and two bags of nuts to the lady rowing our boat.
“200,000 dong,” she says.
“What?” It bears noting that can of beer typically cost 20,000 dong.
“You pay for her!” she says, pointing at our lady.
I honestly can’t recall what we said, but suffice it to say it consisted of a lot of grumbling and cursing. We paid the 200,000 dong and float back up the river. Our lady seems very pleased with herself. Our frustration dissipates and soon we are laughing at how absurd this interaction has become.
We arrive back in the harbor and she demands we tip. Tam Coc is beginning to tire me out, now. We get scammed once more at a public toilet and with our scam tally of the day up to 4, we are really quite done. We head to a tour operator to book Louis a bus out tonight. “I’m not going to spend a night here.”
With our bus and train booked, we sit and drink coffee. The hours tick by and soon enough it’s time for me to go.
It’s been three and a half weeks and three countries. Countless new friends and more belly aching laughter than I can remember having in a long time.
This trip dropped a forever friend into my lap and now that I have to say goodbye, I am absolutely gutted.
“Right. We are going to say goodbye and you are not allowed to cry. I absolutely forbid it,” Louis says. “We’re going to have a proper English goodbye.”
We walk to the taxi and as we hug and hug again, it’s taking all the energy I have to keep it together.
“I love you, see you soon,” we say, and I close the door.
The driver accelerates and I immediately begin to sob. I know Louis is behind me, but I don’t look back. Instead I cry and cry and cry.
I ride the train home feeling numb. I am sad and I am spent. The food vendors come by again but this time I’m not nearly as charmed. The trip feels like it takes twice as long, and the knowledge that I will arrive back in Hanoi with no friends there is something I am trying not to think about.
I arrive at the train station and get ready to request a Grab bike home. “I’ll just walk a little ways first,” I think. As one block turns into two, I begin to feel better. As I criss-cross between motorbikes and cars over busy intersections, I feel better yet.
I am back in Hanoi. It is loud, it’s got smells I can’t always identify. It’s overwhelming and chaotic and many different things all at once. But Hanoi makes me feel better about the goodbyes because one of the things it is – at least right now – is home.
So I walk all the way there; home.