And we begin where we ended:
It’s morning number 3 of my first (of 3) Hanoi benders. My stomach is flipping as I’m flipping out, trying to move my check-out along so I can sort out my escalating bank problems. My wallet’s edging close to zero and a bus is almost here to take me to Cat Ba, a remote-ish island where banking options will be, at best, slim, at worst, non-existent. But we’re on Vietnam time, and the tight-lipped lady at the front desk refuses to move things along enough to return my passport, and I know the bus is coming and I have no money and I need to get to it.
“It’s gonna be okay, it’ll all get sorted crazy.” But what if it doesn’t? “It’ll be okay.” But: “C’mon it’s HSBC, 100% Chance, it’ll be okay.” The passport’s given, I hop three blocks over to the HSBC to card in, wait for the money. And it doesn’t come. After an agonizing ten seconds of the frozen hourglass symbol, the machine spits back my card with no money.
We Are Sorry For The Inconvenience. Please Contact Your Bank Service Provider.
And in that moment, it was just about the end of the world.
Mostly because I was burning out. Burning brightly, maybe, but definitely burning down in the process. China stretched me and spread me thin. I wanted to be anything and everything. However great things might get, it was never enough: I wasn’t seeing enough, writing enough, getting my Chinese to the level I’d wanted.
And when I met my friend Sotaro on my first day in Hanoi, he took one long look at me and said,
“Man, you look exhausted. It’s like you’ve been travelling for six months already!”
Coming from him, this comment meant a lot—the man was his seventh month into his own trip, after surviving Dengue fever this time and crippling gastritis after a year in South America. And I was the exhausted one? We’d become best-friends-worst-role-models during my fever-dream of a Bangkok trip five months before, and so for him to point out now how much I’ve changed since then? It struck me, unflatteringly, and forced me to reflect.
Because really. What am I doing here?
Jump to the morning two days later and the cash ‘aint coming. RBC insists nothing’s the matter (“Except for you guys being a piece of shit bank!” I’m so on the cusp of shouting back), so I run to a couple more ATM’s that all give me back error signs. By the time the bus comes I’m completely shredded—broke and bitter, soaking in my problems. A group of blonde, sunshine smile Finnish girls are making my small talk, and none of it’s sticking. I’m taking pleasure in how difficult this is all being.
Maybe this harm-inflicting cycle would have continued to today—maybe I’d be getting ready to go home—if I hadn’t gone to Cat Ba Island. Despite being the major island of Ha Long bay, Cat Ba remains relatively unspoiled, with most tourists opting for the 3 night booze-cruise through the bay. With the partiers trapped, throwing up, on their boats, this left the island for more thoughtful, spendthrift backpackers; for the waves, the salty air, the peace.
And I arrived on the pier’s long main road overlooking the harbor, feeling a change washing over me. I should find my hostel, maybe, but why not sit down at this seaview restaurant and grab a meal? What about skype-ing the little brother and asking him about university? And when you see those Finnish girls from the bus again, what’s the problem in joining their trip to the beach?
My foot gets cut up real bad on the rocks there—I thought it might be a jellyfish sting, the muscles were bugging out so bad—and that bank situation was always a low-hanging cloud in the periphery, but then again, the water’s warm, the sky’s cut with rose-lined clouds, and I’m looking out on some of the most stunning rock spears I’ve ever seen. I’m on island time again.
It’s good to be back: it’d been too long. Back to breathing, smiling. My entire year in Japan, I’d never been on island time, not in the day-after-day of spotless uniforms, bell drills, bows, and conjugation exercises. I’d been so about The Go, all while trying to fit into the boxes they kept trying to squeeze me into, I ignored how much the beach, the sea, was integral too. Letting my beard grow, loving the connections, life-long or fleeting, you can make with a ukulele and a sunset.
The beach. It’d been everything to me in Vancouver—the way that sunset melts across the ocean on those heat-soaked days of July, holding hands and making our drum circles. How could I forget that? How could I forget what it means to feel for people, to love in the moment and hold it close? I’m cradling something of myself. And when I let it go?
Things get easier. And they work out. By that night, I’ve made a whole new group of friends, the banking thing still looms large, and I’m starting to wonder if it’ll be okay. There’s only one ATM on the island, it doesn’t service my type of debit card, but, “well, if I gotta sleep on the beach till I get back to Hanoi, then I gotta sleep on the beach.” And new friends are already offering loans. But right as we’re passing the bright red box perched on the pier, I think, “hey, the worst it does is spit out the card, right?” Only this time, it spits out all my money too—after fourteen fucking tries of banks supposed to take my card, this little box here on this island: this one works.
Everything in its place.
On Cat Ba I make friends with a collected group of Italians-Germans-Canadians biking round the country, and in our five days there, we eat long lunches, climb big rocks, eat long dinners, kayak round big rocks, drink late and sleep in. And for the first time in forever, that kind of lifestyle didn’t feel wrong to me. Getting to know them, getting the sun. Getting my heartbeat underneath the waves. The salt on my skin as we walk around a cliffface to follow the sunset.
I sat on the pier on the last day, sipping smoothies with everyone and talking about plans next. Going up into the mountains? Taking Laos for a spin? Buying a bike and charting through the rest of Vietnam with them? It was the hardest goodbye of the trip, both to them and the island, the island with its boats creaking as the fisherman hurl their catches onto the stones. I opened up, and goodbyes were becoming hard again.
But just what of this peace was I about to take with me back to Hanoi?
I’m halfway through the Museum of Ethanology when I realize I can’t take all of this in. It’s Hanoi’s, and possibly Vietnam’s, most extensive museum, detailing the country’s 54 Indigenous groups. Each has their own language, and many originate from different corners of the world, from modern China to Australia, India and Thailand. The backyard recreates a number of the different houses, and it’s like hopping across continents for all the variety they have: stilt houses, long-houses, stone shrine-centered abodes that could be from China, some with giant roofs and others without roofs at all.
And it gives me an overwhelming sense of the vastness in a relatively small space like Vietnam. I’ll never, ever come close to even scratching the surface of these cultures. At points it made me numb, made me wonder why I was even trying to touch at things I wouldn’t ever know.
It’s when I’m walking through the final building that opens out on Asian art in general, and it all becomes too much: what, now I’ve gotta try and take in Baliian, Guniean, Southern Thai art? And it bursts, as I realize no matter how much I could try, I would never in a million years begin to inhale all this culture. It’s like digging the deepest well of sand at the beach: you can dig you can dig, and water’s still going to get in. Sometimes you’ve got to let go.
It seems like a pretty basic thing to come to terms with, but look at where I was coming from. In Japan, I tried doing everything, being everything. I wanted to be the best teacher, become fluent, gather all I could from the culture, read every book, write my own book, all while trying to see every corner of the country. In a year, I wanted to become Japanese, while still being all the other disparate parts of me.
In some areas, particularly with the language, I was enormously successful. In other ways, it killed me, and despite being the year with dizzying highs and a satchel full of memories you can make movies out of, I left the year more bitter than I ever remember being. I kept my distance from everyone around me, and I’d aged in that year something closer to a decade. Something’s wrong with that kind of life, that level of pressure I exerted.
And so when I let myself go, in that museum? There’s a bliss to that. To being able to stare into the black slit eyes of a Balian puppet mask and say “this is completely amazing,” and not have to feel like I need to identify it, historicize it, and commit it to my memory bank for some larger purpose later on. I can let it wash over me, chill me, and be a reminder that, eventually, Indonesia is one of the places I need to go. But not yet. Breath Liam.
When I accept that, Vietnam—and probably this entire trip—becomes a whole lot easier. It’s not about seeing every corner, or being able to converse perfectly with the locals, or making sure that everything I see here’s gonna become part of some larger novel I write on it. I tried that in China and even though there were so many crappy times there, there were hundreds of amazing moments too. And they never added up to enough.
We live in the boxes we create for ourselves. If I keep wanting to be everything, I’m going to be very quickly filed down to nothing. When I let go of who I’m trying to be, my soul drifts, expands, fills the room like water. Everything and nothing at the same time.
I learned this in Ha Long.
My tour of Ha Long bay, UNESCO heritage sight and general #1 spot for most tourists, came on the last day on Cat Ba. Call it ending on a high. On a little red sailboat we cut between the giant rock faces that make up the bay. You get that they’re incredibly beautiful right away, seeming to defy nature for its green, tree-lined summits and sheer rock down its sides, but I wasn’t feeling a great amount. All of it was stunning, but all of it shimmered as if between a camera lens, like I could see all of this from the comfort of a Google browser with none of the fees and boat rocking. But I needed to understand it, yes, understand exactly why this was the number one sight? So I forced myself to ask key questions: oh, these are the famous rocks, right? oh, how did this naturally form? oh, is this the best spot for pictures? And it still wasn’t getting me any closer.
But they let us off to swim, and I went towards one of the cliffs. It rose, peerless and gleaming like jade into the blue sky, and when I looked up at it, wading on my back, it was a miracle. I felt something radiating. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t need to, didn’t need to name it or know if it was real. I sat there and watched it shimmer.
The boat picked us up as the sun was just beginning to stare red down the rocks. I sat on the bow soaking them in. My eyes stung, and I saw everything through a head-light haze. No more thinking. The beauty filled me, swam with me. Where did I begin and the landscape end? Fisherboats moving by, their blue paint and crossed bows, nodding to me as we pass. Little towns made from floating logs, and to them this is so ordinary it’s impossible to imagine life without it. I’m coming in with my money and amazement, but they nod to me and sometimes smile back, while the rocks are blood red and their trees lean down to touch the water.
These moments when life makes so much sense and yet has never been more fascinating. A different definition of breathing.
That’s what I brought back from Cat Ba in the end. I let it go. It’s why I was able to leave Vietnam after only three weeks, when I’d seen so vastly little of the country, understood so few of its intricacies and quirks. I knew, after seeing Ha Long, that I’d seen exactly what I needed to. This time. Next time? It’s motorbiking, charting across the country for every nook and every cranny I know’s there. Maybe.
It gets at the most important question I need to be asking while travelling: what am I doing here? what do I want from my life? If I work the way I did in Japan, I’ll probably be successful in where I end up directing myself. That flame will burn bright, and short. But is that what I want? What happens to island time on a schedule like that? How do I keep learning when it’s not quite so… sacrificial? Is this really what I need right now, or is this taking-it-easy approach just another symptom of being so worn out?
One new answer, a million new questions. But every time I step out the door, every time I hop on a boat bike or bus, every time I sit down with a beer and meet a new person, I’m one step closer to answering a couple more of them. So bring on the cash problems, bring on the Ha Longs.