What were they thinking?
At welcome drinks, from which nobody ever really seemed to recover, they seated the American-South African couple with the Germans and the Scots. Mistake. To be fair, it all started on a genteel enough note, and in the late afternoon, after cruising through some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, seriously and wondrously spectacular — depending which list you consult Halong Bay is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World — we were led through a cave. The cave was discovered in recent times, set deep within one of the limestone karsts that jut out from the depths of the emerald waters.
On the banks of one of the islands is a small settlement of people who live in stilted houses on wooden boards. They rent out kayaks to anyone wanting to paddle through the karst waterscape, which Meg and I did. We paddled until we were alone, just the two of us, in a cove, on the water, not another soul in sight, surrounded on three sides by mountainous cliffs rising sharply from the water, eagles soaring overhead, in silence.
As the sun went down, we climbed a steep hill on one of the islands, ascending to a panoramic viewpoint in time to see the orange glow disappear and the moon hang heavy and bright in the sky. Time for a beer.
Back on the boat, the evening got underway with a quick and easy cooking class — essentially a how-to guide on rolling spring rolls; in hindsight probably the only few minutes of the trip during which we weren’t holding beers in at least one of our hands. With beer after Long Island Iced Tea after beer flowing at a furious rate from the bar to the SA-USA-Scotland-Deutschland table, it was only a matter of time really, before karaoke seemed like a good idea. After a few perfunctory pushbacks and solemn protestations of the “there’s not enough beer in that fridge to get me singing” variety, it turned out there was indeed enough beer in the fridge to get all of us, embarrassingly, taking turns shouting misread lyrics into a reverberating microphone. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the boat, who went to bed right after dinner, we belted out song after classic song, even trying our hand at a Vietnamese song as a group. Thinking about it now, it must have sounded simply demonic to the people tucked in bed on decks below us, but we had the bartender and cruise director in stitches so we must have been doing something right. Right?
Over breakfast the next morning there was little else we could do but acknowledge that we are all in fact awesome singers despite video evidence to the contrary… and to crack a few more beers. The boat pulled up to an oyster farm where we were shown the intricacies of pearl farming, and urged to buy pearls. I declined, and — as the sign told me I would — I have been living in a state of pitiful remorse ever since. Carrying his beer to the far dock, Ricky — one of the Scots, fresh off a stint working on a pearl farm in Western Australia — asked to speak to the manager. Within twenty minutes he had sweet-talked himself into a job. On the spot he filled in all the necessary forms and was to report for duty two weeks hence. Something tells me when he came to his senses later that afternoon, he had just one thought: What was I thinking?
Ricky lands himself a job
As the boat set sail again, on a heading for the shore and the minivan that would take us all back to Hanoi, we were all given our astronomical bar bills. As we settled them, the others on the boat, and the staff, and all of us vis a vis each other looked around, eyebrows raised, as much as to say, What were they thinking?