Buddha on the dashboard and the last hurrah by Don Stefanovich

We were packed into another bus, this time sans medical team.

Our class was bound for HaLong Bay, our last hurrah. I was riding shotgun this time. I sat next to our silent driver. Shaved head, sunglasses on, he never took his eyes off the road. He moved only to shift gears and steer around slower vehicles and the occasional water buffalo. Just in front of him a small, wooden Buddha grinned maniacally from the dashboard as we rattled on.

A wooden Buddha grins on the dash of the tour bus en route from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. Photo by Don Stefanovich

Just before reaching the waterfront, we passed through a corridor of perfectly manicured palm trees, brightly lit billboards and smooth, concrete roads – an uneasy shrine to the tourism industry that has washed ashore on the banks of an ancient, natural wonder.

As our junk boat, Jewel of the Bay, left the crowded port and the azure water grew deeper and the limestone islands rose to meet us, all else seemed forgotten.

Even as lunch was served, we intermittently skittered back and forth from table to deck between courses, to take photos, interact with the local merchant boats trolling beside us and just take in the view.

After a week of hard yet rewarding work, we were free. Not only were we free, we were on a boat. A boat bound for the sort of surreal splendor that for most of us had only been real in brochures and screensavers.

Katie Widner holds a glass of chardonnay aboard the Jewel of the Bay junk boat on Ha Long Bay. Photo by Don Stefanovich

Shenanigans and exaggerated Germanic accents were to ensue.

We were high on life.

Even the admiral seemed relaxed.

And so it was. After all the hard work, we had won our just reward. We feasted on food we weren’t afraid of, served in courses that seemed never-ending. We explored the alveolate limestone caves inside one island, lit up like Disneyland. We hiked to a pagoda atop another island. We kayaked and swam. We drank wine on the deck late into the night surrounded by the shimmering lights of other boats at anchor. We slept for a few short hours in the tiny cabins.

Then it was over.

As our bus bounced lazily back toward Hanoi there was a knot in my back and a pit in my stomach.  I attributed at least half of my dilemma to the poor ergonomics prevalent in today’s mass transit.

The other half seemed to stem from the growing realization that it would all be ending soon: our adventures; our time together; our detachment from reality and what may or may not be waiting for us back in the sun-soaked reality of the Southland.

That pit would grow, exacerbated by the increasing pressure and decreasing distance as our plane descended toward Los Angeles international.

But hours before we landed in L.A., hours before we camped out in Narita airport, we wandered the streets of the communist capital one last time.

Some of us bought last minute souvenirs. Some of us ate one last meal. Some of us drank one last beer. Some of us sent postcards. Some of us said goodbye.

All of us will always have Hanoi.

About Don Stefanovich