Snowballing at Halong Bay. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

Snowballing. That is what they call it. When the mind just goes to the unimaginable places. When you run through worst case scenarios, and the next thing you know you’re sittin tall and pretty in a Vietnamese prison or scaling a fence into Cambodia. That is where I am now.

I’m waiting. Waiting to hear if “they” secured a legit Visa. Waiting to hear if I can leave the country. … Leave for Cambodia. Can we please laugh? Cambodia out of all places… Surreal. This is surreal.

I arrived in Halong Bay about two hours ago.

Halong Bay is in North Vietnam, surrounded by untouched coastlines and islands. Limestone rock. Clear blue water. Think Avatar but in the water.

My transport was perfect Vietnam. Perfect. No foreigners. Just me chugging along side of beer drinking, motor-bike riding men. My soul inhaled every second. An adventure for I really had NO idea where I was going. I just kept moving from car, ferry, motor-bike, bus, feet, boat, ferry, boat….until I reached what Handspan Travel calls a resort.

Let me step back and walk you through how I got to Halong Bay. Ha dropped me off at the hotel after we stuffed, crammed and cajoled Christmas presents in a box to be shipped to America via a ship. This took over an hour.

I had about twenty minutes before my driver was to pick me up to start my three, four or five hour journey to Halong Bay – depending who you asked. I perched myself on a one-foot stool outside our hotel and watched the world go by. I get why men and women can sit for hours on a sidewalk in this country. This place is sensory overload and pure entertainment. Much better than Mad Men, Price is Right or the Amazing Race.

A V-nam policeman in one of those nasty green uniforms was approaching. The rank color of his uniform and sour expression caught my eye. He looked about 21. And, he wore his angry proudly. Like a badge of honor.

He was searching for his prey. With each step, his eyes darted to V-nam to V-nam finding who was in violation of whatever the rule was for the day. He spied her. Unlucky for me, she was sitting a few feet away. He did not notice the tall, white Westerner. His legs picked up the pace. And, bee lined for the older woman sitting on her hind legs – you all know the yoga pose that kills your Achilles…that one.

Her bamboo basket was full of nuts and potatoes for $.15 or $.25. She comes from the countryside to make a living in the big city of Hanoi. Thin frame. Face lined with sun damage and wrinkles. When she smiled, she showed off only a few teeth. Her hands were gnarled, weathered and muscular. Her white shirt was now stained with cooking grease and picked-off dirt. Her brown pants were made out of what looks like burlap fabric. She tied her fashions together with a brown, orange and blue scarf. Worn plastic flip flops encased her tired feet. Clearly, she was out of place among the shop keepers of Hanoi.

I watched.  She smiled at the Foreigners. Please buy. She smiles at the V-nam residents. Please buy. I can feel him approach. Within seconds he was hurling insults and her. He raised his hand and hit her. In the street. Next to me! I’m taken back. What do you do? I stood up.

She looked embarrassed. Mortified. Now, all were watching. She collected her things. Bowed her head and walked as fast as possible. He looked around to receive admiration and respect from his fellow V-nam-ers. But, all he got was coldness. They all just stared at him and turned their heads. They don’t want to be next.

I just stare at him. His eyes settled on me. I could tell he did not see me standing there, but it had little impact.  He probably believes he was protecting me. And I have to wonder. Is his assault because of me? I reported a crime on this street. Now, I see street patrols everywhere. Is the word out. Foreigner’s passport and visa was stolen – look out – the police are watching.

I feel sick to my stomach for an old woman from the countryside was not the thief. She’s the target. And easy victim. I bet it was a V-nam teen on drugs. A rich kid. Not a poor peasant. I inhaled. Exhaled. Tried to comprehend what I saw. And, understand that I had no power to do anything. I asked God to protect her.

Off to Halong Bay…

The driver picked me up and I settle in for a good 3 hours of bad driving to a flat-bed boat for motor-bikes. I later found out my driver was a bus driver in his previous life. That is why we did not pass trucks and yielded to motor-bikes. I wanted to pop him along side the head and tell him to move it. Slow drivers KILL me.

I’m typing away to distract me. I mean we are moving at a snails pace. I look up. We are in ship yards, passing by hundreds of thousands of containers. There is no tour bus or foreigner in sight. No one. Where in the hell are we? Is the driver lost? He picks up the phone. Talks. I try to make out any hint of stress in his voice. Nothing. We are not lost. I can not believe any travel agency would take foreigners out here. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos – V-nam style. My time is numbered.

We make a slow left down another dirt, rocky road. Yep, this is the place they shoot people. We slow down next to a makeshift hut on the side of a ship yard. Looked desolate. This is NOT a ferry station. No dock in sight. Men – only men. There’ all sitting on foot stools smoking cigs and drinking beer. Staring at me. I’m staring at me too.

My driver hands me my bag. Points to another hut with words and set’s off in that direction. I follow. But, he motions for me to stay. Great, now I standing in the middle of ten beer guzzling V-nam motor-bike men. Just standing. I stare at them for they are staring at me. Stare game is on. What seems like 3 years later, my driver reappears with a cig in his mouth and a ticket. He points down the road.

I guess that is were the ferry is? He nods. I motion do leave now? He shakes his head. Wait. I sit down. He goes over to the car and gets on his phone. Why do I think we are in the wrong place. The only thing keeping me sane is we are near a canal. Water. About an hour later, a put-put boat pulls up . It’s a flat bed boat for motor-bikes. And, another small hut for people. This is the ferry? Ferry for foreigners. Think again. Loving this adventure for I’m so at their mercy.

All of a sudden the men jump to their feet. The must have heard a bell. Or, one of those silent signals only certain species can hear. They finished their beers, start their motorbikes and leave me in the dust. The driver points. And, motions to me to follow on foot. I do.

He picks up my bag. Together we navigate the rubble and dirt roads to the mini-ferry boat. By the time we arrive, the motorbikes are on and everyone is waiting for tallgirl.

I get on the boat. Only one seat left up front. Everyone is quiet. Staring at me. Gosh, I hope I don’t trip or burb or fart. They’re look is of “what are YOU doing here?” This type of scrutiny is unnerving. It’s like I’m in a freak show – what will the white, tall woman do? Will she sit? Drink water? I decide to sit.

The motor starts and we are off. I think to myself. Wait… I did not ask for details of this transport. I’ve been so consumed with Visa, passport and money – that I have NO idea the name of my final destination. It’s in Halong Bay.

But, it like saying, I’m going to swim in a lake in Central Florida. I just hope and pray I can figure this out. Calling all travel angels again. They must be resting for I’ve kept them occupied these last few days. So, I settle in and just wait.

We putter on. About an hour later, we arrive at another desolate ferry stop. I stay on the ferry. Not sure if this is my stop. I show the ticked to the boat driver. He motions to me to get off – NOW. I did. No one is there waiting for me. There are NO foreigners. Just V-nam men on their motor-bikes. I walk over to the ticket lady. Show her my ticked. She smiles and motions this is the place.

But, the place to do WHAT? I’m to hop on a bus. There are four buses sitting in the dirty parking lot. Now what. I breath. I walk around and take pictures. I will give it 15 to 20 mins and then ask to use someone’s cell phone. I have Ha’s phone number. I watch the people. Someone caught an octopus. They are playing with it now. Guess, it’s super for later.

I wait. Take pictures. Wait. Give it another 10 mins. Then, another 10 mins. I figured no harm in calling Ha. I reached for some Vietnamese dollars. I look around and I’m down to three people. Octopus players and me. Then I heard some loud voices. A man in blue appeared. He is staring at me and saying loud things. I smile. He motions for me to follow. I do. Love how I just follow people I can’t communicate with. He points to the four buses. I smile. I stop. I mean, which bus. He grabs my hand and walks me to the red bus. Red is my favorite color. YEA for me. He points. I get on. I smile. He grunts. Clearly he had to deal with foreigners before… I sit down. No one is on the bus. I just wait. Wait. And, wait.

Within in 20 mins, the bus is bombarded by heard of Vietnamese families, teens and elderly. Packed in minutes. And, we’re off. The scenery is amazing. Limestone mountains standing tall in the bay.

Winding through small villages. Doors and windows open. Families sitting on the floor eating rice. TV playing in background. Kids playing outside. The world marches on. The bus starts to make random stops. People get off. Where do I get off? I decided I’m not moving until I see lamp post lights. Electricity. Need to see electricity. I’m sure my resort has electricity. Little did I know…

We arrive at a mini-town. Looks like a fishing village. Outdoor restaurants. Cafes. Hostels line the street. I’m the last one off the bus. The driver asks, “where you go…where you go..” I respond, “I don’t know…I don’t know…” And, just smile. A man appears in motor-bike helmet. My name is scribbled on a piece of paper. AM-DAY. Yep, that’s me! He smiles. Grabs my arm and leads me to his motor-bike.

Someone how he gets my one piece of luggage on his bike along with my 6 foot bod. We set off. Streets are dark.

We zoom along the bay. The moon is full, guiding us. I feel like I should be cold, but I feel warm all over. I look out over the water and think, “Are you KIDDING me? I’m in Vietnam. Riding by moonlight on some RANDOM man’s motor-bike along the water, windy roads, over the mountains to an unknown destination.

I’ve been robbed of an identity. But, right now, feel so rich inside. Overwhelmed with gratitude that I’m here. I mean REALLY. Who is this person? It’s not me – Not the tallgirl who is Ms. Marketer/Communicator worker-bee. Not the person who gets up at 5 am and works until 10 pm. Works weekends. Works and works… Has no life outside of work. Who needed to blow it up big to fill her cup up with joy – again. Well, ladies and gentleman, my cup is being filled. Being replenished. Renewed by a country with a generous spirit and complicated culture….

We stop at a shack. Motor man gets off. Tells me to stay put. He grabs an oar and a life preserver. Tells me to put on the preserver and he will carry the oar. I follow directions. Now, I’m sporting a helmet and life preserver as we jet off again in the dark night. This is a sight.

We make it to another dock. This time we are greeted by an old, delapidated boat with a bamboo canopy. A woman is there to greet me. Not really. She’s giving her husband, the motor-man, the 411 on me. She’s in her Pjs.

Motor-man then grabbed my hand. Looked into my eyes and apologized for his country. I was taken back. What in the world was he talking about? I just smiled. Again. Just smiled. I nod. Then, he said his wife just told him I was robbed. Everything gone. She looks at me with sadness. Motor-men grabs my arms and says, “sorry for you…sorry for you…some of my people are bad… sorry for you… Vientiane good country. Good people. Not all bad. Please come back…” Tears welded up. Am I really going to cry wearing a motor-bike helmet and a life preserver? NO. I smiled. Told him I will be back and jumped on the rickety boat.

The boat driver looked about 90 and no teeth. But, he was strong. He hand cranked the motor and we set off. The only light was the full moon.

He’s navigated these limestone mountains and floating fishing huts for years. I felt safe.

Once again, I pinched myself and thanked God. How am I here? What is it I need to learn? Observe? See? Take with me?

I am so grateful. Even grateful for this experience. God has blessed me with so many angels to carry me these past two days. I was not in control. Still not for I’m in V-nam and NOT Cambodia. My mind keeps saying – you will relax when you get to Cambodia. I have many more hurdles. And, need to hear back about my Visa.

In the meantime, I am puttering through the waters of Vietnam with an old man. He looks at me. Looks at me with a sense of sadness – for me, not him. I get the feeling they are embarrassed by their countryman’s action of harming a foreigner. How much things have changed since Vietnam War. Think about it.

I’m thinking about it all. And, inhaling the air around me. Its one of those times I want engraved in my heart and soul. If I ever loose my short term memory, I pray this day, this hour and those minutes of traveling to Halong Bay will be seared into my soul.

After an hour of puttering, we pull up at the resort. This is a NO star resort. It’s a negative star. Why? No electricity or water. Water tank busted. And, back up generator down.

The resort is on a remote island. I could care less. Ang met me. He led me to my bungalow. Mattress on the floor. Bamboo with holes as a roof. Rustic is a good word. I smiled. Very happy to be hear with Ang and Tour-burn.

I wonder outside my hut to the patio area and order a beer. I’m telling the guys my story. I say the word Visa and my body tenses up. My mind snowballs. I’m trying to act cool. I believe we call this an anxiety attack. I keep talking. I wanted to blurt out to Ang, “Hey. Call Ha NOW and ask for a status on the Visa. It’s 8:00 pm at night. She should have heard something – no word means I’m screwed. CALL NOW…”

Instead, I calmly talked about my ferry trip and wonderful motor-bike ride. They did not notice that I’m having a complete freak out attack inside. By the time I’m finished with my story, my mind has placed me, once again, in a V-nam prison. Irrational, I know. But, the mind can do that to you.

I sip my beer. Sit back. Act cool. And, calmly say to Ang, “Hey, can you call Ha? I’m curious if she heard about my visa. Status?” He said, “Sure. I go now.” He gets up from the table and walks off. I start to over analyze. He’s leaving the table. Not good. Why can’t he talk in front of me? He knows something. I’m screwed.

I strike up a conversation with Tour-burn… “Tell me about kayaking today? What did you see? Do?”

He wraps it up in 45 seconds… You have GOT to be kidding.

I’m looking for a distraction. Give me something here. Anything. I can’t feed off this information. I just smile. Forget it. I just sit in silence. If he wants to talk, fine. But, I’m not doing the work here. I have more important things to think about, like breaking out of V-nam prison.

Minutes pass. No Ang. We are hitting the 10 minute mark. Next is 15 min. Clearly, no visa. I’m starting to make contingency plans. OK. What if I can’t make it to Ho Chi Minh City. Just fly straight from Hanoi to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Wednesday instead. That will work but my CREDIT CARDS and ATM will be resting in Ho Chi Minh at the travel agency. Then, what… It will work. It will work. I have options. Always options. I’m FIIINNNEEE… As Stephanie would say. FFFIIINNNNEEEE.

We’re hitting the 20 min mark. I blurt out to Tour-Burn who is just sitting and staring next to me, “I’m screwed. No Visa. Ang is not back yet. I’m here for the long term… I do LOVE rice….”

He actually agrees with me. Idiot. Doesn’t he know I need reassurance, not agreement. Men can be so clueless sometimes. I smile at him. Shake my head and stare out into darkness. Where was that inner peace. Joy. Nirvana I felt only an hour ago. Gone. I think back willing it to calm me.

I hear Ang behind me. He is silent. Bad. I hear his voice. “Good news! You got the Visa… We are good.” I wanted to scream, “Where have you BEEN? It took more than 20 mins to find out this news??? I mean, I’m at the point of buying a cemetery plot in V-nam.”

Instead, I jumped up and hugged him. No need to freak him out. I thanked him. Thanked his company. And, told him that I was nervous because it took so long. He said, “Oh. Bad reception. And, I got other calls I had to take…” I did not want to hear that because this was all about me. I’m the customer. And, I’m top priority. Let it go—

I felt my body relax. Check another box. Got the Visa. Question now is it real? Who is this “expediting” agency. And, will it work? Faith baby. Faith. I pray for faith. Protection. And, mounds of patience. We’re not there yet. But, we’re getting there. Travel Angels unite! God, just get me to Cambodia.

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