“A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.”-Madeleine L’Engle
For the life of me, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with me today. I literally cannot stop talking. I’ve worked my way up and down the aisles of the bus like a politician hungry for votes asking everyone where they are from and what they do for a living.
I must have said, “Hi, my name is Eric and its nice to meet you”, to every single person on the bus and we haven’t even left the parking lot yet. It’s so strange. I never ever get like this. I’m typically quiet and somewhat reserved and I tend to keep to myself whenever I’m around a big group of rowdy backpackers like this, but today I want to know everything about everyone and I have no idea why.
As I’m talking to a group of Argentinean guys in the back of the bus about the River Plate-Boca Juniors soccer rivalry, which takes place in their hometown of Buenos Aires, we were interrupted by our Vietnamese tour guide. He stands up and announces, “My name is Tuan, but you can call me Snake.”
Then he smiles slyly and swivels his hips like he’s at a Chippendales audition.
Snake’s playful gyration and smile is infectious and even though he’s only 5’2 his energy is bigger than the bus. After the laughs and catcalls die down he pulls out his clipboard and starts going over our itinerary for the next two days.
I have somehow stumbled out of the fog and funk I was in when traveling through Russia and China and landed into a dream project in Vietnam.
I guess there really is something to be said for not giving up. More specifically though, the hostel that I’m taking photos for this week also happens to run a tour company out of their lobby. Their headlining tour is a two-day backpackers booze cruise through the picturesque waters of Ha Long Bay.
I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did Ha Long Bay would certainly be at the top of it. It has always been a dream destination of mine and I would have paid full price to go see it even on my shoestring budget. It was first listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its, “outstanding, universal aesthetic value.” The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles that have formed over the past 500 million years. Each limestone island is topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean.
There is something magical about the labyrinth of channels and the mist that rises off its waters in the early morning that I just have to see. 500 years ago Nguyen Trai praised the beauty of Ha Long Bay in Lộ nhập Vân Đồn, in which he called it, “rock wonder in the sky.”
The serenity of the bay and an alcohol filled romp through it seem to go together like peanut butter and tuna but at this point I’ll take what I can get.
When Toi, the owner of the hostel, told me about the tour company he runs I perked up and quickly hatched a plan. “Toi”, I said, “if you can get me a complimentary seat on the next tour to Ha Long Bay I will put together an amazing film for you that you can use to promote your booze cruise.”
Toi looked me over like I had a hidden agenda, which of course I did, and then he quickly agreed. He found space for me on the next bus out of Hanoi and so here I am. Or should I say, here we are. Eight scruffy Argentinean backpackers, three Australian couples, two British girls, a few sets of Dutch, Danish and Norwegian couples, one Japanese traveler, myself and of course our fearless leader Snake. We’ve got about a four-hour bus ride to the Quang Nihn Province in Northern Vietnam ahead of us and all I have to do in exchange for the trip is to film it.
Here’s the kicker, I’ve been told that in order for me to get the full experience, I need to act as though I’m a backpacker and not a filmmaker. Toi wants me to kayak and swim and insists that I jump off the roof of the boat with a beer in my hand at sunset. He wants me to dance, play drinking games and of course party all night long.
I’m not much of a drinker anymore, but who in their right mind could turn all that down?
After Snake finishes going over the itinerary I work my way back towards the front of the bus with my camera in hand. I sit next to Dan, an Australian electrician, and immediately notice something peculiar that I felt compelled to ask him about. Why has he packed so many bags of potato chips? It’s only a two-day trip and he has a plastic bag the size of a garbage bag with him. The bag itself has its own seat and it’s got to have at least 9 or 10 bags of potato chips stuffed inside it.
Typically this is just the kind of thing I’d normally ignore and I’d head to my seat and put my ear buds in and listen to a podcast or something, but for some reason I just can’t stop running my mouth today.
As Dan starts in on his explanation he can’t help but chuckle, “I was buying a few bags of crisps for the bus ride and the Vietnamese women working in the store came over to me and said, “buy 8 get one for free.””
Dan’s buddy affectionately chimes in, “You idiot, that cannot be a real sale, you’re the only person dumb enough to believe her.”
“So this little Vietnamese lady just started stuffing bag after bag into my cart and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t say no. At one point I had seven bags piled up and it was like if I just buy one more then I get the next one for free.”
Then Dan holds up his garbage bag full of potato chips like he’s just caught a five-foot long trout and says, “So I ended up with nine bags of crisps and I didn’t know what to do with them so I brought them all on the trip!”
Everyone in the front the bus erupts into fits of laughter and since I haven’t even cracked a smile lately this becomes the funniest thing I have ever heard in my entire life. I just can’t imagine a sale of any kind where it is buy eight and get the ninth free, let alone one for Vietnamese potato chips. In Dan’s defense I can’t imagine him not taking the chips on the trip because he would have then had to ask the front desk at the hotel he is staying at to lock them up in the luggage room while he is gone for two days, which when I picture that scenario, is just as hilarious to me.
Dan has clearly been hustled by this sweet little Vietnamese lady. I know the feeling well so his story has nearly got me in tears.
Its one of those types of tales that as he retells it a second and third and fourth time seems to only gets funnier. By the third time through he’s added in a few more quirky details that push me over the edge. I’m hunched over and panting and grabbing my sides to keep them from exploding. As I’m laughing along with everyone something strange begins to happen.
I’ve been so isolated the past three months while crossing Russia and China because of the language barrier that I’ve kept my mouth all but shut. By the last week in China I was so fed up with it all that I had officially zipped my lips and thrown away the key.
It’s not like there are people for me to talk to in the areas I travel to anyway. In the places I’ve been to lately I haven’t seen many tourists or backpackers like me. The extent of the conversations I’ve had lately are only with the hotel staff I’m working with, which usually revolve around me asking them what kind of photos they want me to take of their property. Those conversations are usually painful and never last more than two minutes.
At one of the hotels I worked with in China last week they asked me to transfer the photos I took onto their USB drive. When I opened up the USB to transfer the files I saw a folder called, “English scripts.”
I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I couldn’t resist. I had to click it open.
What I saw was a list of basic questions that hotel guests like me might ask. For example, “Hello, how are you?” or “Where can I get my laundry done?” Each question had a basic one line response below it for the hotel staff to memorize and so it started to make sense why the second any of my conversations ever went off the script they ended so abruptly.
Lately, I’m beginning to wonder what I am I even doing this for. I didn’t come all this great distance to be alone and miserable and to not talk to anyone. I didn’t come to China to butt heads with the Chinese, so if that’s how it’s going to go then what’s the point of it all?
While I haven’t wanted to quit, I haven’t exactly wanted to keep going either. Christmas was awful. The long bus rides have lost their luster, scenic train rides have lost their charm and I’ve seen enough churches, temples and cathedrals to last many a lifetime.
I have set out to travel the world without airplanes with the only intention to create things that I love to create. The problem is that I’ve become so focused on creating that I’ve taken my eye off the prize, which is moments just like this.
Not only have I been keeping people at arm’s length, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually laughed, like really laughed a sidesplitting laugh like this.
As Dan tells the same story over again I can literally feel the “life” that’s deserted me lately begin to course through my veins again. It’s as though Dan’s a doctor and his silly story is an injection of some type of mysterious rehabilitating serum into my system. As I’m laughing uncontrollably I can feel this serum slide down my shoulders and up my arms like syrup. Then, as it seeps through my core, my heart begins to flare up and drum to a new beat.
Each time I laugh it burns away a bad memory of the past few months and reminds me why I’m even doing this in the first place. For me, travel has always been about the people, not the places and that’s what I’ve forgotten lately. Buddha once said, “Happiness never decreases when being shared.”
This is why I can’t stop talking today. I want to share this journey with someone, anyone, and I haven’t been able to do that for a very long time.
Here I am on a bus that’s bouncing towards my dream spot, the sun is shining, I’m surrounded by wonderful people from all over the world, I’ve got my camera on my lap and I haven’t had to pay a dime for any of it. I’ve worked so hard to get here and if I can’t enjoy this, then I can’t enjoy anything.
Somehow I found my resolve. Maybe it was when I kept putting one foot in front of the other to get across Russia and China even though I didn’t necessarily want to.
I look out the front window of the bus and I think that perhaps the open road is in fact where I belong. It is in this happiness I suppose that I fall back in love with the journey itself.
As I keep laughing I can’t help but think, I hope this never ends!