Finding Peace in Vietnam

How kayaking through Vietnam changed one writer’s life

by Jan Goodwin
A Vietnamese junk navigates Ha Long Bay, which is known for its majestic seascape.
Photograph: Photo: Harf Zimmerman

But kayak we did, working our way through steep gorges edged with ferns, wild orchids and bamboo. Out on the Nang River, we kayaked the Puong Cave. At 1,000 feet long and almost 100 feet high, the cave, I’m told, formed ages ago, after an earthquake shook the area. It felt like a scene from Fantasia, with some 10,000 bats and clouds of dancing, whirling white butterflies. I took a moment to reflect on the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Now in his eighties, he’s spent much of his life teaching people how to deal with anger. Here in this otherworldly place—an ecosystem that may exist only because a disaster occurred—I thought of the proverb he so often cites: No mud, no lotus.

The Art of Optimism
We left Ba Be for Hanoi, a city that celebrates its thousandth anniversary this year. The capital was initially overwhelming: It has 6.5 million people and almost as many mopeds. They occasionally collide, but there is no road rage or finger pointing. When an accident happens, each party assists the other up, bows and dusts the other off. Now, there’s a form of conflict resolution we should all consider adopting.

For an oasis of calm in the old city, Hoan Kiem Lake is the place to be at 5:30 in the morning. It’s surrounded by colonial architecture, with stools around the edge of the lake for meditation. Weight equipment is left out for public use. As the sun began to rise, large groups of men and women practiced Tai Chi or aerobics. In the group I joined, the youngest participant appeared to be in her twenties, and the oldest, possibly 90.

Behind us, the mist rose off the lake, and feathery willow trees and Phuong Vi (flame trees) bent to the water. Workout done, my fellow exercisers bustled over. “Good life,” they chuckled, patting my stomach. I have never seen as many 18-inch waists as there are in Vietnam.

By 7 am, I made my way to a row of outdoor cafés that overlooked the pagoda temple in the middle of the lake for an avocado and crab apple smoothie, a local favorite. Street signs around the capital proclaim Hanoi “The City of Peace.” Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, it seemed those signs could describe much of the country. Despite their loss of more than five million people in the conflict (four million of them civilians), and the three million affected by Agent Orange, the Vietnamese welcome Americans. If they feel any enmity, I couldn’t sense it.

Returning to the U.S., I kept that in mind. I knew that the problems I’d left behind would still be there to greet me. But what would be gone—at least for the most part—was my anger. Typhoons were going to storm through my life; that was a given. But when they did, I’d try to dust myself off, be grateful for the positives around me and find hope in a few wise and true words: “Sometimes in the unluck, there is luck.”

Jan Goodwin’s Vietnam
How to get there
There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Vietnam. I flew on Cathay Pacific from New York to Hong Kong, then Dragonair to Hanoi. But you can find connections through a number of carriers, including Korean Air, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.

Where to stay
My in-country accommodations, including kayaking, hotel stays, meals and other amenities, were planned by Worldwide Paddling Adventures ($3,400; worldwidepaddlingadventures.com). In Hanoi, I recommend the Galaxy Hotel (galaxyhotel.com.vn), on the edge of the city’s Old Quarter. Some of Hanoi’s best silk shops can be found nearby. Check out Khaisilk (011-84-43-825-4237) for the kind of cutting-edge fashions you’d find in Paris or Milan.

Where to eat I had many of my meals aboard a junk, but I can vouch for two of Hanoi’s best restaurants: the Green Tangerine (011-84-43-825-1286), an elegantly restored French colonial villa (reservations are essential), and the Wild Lotus (011-84-43-943-9342), where decorative waterfalls add to the dining experience. — J.G.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of More.

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