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

Standing on the deck of a Vietnamese junk, I watched the sea turn from a rich jade opalescence to a turbid khaki, the sky from empyreal blue to threatening pewter. As the wind and the whitecaps rose, the wooden boat began bobbing and weaving. Grabbing hold of a strut, I braced myself.

This was the Gulf of Tonkin, where I had just arrived for a two-week kayaking vacation—a trip I’d planned in search of some healing and quiet. But now a few armed marine police officers warned 10 other passengers and me that a typhoon was headed straight for us. So much for tranquillity.

On the surface, Vietnam may seem like an odd destination for someone in search of peace, conjuring up as it does images of war and unrest in America. But despite our brief and violent shared history, the Vietnamese are hospitable to Americans. And with a population of 88 million living in a tiny sliver of a country (at its narrowest point just over 30 miles wide), they have learned to accommodate one another. Given what was happening in my own life, I knew I could benefit from a people who know how to make the best of it.

For 27 years I’d owned a 19th-century cottage on the pristine Upper Delaware River. This little piece of paradise was my reprieve from the cacophony that is New York City, where I work as a journalist. Kayaking the Delaware, I’d catch glimpses of black bears, deer, wild turkeys and nesting eagles. I’d always thought that one day, when I was gray haired, I’d move to my house full time. I’d tend a garden, write novels and finally pick the peaches off the tree I’d planted years ago instead of flying off to some war zone on assignment. But now my little Victorian home was threatened by a distinctively modern operation: gas drilling.

If the major energy companies had their way, my wild and scenic region could become a toxic industrialized zone mined for its mile-deep Marcellus shale. For months my neighbors and I had been fighting back, but in this David and Goliath battle, my fury at what big business was once again likely to get away with was off the charts. And it didn’t help that my personal trial was unfolding in the midst of widespread struggle in America: After a year of acrimonious town hall meetings, layoffs and housing foreclosures, the very air seemed charged with negativity.

Now, in the very place where I was hoping to restore my equilibrium, a storm was upon us. So instead of paddling around Ha Long Bay, the 580-square-mile archipelago we’d originally been set to explore, I was holed up in my bland hotel room, listening to the wind howl, trying to see the wisdom in the words of our interpreter, Kim Dat, when he said, “Sometimes in the unluck, there is luck.” After two days the typhoon ended, and although it had delayed us, the storm also delivered a benefit: The air was swept fresh of the tremendous humidity that often blankets this country like suffocating wet felt. We were off to kayak.

It Takes a Village
Ha Long’s 3,000-plus limestone islands, hewn into strange shapes by the wind and sea, rise up out of the emerald ocean like mythical animals. One legend has it that the islands were formed by a family of dragons sent down from heaven to defend the land when the country was invaded at the beginning of time. The creatures spat out jewels and jade that turned into monolithic islands, a line of defense for the bay.

Out on the water, dozens of dragonflies followed our kayaks like drops of sea spray, their iridescent wings sparkling in the light. It wasn’t until we slipped into a cave that the tiny insects disappeared. Most of Ha Long’s caverns can be explored only when the tide is low, and it is not an adventure for the claustrophobic. Our headlamps were almost useless as we paddled through a particularly dark and narrow space, and the sense of freedom that flooded us when we came out on the other side, into a private lagoon, was palpable.

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