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.

Weaving next through a series of narrow inlets, we came across one of the bay’s many floating fishing villages, communities where entire families live in shanties no bigger than 150 square feet. Shacks are mounted on rafts that are supported only by Styrofoam-like blocks; low net fences are erected around the perimeters to stop toddlers from falling in. That the fragile hamlets stay afloat in the vagaries of Vietnamese weather is a marine marvel.

At one village, Vong Vieng, residents came out to greet our Minnesotan guide, Kim McCluskey, by name. A six-foot-three lumberjack of a fellow, with a red beard, Kim is easy to spot among the Vietnamese. In 2003, when he brought his first kayaking tour through Ha Long, he was shocked to find three orphaned girls living on a primitive raft; the roof was a mere sheet of plastic. The two older children, struggling to support the youngest by harvesting oysters, had torn-up feet and bloodied hands. On a good day, they earned 30¢. Kim collected all the spare cash the kayakers had with them and gave the girls some 800,000 Vietnamese dong, or $50. He went on to raise $3,000 back in Minnesota—enough to build the sisters a well-constructed floating home. With the help of his partner, Jean Gendreau, he has since raised enough money to build five schools in northern Vietnam (go to suninmyheart.com to donate; more on Kim and Jean, below).

Stopping to meet the eldest of the orphans, Mai, now 24, I learned that the first thing she and her sisters did with the $50 windfall was buy two more blankets (they had been sharing one). “This home meant so much to us,” she said, speaking through our interpreter.

Listening to her, I felt humbled. The fact that gas drilling was threatening my weekend house angered me, yes. But the reality was, I own a second house. Mai’s entire little home was half the size of my cottage kitchen.

With my problems put into perspective, I was ready to cope when, later that night, a second typhoon warning was issued. We would head inland a few days early to paddle the three lakes and rivers of Ba Be National Park.

Finding Calmer Waters
Forty miles south of the Chinese border, Ba Be is known for its limestone and evergreen forests. For more than 2,000 years, the region’s scattered villages have been scarcely populated by some 2,100 ethnic Tay, most of whom are subsistence farmers or fishermen.

Our eight-and-a-half-hour drive to Ba Be took us through a countryside that was vividly, verdantly green in more shades than one language can name: chartreuse patchwork quilts of rice paddies; shiny lime-green leaves of tea plantations clinging to the edge of mountain slopes, whose peaks dis-appeared into cloud forests; the rich viridian of thick jungle canopy. The roads were thronged with mopeds, whose drivers apparently used their baskets to carry entire farms to market; it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see flocks of ducks, chickens or four or five fat pigs at a time being transported in a single basket. Mopeds, we were told, could even carry the occasional water buffalo.

By early evening, we reached Po Lu, where we stayed at the village chief’s house. The space was sparsely furnished (our beds for the week: mats). But what our host lacked in furniture, he made up for in food. The meals, cooked over charcoal fires, were labor intensive but superb. I never expected to be tucking into a plateful of morning glories, but there I was, eating the trumpet-shaped flowers as if they were spinach leaves (which, once cooked, they resembled). Lunch and dinner came in nine courses, from plates of exotic mangosteen and dragon fruit to traditional seafoods and spiced pork, each dish decorated with vegetables intricately carved to look like ikebana flowers. It’s amazing that we could still fit into our kayaks.

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.

More about Kim McClusky and Jean Gendreau
Kim grew up in inner city Detroit, where there were also few opportunities for him. It was anger that first brought him to Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine in 1965. He’d been a gang member before enlisting, going nowhere fast. “I knew nothing about Vietnam. I didn’t even know where it was,” he told me. 
    A sharpshooter based in the Demilitarized Zone, which experienced some of the heaviest fighting of the war, Kim saw most of his platoon killed. “Fifteen percent of them came back,” he says. Wounded, he returned home with a Purple Heart, a presidential citation, and Post-Traumatic Stress, to a Sixties world that hated “GI baby-killers.” He also brought with him a conviction that the war was unjust.
    Jeanie, who holds degrees in linguistics and nursing but has been a university science writer most of her career, takes up his story. “After the Vietnam war, Kim went from being a hippie living on a commune, abusing alcohol and using LSD, to the deeply compassionate, educated man he is today," she says. "The spiritual growth in this man has been amazing." —J.G.

First Published Mon, 2010-04-26 10:43

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