It’s a tricky question, really. It certainly looks old: everything from the pine paneling to the ornate trim of the windows has an attention to detail that doesn’t seem the least bit modern. Then, too, I think of the spot on the upper deck where a piece of trim was coming loose; and right behind us in the lounge is a joint where the lines of the wood on each side aren’t quite flush.
Someone guesses 10 years, someone else guesses 20. Again, our guide laughs, then tells us the ship is only three years old.
“Yes,” he says, “it is brand new. The company built it after the other one sank.”
Suddenly he has our full attention. Sank? Like, in the water? A boat like this? Full of tourists?
“Um,” says our friend Bay, who’s the other paying adult on this particular floating coffin. “Sunk how?”
“Oh no, no, no,” the guide says, still smiling. “In the harbor. The captain put it in too close. The tide went out, the keel broke and the ship sank.”
“Oh!” we all say, bright and cheerful once again. In the harbor. When the tide went out. After the people had left. Well, that’s different then.
The thing is, that night when I wake up to go to the bathroom, I peer out of the tiny porthole over the toilet and notice that the water outside seems awfully—well, high. True, I hadn’t really spent that much time in that particular bathroom during the day, staring out the window and taking measure of the waterline.
But even so, standing there shivering in the middle of the night, peering out of the window at the dark mountains against the midnight sky, my sleep-muddled brain feels relatively certain that, at those few moments I did glance out during the day, I was looking more above the line of the water than along it.
Going back to bed doesn’t help. Curling up under the sheets next to Ellen, I put my head on the pillow and tell myself not to worry, just to relax and go back to the sleep.
The only thing is that my pillow, resting on my mattress, resting on the bed which rests on the floor of our cabin which rests in the lower part of the boat—my pillow acts as a sort of megaphone, magnifying all the sounds of everything below me: the squeak of the mattress, the scrape of the wooden bed on a wooden floor, and, beneath all of that, very quietly, very steadily, this sound:
Glub, glub, glub.
You should know that one of my earliest childhood memories is pulling into the driveway of an old family friend in Pennsylvania after a long drive from Wisconsin. We are there to visit my father’s old parish, but as we pull up to the house, all of us, even me at the age of four, notice the surplus of cars in front of the garage. Some of them are police cars, state cruisers, an ominous sign even if it isn’t dark and you aren’t exhausted from driving all night.
What happens next is more family legend than actual memory: we step into the kitchen of Aunt Cel and Uncle Jim; Jim and a minister friend of theirs step out of a back room and take my father by the arm; quietly, gently, they inform him that both of his parents have been killed in a car accident.
We learn later the accident was frighteningly simple: my grandparents are driving along a rural highway in Northern Wisconsin, my grandmother at the wheel; the right front tire of the car slips off the pavement and onto the gravel; struggling to maintain control, my grandmother steers to the left. The tire comes free and their big old Oldsmobile shoots across the yellow line and into the path of an oncoming tanker truck carrying milk.
A milk truck. Think about that. My grandfather, a small-town kid who went from pushing a broom to being town mayor and president of the local bank, was killed instantly. My grandmother was still alive when the emergency people arrived, but was dead soon after. One minute earlier or twenty seconds later, that truck would have been a half-mile away or thirty yards past, and I would maybe have a memory of Gus and Marie, rather than just a bunch of photographs of two people whose voices I wouldn’t recognize.
I have more memories from that night: almost as soon as we’d arrived at Marcel and Jim’s, we climbed into a friend’s station wagon and started the trip back to bury my grandparents. My brother and I were in the way-back in these little kid-sized sleeping bags. I remember those sleeping bags, how they were half the length of regular ones. I thought they were neat.
Anyhow, I must have slept most of the drive out, because I couldn’t sleep at all going back. And I must have been loud and antsy and asking all the wrong questions, because at one point I remember peering over the back seat and seeing my father twist in his seat, struggling against the headrest as he shouted at me, his voice ragged and wet.
Driving in from the airport in Hanoi, we pepper our guide with a million questions: where should we eat, how do we know we’re not getting ripped off, how much should a good meal cost? He answers everything we throw at him, even though it’s late and the kids are rowdy and he knows we’re leaving for the bay the very next day and none of this will matter.
Beyond that, he offers us two pieces of advice: the first is that, as good as the street food may look, we shouldn’t eat it. Chances our, even our Hong Kong adapted digestive tracts simply wouldn’t be able to handle it.
His second piece of advice?
“Cross the street very carefully.”
This sounds like funny thing to say to two grown people, but once we get into the city itself, we see why he mentioned this: Hanoi driving is insane. Insane.
Imagine the worst traffic jam you’ve ever seen: cars are crowded into a single lane from three different directions, drivers are honking, fenders are inches from bumpers that are centimeters from the wheels of that Mack truck. Congestion is so dense you could walk from one side of the road to the other without touching the ground.
Now imagine that densely knotted corrosion of vehicles is moving at a fair clip.
Now add 10,000 motorcycles—this is not an exaggeration—10,000 motorcycles weaving at high speed through this traffic.
And keep in mind that half of these motorcycles are going the wrong way.
And that a good third of their drivers are texting.
The only things missing from the occasion are alcohol, hard drugs, and water cannons outfitted, Mad Max style, to the top of rusty BMWs.
Intersections are the best part: one day we’re cruising along with our guide, and the driver wants to make a left turn onto a one-lane road. So twenty yards before the turn, he shifts the van into the left land, cruising into traffic. Seriously, he’s so close to the far curb that on-coming vehicles are steering across the yellow line.
Another time, we watch as a man in his twenties straps his one-year old over the gas tank of his moped, nestles his four-year-old on the seat behind him, and pulls out into traffic without even looking to see if there was a car coming.
Seeing this insanity, we decide that Hanoi is perhaps best enjoyed from the single city block upon which our hotel is located. “Look!” we tell the guide “Tons of restaurants! A grocery store! Even a laundry service! Why would we ever want to leave?”
Ha just shakes his head and tells us a trick. “Stick together,” he says, “in one big group. And move slowly. And whatever you do, keep going.”
We try this and it works. Moving steadily is the key: that way, motorcycles can anticipate where you’ll be and zoom by without actually touching you—even if you can feel the heat from their exhaust.
After awhile, it even becomes kind of fun: once you get used to it, you realize there are natural breaks in the the traffic, momentary lulls where a light two blocks away hasn’t yet turned green, or some old lady’s been knocked off her bike and everyone’s stopped to help put the oranges back in her basket.
You might even say that we start to take the traffic for granted. More than once, we step off the curb without really looking, confident that whoever is out there will be keeping an eye on us. Only once are we actually in danger: stepping out of our hotel, we begin to cross to a nearby restaurant when we hear a chorus of “Woooaaaahhh!”
Freezing, we look to our left: three young men, two of them smoking, all of them grinning, sit astride a white moped that’s just come around the corner.
“Sorry!” they call, then roar off down the street.
The crazy thing about Ha Long Bay is not that it’s unimaginably beautiful: it’s not. You can imagine it.
You just can’t believe it’s real.
Or that you’ll ever get to go there.
Made up a karst limestone formations, the legend goes that Ha Long Bay was formed by a dragon who visited and stayed, and all you can see now are the coils rising above the water—1,960 of them, to be exact. Everywhere you turn, you see the climbing steeply out of the smooth green bay, as forbidding and evocative as castles in a fairy tale romance.
Being on the junk only adds to the unbelievableness of the experience (and yes, that is a real world; I’m an English professor, and I should know, so don’t bother looking it up). Our boat is thirty feet long, made of rough-hewn planks stained deep red with a pair of tall canvas sails We chose the smallest boat we could find, and we don’t regret it at all. There are only three cabins, and we occupy two of them. Bay, who’s on vacation from a diplomatic job in Kandahar is in the third, and tolerates us and our kids and the late-night drunken brawls that tend to occur wherever Ellen and I happen to be (it’s just the way we were raised). During the days we climb into sea kayaks and go skimming across the water, exploring quiet coves, floating fishing villages, and limestone caves. Lunch is served with white linen on a deserted beach.
At night we return to the boat to seven-course dinners including sea-mantis in carmelized onion, barbequed goat (tastier than you’d think), and vegetables and fruits carved into exotic water birds and miniature replicas of our very own junk. Our boat has its very own chef, and as much as we love the captain and our guide and the man who makes us Vietnamese coffee every morning with sweetened condensed milk forming a creamy layer at the bottom, the dude we really love is our cook, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Galecki from the old Roseanne Barr show, and who, at the age of 21, has more talent with a sauté pan than Rachael Ray will ever have.
That said, it’s worth noting that the boat itself is hardly up to code by American standards. For one thing, the railing along the top only comes up to Jamie’s waist. And Jamie, of course, is only three. Which means the railing only comes up to Lucy’s thigh, and Will’s knees. Which means falling overboard would take nothing more than, say, tripping.
And, of course, there’s that glub glub glub noise. Lying awake our first night on the boat, I listen to this sound, thinking to myself exactly two things: 1) glub glub glub is exactly the sound milk makes when you pour it out of a plastic jug into the drain; 2) glub glub glub is what the bubble above cartoon boats says when the boats are sinking.
A few years ago I was laying down for a nap one afternoon when a horrifying thought came into my head: if my family were on one of those huge cruise ships in the Caribbean and it started to sink, could I save my family?
After thinking for a while, I came up with a solution: we could jump overboard if we had to, Ellen holding onto Lucy (who was then just a baby) and me holding onto Will.
But then I thought: would we be able to hold onto the kids when we hit the water, or would the impact shake them loose from our grip?
And then I thought: even if we could hold onto them, could a child that small survive hitting water with the velocity you’d build up free-falling four stories from the top of a cruise ship?
Then I thought: what the hell is wrong with me?
Turns out I was suffering from acute anxiety, brought on by a incredibly difficult year that included my return to work after a year-long sabbatical, the birth of my daughter with a mysterious illness it took the doctors months to diagnose, a messy triple search in my department, and the death of a beloved pet that’d been with Ellen and me for 13 years. And too much caffeine.
Once I cut back on the Dr. Pepper (who knew 90 ounces a day was too much?), the anxiety went way down, but even so I spent the better part of a year thinking about my fears and my worries and where they came from and why they wouldn’t go away.
Nine years ago, back when Will was first born, a doctor told us that SIDS happened mostly during the first six months. So, dutiful parent that I was, I spent the first six months of my son’s life, creeping into his room to make sure he was still breathing.
When we passed the six-month mark, I waited for the fear to go away, but it never really did. There was always something to worry about: falling down the stairs, drowning in the swimming pool, getting hit by a car, swallowing a thumb tack.
Consider: my senior year I dated a woman named Marsha for a pretty significant period of time. The next year, while I was in England, Marsha went to bed on April evening and fell asleep. Around 11, a knock on the door woke her up and she answered. It was an old high school friend who invited her to go out for a drive. She did, and an hour later, driving back into town, their car was hit and Marsha was killed.
She’d been in bed. Asleep. How much more safe can you get?
I love the movie The Station Agent, but in it there’s a mother who’s haunted by the death of her child while playing on the monkey bars. One minute the child was fine, swinging happily, then the mother looked away for just one second, and grief became her constant companion. I was—I am—like that mother, only nothing has happened.
Our last stop in Vietnam is Hoi An, a small, historic city on the central coast. It’s a wonderful place, if not a little touristy: the old town is a rabbit warren of narrow streets and old buildings, most of them overpriced (for Vietnam) tourist shops and restaurants. Nevertheless, it still holds a great deal of charm: you can take a boat to a nearby island filled with woodcarvers, and on the 14th night of the new moon, motorcycles and electric lights are banned from Hoi An itself. On those nights, as you wander from corner to corner, all you hear are the shuffle of sandals and the occasional murmur of women singing to the dan bau, the traditional Vietnamese one stringed instrument that was said to be so beautiful that young girls were forbidden to listen to it.
Our hotel is on the beach. It’s a five-star affair, which is sort of embarrassing at first, but then you lay your head down on the pillow that first night and hear the surf crashing on the shore, and you think, “Well, okay. I can get used to this.”
The first morning, the waves aren’t really that big, but the current is strong. Will and his friend Jacob go out and jump over the foam, and every few minutes we have to tell them to move to the right, move to the right, move to the right. But they keep getting pulled to the left by both the waves and the undertow. Even the lifeguards—who spend most of their time chatting in the shade and chatting up the occasional bikini-wearing hottie—seem worried by the phenomenon. Every fifteen minutes or so they come down to the water line and gesture with both arms: right, right, right.
The next few days are calmer. The kids, sunburned to the point where they scream every time they step into the shower, spend most of their time in the shade building sandcastles and catching ghost crabs.
I’m sunburned, too, but I can’t stay out of the waves. I’m from Wisconsin, after all: I never saw the ocean until I was 21, and I’ve only actually had beach holidays twice in my life, the second time being this trip to Hoi An.
I love the waves. I love diving through them as they crash. I love floating on them as they lift me up. I love surfing under them as they pummel toward the shore. I could do this all day long, for ten days straight, breaking only for the occasional Vietnamese coffee and some sort of shower to get the soap out of my eyes. I LOVE this.
Our last morning there, the kids have absolutely no interest in going into the ocean. Which is fine with me: during the night, a front moved in and the waves are huge: standing twenty-yards out in knee-deep water, I let the first two or three break around me and realize they’re actually breaking over me. And I’m 6’2”—6-5 in my favorite sling-backs.
Even so, I stay out there. I dive under the waves, I ride over them. I body surf, laying face down just as they break and letting them glide me to the shore in a churning boil of water and sand and salt.
Every so often, as I come up from a particularly fun ride, I glance toward the beach, wiping the salt out of my eyes and making sure Lucy or Will hasn’t tried to follow me out. When I get tired, I go in for a while, sit with the kids under the umbrella, catch my breath. Then I go back to the waves.
There’s no surprise ending here, of course: it’s always the last wave that gets you, because only then do you get a clue and get the hell out of the water because it’s too dangerous. As this particular wave was coming in, I looked at it and said, “Holy crap, this is going to be fun.” It was huge. The biggest I’d seen yet, like something out of a surfing movie.
And it was fun, for the first three seconds. Then it took my 220 pound body and turned me on my head, slamming my neck and shoulder against the bottom like it was hammer and I was a twisted, slanted, very stupid nail.
I came up coughing and spitting and wondering if my right arm had been torn from the socket or just been broken into a thousand pieces. Struggling toward the shore, I tried to move it. I could, but every time I did, pain shot from my fingertips to my toes and I nearly fell over, gasping.
Collapsing onto the sand, I rubbed my arm and moved it, and waited for the pain to go away. But it didn’t. It hurt so bad, I kept thinking I was about to vomit. And it kept hurting.
Eventually, Ellen went for a lifeguard, who found a doctor, who called a car and accompanied me into town to the hospital for an x-ray. The pain stuck with me pretty much the whole way, right until the very moment the ER doctor stepped into the room, holding the x-ray, and said nothing was broken. Then, suddenly, it was gone.
Before that, though, sitting in that waiting room, filling out the forms, the ER doc asked me what at happened. I told him what I’d been doing, told him how big the wave was, told him how it’d turned me over and pounded the back of my head and my neck on the ocean floor.
When I was done, he just looked at me for a long time, his face that inscrutable, bland expression I get so often from people in Asia (usually at committee meetings). Looking at him looking at me, I suddenly knew how lucky I was: in that instant, I could imagine my spine snapping as I hit the bottom, could imagine the current tugging me out, helpless, as bigger and bigger waves came down over me. Could imagine Ellen and the kids and those stupid lifeguards not even noticing the disappearance of one very big, very sunburned, very sorry white guy.
I finally fell asleep that night in Ha Long Bay. And the boat didn’t sink, of course, and I didn’t drown, and I’m not writing from beyond the grave (though, with my winter beard, I may look like I am). The next morning we got up and went sea kayaking, paddling our boats across 2,000-foot-deep bay, carrying a nine-year-old who can swim, a six-year-old who can swim but is great at panicking, and a three-year old who sinks like a rock every time he steps in water.
Which is pretty stupid, of course. But sometimes you just get tired of being worried. And sometimes it just seems out of your control anyhow, so you do it, and don’t worry about it—or, more realistically, you do it, worry about it at first, then get used to the idea and stop worrying.
Case in point: when I saw our agenda for the Vietnam trip, my eye was immediately drawn to one tiny passage in the middle of all the details about where we’d go and what we’d see. It said: “Transfer to Hoi An via the cloudy Hai Van pass.”
“Ummm,” I said to Ellen. “This doesn’t sound good.”
She read it and rolled her eyes. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“But it’s a pass,” I said. “Passes are in mountains. And it’s cloudy. And clouds are hard to see in. Which means,” I continued, following her into the bathroom where she was trying to flee, “which means that we’re driving in the mountains and we can’t see. Ergo—“
But she was rolling her eyes again. I let it drop.
Then, when we’re in Hue, our tour guide hands out a binder full of photographs of the city during the Vietnam war. They’re fascinating, including shots of buildings and streets that are still standing. It makes the war very real.
At the back, though, is one picture that freezes my heart. It’s called “Hai Van pass.” In the background, you see a gritty army truck chugging up a steep mountain road. In the foreground you see, and I’m not making this up, a human skull planted on a stick.
“Ummm,” I say to our guide. “Isn’t this where we’re going? Like, tomorrow?”
She glances at the picture. “Yes. This is a very beautiful drive.”
I point to the skull, which sports one of those conical Vietnamese hats that you still see on women selling oranges or carrying laundry. “But it’s been improved, right? The road? I mean, it’s not so dangerous anymore?”
She looks at the skull, then at me, and then at the skull again. And frowns. “No,” she says. “It is the same.”
“Isn’t that kind of dangerous then?” I ask. “I mean, we’ve got kids and everything.”
“Oh no,” she says. Then she gestures toward the blue sky. “If the weather is like this, we will be okay. If not, we’ll take the tunnel.”
“It’s that bad, huh? The pass?”
“When it’s raining,” she says, “many accidents. But you don’t worry.”
The next day it’s raining.
“So we’ll take the tunnel?” I say as I climb into the van. “Because of the rain, right? Don’t want an accident or anything, right?”
She and the driver both lean forward, peer at the sky through the windshield. They don’t even consult. “No,” she says. “It’ll be okay.”
When we reach the foot of the mountain the misting has increased to a drizzle, and I stare longingly at the line of cars and trucks heading toward the tunnel. We, on the other hand, veer to the right and begin to ascend. It doesn’t help my nerves any that the driver seems to think the best way to go around hairpin bends is to swerve into the left lane to give himself a better angle on the curve.
Watching the line outside the tunnel shrink below us, I say, “Looks like almost everyone else is going under the mountain.”
She nods. “Only tourists go this way,” she says. “Tourists and gasoline trucks.”
And then she laughs.
And we do too.
Sometimes it’s all you can do.
We make it back to Hong Kong okay, of course. We’re exhausted, but we’ve had fun. Ellen and I are fairly impressed with ourselves: we survived two weeks in a third-world country with three kids, the oldest of whom is still afraid to read Harry Potter by himself.
We crawl into bed, exhausted. The next morning we wake up, feed the kids, start the laundry. And we check e-mail. We have to learn to stop doing this. It never turns out well.
This time is no exception. Our friend Lia broke her wrist ice-skating backwards. But that’s not the half of it. Not even a tenth. Not even a thousandth.
Lia’s mother has a boyfriend named Jack, an affable guy who’s a little bit deaf but a sweetheart with the grand kids. Jack has a daughter who’s Lia’s age, who was a friend of hers, actually, growing up on Long Island. Not a close friend, really, but a friend nonetheless. This daughter has a husband, Jeff, and they have a little baby, Margaux, who’s only just one.
They—the daughter and her family—teach at an international school in Africa. Over Christmas, they decide to takes a vacation, booking rooms at a resort just outside Mt. Kenya National Park. One morning they wake up, they take their showers, they get dressed. They go down to the dining room and have breakfast—toast with marmalade, maybe, and fresh orange juice with slices of pineapple on the rim. The baby eats cornflakes or bits of scrambled egg her mother feeds her with a spoon. One of the serving ladies pauses at the table, laughing at the mzungu baby, who laughs back.
Afterwards, the family goes for a walk. A guide accompanies them—hotel policy—but he carries no gun; you’re not allowed to so close to a national park, and with poaching so prevalent.
For a while they stay out in the open, looking at ants and mushrooms, taking photos of the baby as it squeals in its carrier. Then it starts to rain a little, and they move toward the brush. They come to a bend in the road. The guide peers around. Then he starts to shout. They run. Behind them, a mother elephant charges, protecting, it believes, its calf. Our mother, Jack’s daughter, Lia’s friend, Jeff’s wife, mother of Margaux, baby Margaux, who’s only just one—our mother slips and falls. She is holding the baby.
A milk truck. A wave. A scooter. An elephant. Popeye’s ship going glub, glub, glub.
Some things you can’t imagine.
And then there are things that you can.
You just never imagine they’ll happen to you.