‘Please, wear your life jacket and your name tag around your neck. That way, you fall in, not my problem’, the guide laughs as we board the ferry, flashing a wide smile that disappears too quickly for there to be any real amusement at its source. An English woman has a question so waves her hand in the air, flapping it up and down like she’s trying to hail a taxi, shouting ‘woo-hoo’. The guide slides up beside her, that smile again, ‘yes, madam?
My cabin is nicer than most of the hotel rooms I’ve stayed in in Vietnam and the simple creature comforts of a proper duvet, a mirror over the sink and an impossibly fluffy white towel give me a thrill of pleasure, intensified by the realisation that I have a flushing toilet and a hot shower all to myself. The disturbing question of where it all flushes away to only momentarily fazes me as I slowly wash my hands with vanilla-smelling soap, running the hot tap the whole time.
Nobody’s up on the front deck of the boat when I get there which is no surprise because it’s drizzling and the deck is slippery. It’s spring which means it’s foggy and cold, just like back home in England.The mist is so low and heavy I feel the weight of it in my lungs and the chill of it settling on my skin in a slick layer of damp – pneumonia weather. I’m the only one on the boat not wearing a water proof jacket and yet I’m the only one who’s outside.
I can’t hear the other guests out here and the quiet is deliciously eerie. Islands sprinkled with green foliage appear for me out of the depthless grey mist, jutting out of water that’s as dark and still as black ice. The islands were honoured with names by ancient fisherman, names like Stone Dog andMonster Face which seemed strange to me before I saw them but I suppose it’s human nature to want to give a thing with personality a name.
My itinerary doesn’t allow for time spent contemplating this supremely weird landscape and humanity’s minute and impermanent place in it so I go to the deck and join the rest of the group for kayaking. Predictably, nobody wants to kayak apart from an Irishman who speaks in jokes, an Italian woman who is irritated that she has to leave her glass of wine behind, and me. The guide responds to this reluctance to water sport by calling the rest of the group, most of whom are in their seventies, lazy. That smile again.
Cold rain, dirty water, a monkey eating a bag of crisps, we splash around in the water as everyone else takes a ride on a small boat through a few uninspiring caves – an excursion that looks from a distance like the most depressing school trip ever.