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My Vietnam Adventure
by Minette Seate

Saturday, March 11, 2006
Besides the crazy 12 to 14 hour days we've been working, the FOD had been up and at it as well. We're all really looking forward to our day on the water. Ha Long Bay is a popular tourist spot where huge wooden ships fill up with passengers for day trips. There are nearly 2000 of the so-called islands peppering the bay and they look more like strange teeth shooting up out of the water than any island I've ever seen. Some are massive, concealing giant caves that whole tourist groups disappear into. Others are no larger than a picnic grove at a public park.

All thoughts of swimming, kayaking and sunbathing disappear however with the 7am wake up call. It is as dark and misty and rainy as any March day at home. We swap our sunny day clothes for windbreakers and head for the buses that will take us to the docks.

There are so many people at the docks it's not even funny. I guess this bay is pretty close to China and there are hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese tourists to prove it. And like any good tourist attraction, there's a t-shirt stand only minutes away from where you board the boats. Which is good, because I've promised a lot of souvenirs to the folks back home, and I'll grab most of them here.

When we've finally pushed away and made it into open water (as open as you can get when there are 20 boats as big as yours just a few hundred feet away), you can see what an awesome sight these little islands are. In the heavy fog, it's like a scene from "Lord of the Rings." I truly expect a sea serpent when I hear a knock on the window next to where I'm sitting. Instead, there's a young woman with a tiny girl who's rowed a little boat up to ours and is selling bananas and mangoes. I can't believe the baby isn't slipping around, but she's got her sea legs and seems to be as comfortable on the boat as I am in high heels.

Damn, talk about enterprising. In all this mist and wetness, they're still selling enough produce to make the guys in the Strip District proud. And though we do have some downtime lulling around the water, there are still three interviews to be done before we get back to land. See, this is it, our last day out. Tonight we make another arduous drive back to Hanoi to stay in one more beautiful hotel, which I hope to reach before all the restaurants inside it close for the night.

Everyone's in good spirits considering how tired we all are. A lady in the back of the boat is selling pearl necklaces and bracelets, strung by the same women who sell the fruit. And there are gorgeous silk robes with fearsome dragons embroidered on the back, for sale as well. We're treated to a mini fashion show when Boone and Chris decide they have to see which robe fits them best.

After the interviews are done and the captain turns the engines back on to head us back to shore, I wonder about these people, if I'll ever see them or this country again. It's something I feel you really can't appreciate without taking the proper amount of time, but at the same time I'm amazed by how much ground we've covered. I wonder what the boys are feeling as the trip winds down. They never thought they'd see this place again, especially not as the subject of a PBS documentary. I think everybody's pretty happy but it's hard to imagine what they must be thinking. How do you reconcile a place filled with so many images of death and destruction with what they've just experienced in the passed week?

What will they tell their families about this trip and the feelings it's dredged up? I realize how lucky I've been in my life, never to have had to scrabble for food or wonder if I'll live through the night or shoot someone who's done me no harm. I know that I've experienced something extraordinary and unforgettable. And someday, I hope to make my own return to Vietnam.