Hiep, our guide made us laugh. Will and I mocked his new girlfriends’ unusual name, as we did everything, and competed to find the best pun associated with a word. As funny as Hiep was, he struck a nerve when he unknowingly joined our competition.
‘So, I’m taking Storm to the sea,’ he said when she introduced herself.
We’d spent two hours driving along Vietnamese highways which had less traffic than the motorways I was used to back home. It was a standard minibus, but the air outside scorched concrete and the air conditioning made everything feel luxurious. Will and I caught up with each other and discussed old times, as storm and I got to know each other. Until now, all she knew about me, was whatever Will told her and what she’d read in the fictional novel I’m writing.
We parked at the entrance to the docks. Stepping off the bus for the first time felt like walking fully clothed into a sauna with a broken thermostat. It was a long walk, but Hiep assured us the boat also had air conditioning. Sweat poured from my forehead. I stared around the rest of our tour group, but no one looked as though they struggled as much as I felt I did. Storm and Will assured me they were also sweltering in the sun.
Aboard the boat, we settled with a chilled beer and watched land drift away in the distance. Selfies and smiles were abundant as emerald waves crashed against the hull. The limestone mountains and luscious vegetation surrounded us, as the breeze on the top deck cooled us: the view, the beer, the catch-up with an old friend and his new girlfriend, luxury.
Before lunch, Hiep led a traditional Vietnamese cookery lesson in the deck below. An intriguing experience, except there was no cookery involved. Laid on tables were squared sheets of rice paper, sliced vegetables, and pork with a soy dipping sauce garnished with chopped chilli and coriander. It was more of an excuse to snack on a Vietnamese staple than it was a culinary education, but it was a great experience and a break from the beer cans swimming in a pool of lukewarm water and melting ice.
Our boat moored to a small wooden structure with a canopy and kayaks floating. Hiep explained that we could kayak alone or in pairs, but if anyone didn’t feel confident kayaking, there was a larger boat available with a professional to ferry the group around the bay. Will and Storm shared a kayak, but I’d never kayaked before and didn’t know how to row myself around the bay.
‘Excuse me,’ Strom said, pulling a stranger sporting sandals and Hawaiian shorts towards us. ‘Are you going out alone?’
‘Yes,’ the man replied with a thick French accent.
‘Would you mind if my friend joined you? Storm asked.
‘Not at all,’ the Frenchman said.
Will and Storm were helped into a kayak and rowed from the dock, waving as they drifted into the emerald lake. The Frenchman and I lowered ourselves into a kayak, as it rocked and splashed. It had looked easy with my feet planted firmly on a sturdy wooden structure.
‘Have you kayaked before?’ the Frenchman asked.
‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘Just follow my lead.
The bay looped around a large limestone rock which shaded us from the looming sun. A cool breeze blew over us, and water splashed against us as oars crashed beneath the surface. The Frenchmen lead the way, rowing and stopping to gaze in awe at the natural beauty of our mountainous surroundings. We dipped our hands in the freshwater below and watched the blue-sky merge with the green limestone mountains.
We lapped around the rock — the kayak floating in stillness. The lake below lay calm until we drove our oars through the surface. Silence surrounded us. We drifted through peace and beauty until we moored our kayaks and stood beneath the sun to dry off.
Back on board, Hiep announced it was time for a swim. Excitement buzzed around the top deck. People smiled and stripped down to their swimwear. The sun still loomed above, and we felt the intense heat despite the breeze blowing off the quiet bay.
People leapt from the top deck of our boat. Bodies crashed into the water below. Relaxed and floating in the clear green water, they called out for the rest of the group to join them. Some hopped over the roped barrier and jumped without thinking, some paused and contemplated their dive before taking the plunge. One by one, the boat emptied, and the tour group met in the lake below.
Storm jumped, and the crowd cheered. Will jumped, and the cheers grew louder. I climbed over the rope and stared at the water, eager to jump but a little fearful of the 6-foot drop from the top deck. A girl, a few years younger than me, shivered and gripped the rope behind us until her knuckles paled. She turned to me and let out a nervous smile. I smiled back, and we both let out a deep breath.
‘Close your eyes,’ I said. ‘Before you know it, you’ll be in the water.’
The girl summoned a deep breath and slowly forced the air out, closed her eyes and stepped off the edge of the boat. Seconds later, she disappeared below the surface and re-emerged laughing to greet the cheering crowd.
I pushed back against the ropes and looked out at the bay. People called out for me to jump. Will and Storm relaxed in the water and waved at me. It was my turn to breathe and close my eyes. The air washed over my body before my head sank below the water. My body kept falling, and I waited to feel the ground, but when I tried to push myself up there was no earth beneath me. I opened my eyes beneath the water. White waves rushed towards the surface. Struggling to breathe, I flapped and tried to scramble towards the surface.
My head poked above the surface. The crowd cheered my emergence as I grasped for the air. The crowd cheered again, and another body splashed into the waves. I flapped and kicked, trying to find my way towards Will and Storm. I glanced back; the boat seemed a mile away. The people appeared smaller aboard the ship, but they always felt close. Mileage separated me from them, and our transport. Stranded.
‘Will,’ I called, trying to keep calm, and not embarrass myself in front of a group of laughing strangers who’d accompany us back to Hanoi.
Will didn’t respond, and Storm called after me to join them in the distance.
I called out again before I slipped underneath the water. I kicked and splashed and clawed my way back to the surface, fighting against the still water. ‘I can’t swim,’ I called, but my splashing and the distance drowned out my call for help.
Will didn’t move. I turned and tried to drift towards the boat, but the water pulled me under as I fought to keep myself afloat.
‘What’s up,’ Will said, gripping me underneath my arms.
‘I can’t swim,’ I said. Will laughed. ‘I’m serious, help me get back to the boat before anyone sees me.’
‘It’s a bit late for that,’ Will said, hauling me towards the boat. ‘You can help by swimming at any point,’ he said.
‘I’m trying,’ I said. Every kick and every wave of an arm felt heavy like I was trying to clear a mountain from our path.
Will pushed me into the ladder swinging from the deck. I gripped the metal and hastily climbed onto the boat. ‘I might jump again,’I said.
‘I won’t save you this time,’ Will said. ‘I’m exhausted.’
Will turned and swam towards Storm who seemed closer now I was safe aboard the boat. I paced towards the back of the top deck and hid away in a corner away from those who hadn’t jumped but watched the crowd laughing and floating around in the water. What must they have thought of me? I believed I could swim, but I couldn’t reach the floor like I could in the deep end of my local pool and panicked. It had been a while since I last went swimming, let alone in a bay deep enough to engulf our entire double-decker boat if it sank.
The crowd slowly began swimming towards the boat and climbing aboard. I readied myself for the laughter and quiet stares aimed in my direction, but no one seemed to notice, or if they had, they didn’t care. My travel companions, however, were full of joy as they swayed towards me, soaked and ready to remind me of my stupidity.
‘If you can’t swim,’ Storm said, smiling, ‘why did you jump from the top deck of a boat?’
‘I forgot I couldn’t swim,’ I said.
‘How does anyone forget they can’t swim?’ Will asked.
‘I haven’t been swimming since I was a kid, and it was easy back then when I could feel the ground and push myself back up if I started sinking.’
‘I bet you need a beer,’ Will said, as a Vietnamese man carrying a cool box approached us in our corner.
I nodded, and the man handed us three cans with a red star. The teasing continued as we drifted through limestone mountains. The rocky structures began spacing out, and the opened waters returned. We laughed and joked and spoke about the day’s events. Kayaking in paradise. The jump from the boat. Maybe we should do it again, I’d said.
‘Maybe you should learn to swim first,’ Will said.
‘I’ll teach you,’ Storm said. ‘Then we can come back next year, and you can enjoy floating in the beautiful water. Everything felt so far away. It was so peaceful, despite the crowds.’
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ I said, as the boat pulled into the docks.
We stepped off the boat, and the blaze struck us. Humidity replaced the cooling watery breeze. We rushed towards the minivan, desperate to feel cool again. Everyone murmured about the heat, and how much they missed floating in Ha Long Bay. I vowed to learn to swim. Will and his new girlfriend were adamant that I’d missed out, but that long walk to our coach in the sweltering humidity destroyed any conviction I may have had. I just wanted to feel cold. Whether it was in the water or sitting beneath the coaches air conditioning. Nothing mattered. The heat was too much. I’d have happily jumped again.