I don’t like spending money. It doesn’t come naturally and it makes me uncomfortable. I like saving. I like socking money away each fortnight and the feeling of opportunity that comes as the bundle grows. Ironically one of the reasons I like saving, is so that we can do most excellent things, like travel the world for example. Here we are however, travelling the world, and I’m still not entirely comfortable opening my wallet.
But I am getting better at it. Two months into this trip and its starting to dawn on me that this is a pretty special thing we are doing – worth the money. Experiences and time, surely these are as worthy of investment as other pursuits. Rolf Potts in Vagabonding, my favourite book on the philosophy of long term travel, says that:
‘Regardless of how long it takes to earn your freedom, remember that you are labouring for more than just a vacation. A vacation, after all merely rewards work. Vagabonding (long term travel) justifies it.’
Work, I think, has its own purpose and rewards but I take the point.
Why, I hear you ask, am I volunteering these idle thoughts? It is because our trip to Halong Bay lead me to wrestle with such matters. What do I deserve, what is responsible and what is reckless, what is affordable, what matters and why?
We didn’t travel Halong Bay in the manner one might expect from a family trying to eke out 12 months travelling the world. We travelled Halong Bay in style. Lifestyles of the rich and famous style. We decided that if we were going to spend a few days living it up, this was the time and place to do it. It cost twice our daily budget and hence bought me face to face with my own perception of what this year was about and how we are doing it.
A luxury mini-van picked us up from the hotel. Granted it was a well decked out Ford Transit rather than a Mercedes Benz, but it was finished with bling. Purple and white lights lining the roof, leather chairs that would do Qantas business class proud and built in fridges and freezers. You get the idea.
The mini-van however was just the entrée to the main dish. The Dragon Legend of the Indochina Junk cruise line was the main course with its:
‘24 luxury cabins, 4 decks with inside and outside dining areas, a spa, bar, sundeck, swimming pool and other entertainment options. Each spacious cabin is a work of art with Vietnamese traditional hand crafted décor and modern facilities, a private bathroom includes a bathtub and big sea view windows. Dragon Legend cruise offers dramatic public spaces, impressive open air dining and a bar that definitely makes for a relaxing trip in the bay.’
Yep, it was all that. I particularly liked the cabins. One for Amy and Oliver and one for Emma and I. They were decadent, with big squashy beds and crisp clean sheets. You could lay down and never want to get up and it was oh so easy just to lie there and watch the islands drift by. I wanted never to leave.
Halong, and the lesser known Bai Tu Long, bays have approximately three thousand craggy limestone islands poking their heads out of the sea. Halong has become the famous sibling, but Bai Tu Long is (apparently) identical, all part of the same landscape, but with less people, boats and plastic floating in the water. This is where we headed.
Lunch was served, as soon as we got underway, in the outdoor dining area. Kenny, our host for the three days, strategically sat us next to a family from the US. Ryan and Kami and their children Sage and Indy turned out to be kindred spirits and we were soon happily chatting and enjoying the company of more new friends. As you will have seen from the previous blog we spent more time with them back in Hanoi and then in Hoi An, after the trip.
Kenny by the way, is not Kenny’s real name. By his own admission, Kenny’s Vietnamese name was all but unpronounceable to western tongues (it really was – I tried). The rest of the crew either voluntarily or otherwise followed his lead, going by the names of Harry Potter, James Bond, David Beckham and the like. Harry Potter was, funnily enough, also a magician and thoroughly impressed us all with his post dinner card tricks.
As we ate course after course of delectable Vietnamese cuisine, the rather unimpressive Halong Harbour turned into the very impressive Bai Tu Long Bay. The density of craggy little islands of ever changing shape and size made it captivating. Everywhere we looked islands abounded, further from view they lose definition but gain different shades of blue, silhouetted off to the horizon.
In the afternoon we kayaked out into the islands. It would have been easy to get lost, but Kenny steered us safely on our way. Back on the ship, Amy and Oliver played hide and seek with Sage and Indy, the boat being the perfect place for such games and with only 18 guests on board there was no-one to complain as they roamed up and down stairs and corridors. Emma and I lay in our cabin or on the sundeck and contemplated how we got so lucky.
And so it went. We cruised on and I was never really sure whether we were headed North, South, East or West. We visited stunningly beautiful tiny floating fishing villages nestled in sheltered inner island coves (where, fortunately, the locals this time were genuinely pleased to host us). We had lunch on a private beach watching smaller cruise boats come and go and we spent more time on board eating and enjoying the view as it drifted past, including from the on-board heated pool. It was super comfortable and we were waited on hand and foot at all hours of the day.
Without wishing to overstate the matter, the experience challenged my perception of how I deserved or was able to travel and where we were at. That we could afford this brief stint of upmarket travel was something of a revelation. That it was ok and the sky wouldn’t fall in was another. That I am no longer, or at least didn’t need to be, a university backpacker living off rice and soy sauce was… liberating. That this sort of a thing may just be why we work hard and choose not to pursue other spending opportunities justified the effort involved in being here. It was wonderful. And I’d do it again.