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The compact dirty white van left the tourist choked streets of Hanoi, Vietnam’s French Quarter early in the morning. We were a group of 10 strangers bound together by our desire to see the turquoise beauty of Ha Long Bay, and its breathtaking limestone islands thrusting out of the waters. We were also cheap, backpackers looking to save money but desperate to spend 3 days living on a boat, cruising the pearl culturing backwaters of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage site, and exploring the natural caves dotting the area. Sixty eight dollars was a lot to us for two nights on the boat, three meals a day, and an English guide. Sixty eight dollars almost cost all of us our lives.
What you get for 68 Dollars
Seagulls screeched as the van jerked to a stop at the crowded fishing port near Halong City. The harbor was oddly full, tourists milling around watching the sea, the sky and the ever increasing number of groups ruining each others once in a lifetime trip. “Wait right here and I’ll see what’s happening.” Our guide jumped out of the van leaving us to sweat with the air conditioning turned off.
Twenty minutes later and he was back. He pulled open the sliding door with a forced smile. “I’m not sure if we’ll be able to leave today,” he confessed. Before he could get another word out the van erupted from the back as two French girls started yelling.
“What do you mean?” They never gave him a chance to answer. “We paid good money for this trip and I’m not getting screwed by you.” The other members of the group looked away embarrassed.
The guide blushed. Or was it the heat? “There is a hurricane moving up the coast and we are not sure if it will turn off into the ocean or make landfall here in Ha Long. Until we know we can’t risk getting out on the water.” That made perfect sense to me and the rest of the group. We got out to stretch our legs without complaint. The salt air scrubbed away some of the bitterness we felt at flying halfway around the world to be stopped at the water’s edge.
“We paid for this trip!” The blond French girl, dressed in dirty fisherman pants continued to yelled. “You will take us on our trip,” the other French girl demanded. The guide shrugged his shoulders helplessly. It wasn’t his call, his company was only hiring the boat and the captain said no.
The longer we waited the more frustrated the crowd became. The French girls led charge after charge whipping up the fervor of the other tourist groups, demanding to get on the ocean while the sun was still low. Our first destination was supposed to a massive cave used as a military hospital during the Vietnam war to protect the injured from constant air attacks by the US forces. The guides and the boat captains looked like they needed the shelter from the verbal bombs being thrown at them. Threats of being fired, losing their tips, curses and accusations of being cheated launched with laser accuracy.
The Journey Begins
Our guide returned from the front lines as the rest of us relaxed on the wooden dock. Movement in the other groups meant something was happening. Decisions had been made.
“The hurricane is moving out to sea so we can go.” The French girls grumbled that the delay was pointless. “But the captain doesn’t want to risk going to the main cave. We’ve decided to take a different route and see another, smaller cave. The area has better protection in case the storm reverses direction.”
“WHAT. Are you fuckn’ kiddn’ us. We paid for the Cave and we are going to the Cave.” The rest of us were fed up with the tantrums and agreed to vote on it. The French girls pouted and yelled when they lost. I’m from an island on the ocean and you don’t question the captain, even if he is a small Vietnamese fisherman. The French girls started to yell at him too when we reached our two story wooden cruising boat. He yelled back happily before slamming the the cabin’s door shut.
“He says the water from here to the hospital cave is too open.” It was clear he had also said something less polite about the French girls.
I wish I had not been so relaxed and shy back then. I might have questioned the sensibility of going to sea with a hurricane off shore. I was sure our guide was just mistranslating as no one would get near a boat if an actual hurricane was close enough to shore. Right? Plus, I had paid 68 dollars.
Ten boats set out from the harbor. Seven towards the main cave and two others joined us for the ride to the smaller, less spectacular cave. The sky was overcast but nothing to hint a hurricane was a just off shore. The waters were a bit choppy but I’d been in worse.
Stunning limestone cliffs burst out of deep green as we sailed through narrow channels. Standing on the top deck I never felt so alive, so enchanted by the stunning force of nature that at once eroded the surrounding bluffs and fed the greedy green ocean more limestone to maintain its jade coloring. The wind whipped through my hair as I posed for a photo, a majestic grouping of islands and cliffs behind me. The sudden shock on my friend’s face told me something was wrong seconds before a warning bell sounded throughout the ship. I spun around and and saw in horror as a massive wall of mist, rain, wind and power come pounding through a narrow gap between island and straight for us. The hurricane had shifted and it was upon us without any notice.
Battle to Save the Boat and our Lives
The shrieking of the French girls were drowned by the high winds as the boat erupted in organized chaos. The crew couldn’t speak English and yet we all knew what to do. The main cabin was made of glass windows and doors. We had less than a minute to lock everything down before the storm hit and we all pitched in, fastening locks, shutting doors. We battened down the hatches. After closing the front main glass door my friend Rob and I stared wide eyed as a side door began banging around as the waves picked up height and uncertainty. We ran together, the storm chasing us.
We reach the door together….BAM, the storm hit, knocking the boat steeply to the side. The world slowed down and we watched in horror, slow motion horror as the the door swung violently closed shattering the glass directly onto us as we desperately turned our heads and shielded our eyes. We were both only wearing bathing suits and a thousand glass daggers tore through our skin and spread like a minefield around our feet. Grabbing each other and the now glassless door for support we tried in vain to stay still as the storm pounded the boat rocking it from side to side. Torrents of rain streamed through the gap preventing us from getting a firm hold as our bare feet slipped across thousands of tiny shards of glass.
Blood steamed down our bodies. We gritted our teeth and bore it, riding the waves, pitches, and glass for the next twenty minutes. The storm ended as quickly as it started as an eerie calm fell across the jade waters. Rob and I were alive. The whole crew was alive. The captain kept us from hitting the surrounding cliffs, the hull wasn’t pierced. We were alive. We turned to see how everyone else was doing and stared into 8 faces of shock and pain. Rob and I didn’t understand until we started walking towards them and pain exploded across our bodies all at once.
A Dinner Celebration and a Time for Mourning
Rob had taken the worst of the glass spray and had a 6 inch piece of glass embedded in his left foot. We both had hundreds of cuts all over our bodies and our feet were so sliced that we couldn’t walk without falling in pain. The others, no longer tourists, but friends, survivors rushed to help us. It took over an hour for our friends to pick the glass out of our skin, and then disinfect our wounds. But we had survived. The specter of death didn’t do anything to mellow the French girls’ moods and we suffered through a tirade longer than the the storm and more painful.
“Haven’t you ever cleaned a wound?” one girl chastised the guide. “We are NOT giving you a tip” the other girl assured.
Rob and I groaned and that sent them into another tirade of insults, threats and irrelevant chatter. “Shut up and be glad your alive,” Rob said softly. Maybe it was the glass dagger being taken out of his foot or the shard being removed a hair’s breath from my eye that convinced them to remain quiet.
Bandaged, dressed in clean clothes a few hours later we relived the story under the shining stars, thanking the beautiful breeze that caressed our skin. Sixty eight dollars didn’t buy a fancy dinner but the rice and vegetables tasted like heaven, along with the beer that had survived the day too. Suddenly, a second boat pulled up to ours and a large bellied man jumped on board carrying a large bucket. He paid us no attention and walked straight to the steering room. He was the owner of the boat. He used to be the owner of a boating company. The bucket was full of crabs for the crew that had saved his last boat. He didn’t even look at us.
Our guide rushed to the celebration. He came back slowly, deep in thought. “The boats what went to the Cave didn’t make it. The storm caught them in open waters and capsized all of the all of the boats. Everyone is dead. The owner is here to thank the captain for saving his last boat.” The owner never looked at us as he left.
Almost 70 people died* that day and we only survived because we were on the right boat, 3 of 10 that decided to go the other direction. We drank our beer in silence and paid our respects. A few days later when we returned to the mainland we all rushed to the internet to tell our parents and loved ones we had survived. They all asked why we wouldn’t be! The outside world never learned of the deaths, or the news wires never picked up the stories.
Two months later Rob was playing softball and a ligament in his foot snapped. It turns out the glass dagger cut the ligament so that only a thread remained. I still have a few scars as well, but we made it out alive. This was the first time I almost died and I have respected the winds of fate and happenstance ever since. Live your life to its fullest, don’t complain about hard working folks doing their best to survive, treat each other with kindness, be happy. You never know when you will be among the seven other boats.
*Post script. While researching the details for this story I found an obscure BBC news report that quotes government sources saying 3 tourists (1 Thai and 2 Indians) died along with 2 crew members during the storm. My death estimates come from witnesses and other tourists from nearby boats who gave estimates from 20-100 dead. It is still unclear how many people actually died.