What happens when a pothead, a preacher and a veteran walk into Ha Long Bay?

Although I’m a journalist – a social career if there ever was one – I don’t particularly like, at first anyway, to meet new people. I don’t want to make small talk or try to make this conversation less awkward. That is, until, you turn out to actually be pretty cool.

On every trip I’ve ever been on, it starts the same way – I meet our fellow travelers and do my usual hide. But I soon remember, every time, that travelers are a different kind of breed – one that is full of the curious, the adventurous, and the interesting – despite what first glances may suggest.

When we first arrived in Vietnam, I initially felt the same way as I always do. I was surrounded by two older couples, a lone Asian dad-looking guy and a dreadlocked millennial. Looks like I’ll be spending the trip palling around with Mike, I thought.

On our Bhaya cruise through Ha Long Bay.

However, after a three-hour Hanoi city tour on our first day in Vietnam, I learned I was wrong, again. That dreadlocked guy? He was Dan, a soft-spoken Texan who never forgot to say grace before a meal and was visiting Vietnam because his father, who recently passed, had planned to move here. The Asian dad? He was Andre, a recently divorced Vietnamese immigrant who lost his own father when he fought in the Vietnam War. Older couple 1? Warren, an Arizona preacher joined by his outspoken wife, Karen. Older couple 2? William, a Vietnam War veteran – who I suspect to have recently retired from the CIA – and his kind wife, Yvette. I soon felt very much at home with our new family, palling around the city alongside our 24-year-old smiley Vietnamese tour guide, Huyen.

Our family was quickly put to the test when we arrived in Ha Long Bay, a collection of islands and hidden caves which is a World Heritage site and also the filming site of Kong: Skull Island. We were all due to step aboard a Bhaya one-night cruise, which I imagined – prior to arriving – to be basically a wooden raft bopping along a river in the jungle.

Ha. Ha. Ha. As usual, I was way wrong (see a pattern here)? We walked onto basically a miniature Norwegian Cruise Line, equipped with a suited staff, luxe accommodations and fresh-from-the-sea fare. After checking out our rooms like excited college freshmen heading to their dorms on move-in day, we gathered on the middle deck for a seafood dinner. I felt like I was on a vacation on my vacation.

View of Ha Long Bay from one of the area’s famous caves.

However, upon sitting down, something was wrong. Dan, a usually happy-go-lucky guy, looked pretty downtrodden and wasn’t saying much. When we asked him why, he told us – a grouchy, fanny-packed woman on the cruise had given him flack for walking through the deck without a shirt on earlier in the afternoon.

We were pissed. We complained loudly. We were protective of this kind blonde dude. It’s not like food was being served at that moment. It was 90 degrees outside and we were cruising through a blue bay. We might as well have been sitting on the damn beach.

Dan seemed a little better, but not by too much. Then, it got worse.

A seafood lunch on the Bhaya cruise.

A loud-mouthed and slightly drunk Australian made his way to our table to say hello, but in a matter of 30 seconds – in a jovial tone, but with words reserved for the best of friends – made a joke about how they put all the Americans together because no one else could stand them, how Dan must have been a pothead, how Mike was old.

Now, everyone’s demeanors were crushed. It was hard to enjoy the baked oysters topped with pork belly with words you wish you said back echoing in your throat, the moment lost. The laughter stopped. We felt uncomfortable, trying to soothe each other and say it was no big deal, who even was this guy? Dan quietly departed, heading up to the top deck for some solo time, his steak sitting untouched and now joined by an equally lonesome dessert.

The next morning, we all returned for breakfast with newfound spirits. Apparently, the boys had spent the evening chatting with the Australian over some beers, equally ripping into him – good-naturedly, of course, the same vibe he gave us. The Australian’s discomfort was obvious – we hadn’t seen him yet that morning. We felt like we had won back our pride, courtesy of Hanoi Beer and a few bottles of cheap wine.

A cave in Ha Long Bay.

Soon, though, it threatened to come to a halt. The fanny-packed woman was back!

“You know, this is a restaurant,” she spat, putting Dan on the spot yet again as he walked around the deck with an open shirt (it wasn’t a restaurant, actually, it was a boat). This time, however, Yvette wasn’t letting one of her newfound sons go down without a fight.

“You better sit your ass back down over there,” she said in her quiet but controlled voice, no yelling necessary when you already had the power.

Fanny-pack barked back, her glasses nearly toppling off her face. “Kiss my ass!” she yelled, her nasally voice piercing.

Yvette didn’t even stop cutting her pancake. She looked up, her head barely raising. “I will kick your ass,” she said. Fanny-pack retreated, huffing the whole way as she returned to her table of octogenarians.

Our Vietnamese tour group and newfound friends.

The mood was saved. We laughed so hard, so unapologetically, the Americans redeemed again.

No matter your age, where you’re from or what you do, travel unites like nothing else – something I am reminded of every time I meet another traveler who has seen the world and thus, fears nothing. Sometimes, these uniting qualities come out at the nick of time, reminding you that the people you’re meeting aren’t your run-of-the-mill neighbors, teachers, doctors, office workers.

They’re a different breed in disguise, one you only have a hope of uncovering after packing a bag. They are travelers, and they will fit together with you no matter where your plane happens to land.

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