« back to article: Travel Story: A 'Junk' Trip in Vietnam

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He muscled our boat between the outcroppings as I feigned my attempt to help power the boat. Several times we stopped the kayak, rain pouring down, waiting for the others to catch up. “They are slow,” Ahn said. “They are weak.”

“No,” I said. “They are tired. We’ve been rowing for over an hour. Where are we going?”

“Yes, we will keep going,” Ahn said, then pushed off on our random route without an end. Nearly three hours later we pulled up on a beach … within eyeshot of where the boat had been sitting most of the morning. 

The next morning, our final day in the bay, I awoke to a bright sun and clear sky. The emerald foliage of the outcroppings was painted a surprising shade of brilliant green, which reflected in the water like a flat mirror.

We hopped in the kayaks and paddled to a small island with a large cave. The opening on the island was heavily trafficked; the fragile formations were broken and discolored.

“What does this look like?” Ahn asked my shipmate, Jonas. 

“A dragon?” Jonas answered uncertainly.

“Nope.” Ahn laughed. “Jonas, what does this look like?”

This is only inhabited by 163 people, many of whom have never been to the mainland. A typhoon had torn through recently and the school was completely destroyed, but there didn’t seem to be any rush to rebuild it. 

And so we moved through the cave, trying to guess Ahn’s made-up formations quickly so we could get back in the sun. 

Back on the boat, we were each given a survey about our experience. I had the option to rate the various components of my trip as Excellent, Good, Average, and Poor. I waffled on a few options, uncertain how to handle the hair that clogged my shower’s drain or the fact that, though Ahn spoke English, he only knew enough to do his job and wasn’t very in tune with what we needed or wanted.

During our last lunch together, the seven of us bit into fresh fruit as we exchanged contact information and discussed tipping. Ahn walked up the stairs into the dining room and stopped by the table. “Jo, I don’t like the answers on your survey,” he said as he handed the piece of paper to me.

“This is a survey,” I said. “This is my opinion.” Silence fell over the table as everyone tried to busy themselves with the food on their plate.

“I am not happy,” he said.

“Are you asking me to change my answers?”

“I am not happy,” Ahn repeated.

Realizing this conversation wasn’t going anywhere, I tried to handle it as calmly as possible.

“First of all, if you want to call me out, please ask to speak to me apart from everyone else. This is very uncomfortable for everyone at this table. Now, if you want me to change the answers on my survey, just tell me what you want me to write.”

Ahn laid the paper on the table, and pointed out, one question at a time, which answers he deemed inappropriate.

Jaw tense, I packed my bags. Our junk pulled up to the dock, and I said goodbye to my new friends. Ahn, having received his tips, was checking his clipboard for the next boat full of passengers to take out into Halong Bay.