I woke up before dawn, unaware that the day would bring definitive moments to my life as a solo traveler. A few of us had decided to leave Cat Ba early to spend a little more time in Hanoi and I had opted to do the journey on my own.
I took a walk along the waterfront and had breakfast with a few travel companions before saying a temporary goodbye to them. When I was ready to go, I went to the place where I’d gotten my ticket and waited. All I knew was that my ticket was supposed to get me back to Hanoi and the first step was a bus ride. After that, I wasn’t sure.
I’d gotten there early, nervous about catching the bus on time. As my departure time passed, there was still no bus. I spotted another traveler standing in front of the tourism office next door and he looked as anxious as I felt. I asked him if he was heading to Hanoi at the the same time as me. He was, and I was relieved that I wasn’t going to be the only foreigner.
This was the first time I learned that if you’re traveling alone and confused about how you’re going to get from one place to another, it always helps to befriend other travelers, even if they’re just as confused as you are. Many of these types of friendships I’ve had have been transient, but I always think of these people fondly as travel saviors who helped turn moments of panic into the adventures they were meant to be.
This traveler and his wife were from France. They had taken a Halong Bay tour that included a night on Cat Ba Island. Rather than leaving early as I was, they had decided to stay longer on Cat Ba and had to get back to Hanoi on their own.
We kept on waiting and the bus finally showed up. It took us all over the island and continued to pick up passengers. It was nice way to see how lush and green the island was after spending a night on the developed waterfront area. After an hour or so, we made it to a dock. Not everyone got off the bus, but the French couple got off and I did too knowing we might as well stick together even if we were equally ignorant.
We got on a ferry which took us to another dock where there was a van waiting to pick us up. The van wasn’t big enough for everyone and we were able to gather that another one would come shortly. I hoped so. I had to go to the bathroom so I asked the French couple not to leave without me while I booked it across a wobbly dock to a dirty bathroom on a boat. I made it back just in time for the second van. I was crammed up front with the French couple and we drove on a bumpy unpaved road through an industrial area. Eventually the road was paved and we reached the city of Haiphong. Everyone got off the van, but the driver told us foreigners to stay on.
He drove a little bit longer before stopping without saying a word. We wondered what was next. He pointed to a bus driving down the street in the other direction and we figured we were supposed to get on it. We gathered our stuff and crossed the street to the bus and the driver didn’t stop. A bus attendant with laughing eyes stood in the doorway as the bus drove by and motioned for us to hurry up and get on the moving bus. We were shocked that the bus driver wouldn’t stop, but we didn’t have much time to think about it. Ungracefully with our gigantic backpacks, we ran alongside the bus and got on board.
We learned that this was our last vehicle and it would take us to a station in Hanoi. We spread out in the back of the empty bus and relaxed in our seats now that we no longer had to pay attention to making transfers. When we arrived in Hanoi, the French couple and I shared a taxi to the center of town and said our farewells and exchanged one last knowing look as we approached my hotel.
After about 5.5 hours of travel by bus, ferry, van, bus, and taxi, I had made it back to Hanoi. It was the end of that particular journey, but the beginning of a much larger one. This haphazard trip from a Vietnamese island to the mainland awoke the independent adventurer in me and sparked the courage that continues to propel me forward to new adventures even though underneath, I’m probably just as scared of traveling solo as anyone else. But all it takes is one experience to understand that despite your reservations, you can find your way around the most foreign of places and kind people will help you along the way. It just takes one experience to know the elation that bubbles up inside you when you simply reach Point B, having taken on the world one small corner at a time.