Opinion » The Outsider

Vietnam vagabonding

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As a self-confessed fan of fall, I don't make it a rule to travel during Whistler's pre-winter waiting period. I enjoy crisp days and biking under a cover of darkness with powerful lights illuminating the trails. I like that it's quiet in town and I can enjoy free parking at the end of the Day Lots. I finally have time to catch up on my always-burdened backburner of professional and domestic tasks. But I also like to be around my home in Whistler when winter storms hit and when the hero dirt is ripe, so if I'm going to travel to a place where those things aren't the sole focus, fall is the time to do so.

I'll also confess a three-week trip to Vietnam in November wasn't my idea but that of my girlfriend. It didn't take long for her to convince me of the cultural and natural appeal of this beautiful country in Southeast Asia. On top of that, flights were more than affordable this time of year and the reliable (and amazingly cheap) 4G telecommunication networks would allow me to work on the fly pretty much anywhere in the country. So off we went.

Entering Vietnam's capital Hanoi is as good as anywhere for throwing yourself into the deep end of Southeast Asia. Four and a half million motorcycles zoom through the city in what initially appears as absolute bedlam, horns sounding constantly and traffic rules seemingly non-existent. Even crossing the road as a pedestrian is enough to raise your heart rate. But after a day or so of navigating the morass of cars, motorcycles and sidewalks overflowing with vendors (and parked motorcycles), one begins to notice the order in the chaos. Everyone drives where they want and everyone accepts that and gets along, somehow without incident. In no time we were confidently walking alongside rush hour traffic, dining in the heart of the city's legendary food and drink alleys and paying a visit to the embalmed remains of Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, who is revered as a sort of communist deity.

Hanoi is a great launch point, but we were soon hungering for fresh air and natural scenery. A two-to-three hour bus ride east and we were riding a ferry over to Cat Ba Island, a busy vacation destination for both holidaying Vietnamese and international tourists. From the harbour we boarded a mid-range "cruise" vessel, though its size is more akin to a large houseboat (larger, more luxurious boats do sail in the bays but are not able to maneuver through the tight channels that interlink hundreds of small islands). The tour itinerary and forced party atmosphere all feels a bit cheesy at first, but once the floating hotel chugs out of the harbour and you're relaxing topside with a beer in hand, the tourist rat race feels well and truly in the rear view mirror.

Our guide leads an afternoon kayak tour where we have our first jaw dropping moment of the trip. Paddling through stalactite caves (where none of the big boats can go), the light at the end opens up into a series of immense secluded coves. Trees cling to sheer limestone escapartments, home to one of the rarest (and most endangered) primate species in the world, the Catbar langur. We're not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one today, but spending the afternoon around their unique habitat is a reward in itself.

Later that evening and a few islands over, we return to the kayaks to seek wildlife of the microscopic kind. Bioluminescent plankton flourishes in the warm tropical waters around Catba Island and Halong Bay to the delight of travellers to the region. With a full-ish moon and clear skies out that night, our guide directs us to paddle up close to the cliffs where the stark shadows reveal the luminescent sea life. Trails of glittering blue swirl around our paddles and I dunk my hand in the water to make sure my eyes are not tricking me. Phone cameras prove useless at capturing these glowing creatures in the dark, but I happily accept the fleeting moment knowing I'll never forget it.

Vince Shuley is a recently-minted fan of Vietnam. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Instagram @whis_vince.