At dusk, we arrived at Cat Ba Island and checked into the Holiday View Hotel, well situated downtown, and well-priced at $50 for a two-room family suite (though our rooms were pretty basic). The main commercial area borders a bay filled with brightly painted fishing boats; twisting roads climb hillsides rising above the waterfront. On the central pier that evening, children chased each other, teenagers flirted, and families sat snacking on roasted dried squid (a Vietnamese equivalent of beef jerky) at makeshift stalls. Near the market we found a karaoke establishment that was entirely blue (blue walls, blue curtains, blue leather sectional sofas) and doubled as somebody’s living room. As Sam belted out "Hound Dog," a group of passing young men clapped with the kind of big-brotherly affection that we’d all come to expect in Vietnam.
The next morning, the day before our visitors were scheduled to fly back to the States, we hiked a mountain in Cat Ba National Park. The kids raced up like monkeys, calling back to us every so often, "It is so, so, so steep," their voices full of fake fear and real delight. In the afternoon, as we boarded a hydrofoil for a bumpy ride to Hai Phong (one leg of a shortcut to Hanoi), the children swaggered like adventurers who’d explored some far-off land and lived to talk about it.
And they had. We could have chosen a less challenging way to spend the vacation, but I don’t think we would have been as happy. My brother-in-law reported that Maya cried on the plane going home. She had fallen in love with Vietnam, she told him. Of course, I could relate.
Dana Sachs is the author of The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam. Her novel, If You Lived Here, will be published by William Morrow in March.