By Peter Cresswell
My wife and I first met Steve and Kate over breakfast in a Hanoi hotel. An affable English couple, I approached them after overhearing their plans of taking in a tour of Ha Long Bay, a bay renowned for a constellation of islands with towering peaks.
We were still in shock from the cold climate of Hanoi which was drizzly and in sharp contrast from the sun and beaches we had enjoyed no less than a couple of weeks earlier in the south at Mui Ne. A tour of Ha Long Bay was on our to do list but the cold was making us question the value of the trip.
“Have you guys taken a tour of Ha Long Bay?” I asked.
Steve responded in the positive. He proceeded to tell us of their experience in Ha Long Bay and their plans for Sa Pa, a scenic hill town in north Vietnam. We discussed our concerns of the weather but ultimately talked ourselves into reversing course based on their enthusiasm.
We ended up booking a two-day tour of Ha Long Bay which proved to be a great idea, despite a smattering of rain. I remember thinking as our boat pulled back to shore, that I should thank our new friends if we should ever see them again. Little did I know just how soon that would be.
A day after our trip to Ha Long Bay, we left Hanoi in the dead of night and headed for the warmer climate of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Our bus ride would take us over 500 km away, to a different country in one of the less traveled sections of South East Asia. The trip was breathtaking and the border was shrouded in mist as we made the crossing, like an exotic version of a James bond movie.
Four days later, sitting in the foyer of our hotel in Vientiane, enjoying a breakfast of fresh bread and coffee, we were pleasantly surprised when non other than our Hanoi compatriots, Steve and Kate, walk in.
We shared a laugh at our coincidental reunion hundreds of kilometers from our initial encounter. We discussed the odds of sharing the same hotel twice in a row and indeed of meeting up again in general.
We shared food tips – grilled fish from the simple riverside restaurants – and discussed our experiences leaving Vietnam before Steve grabbed the conversation.
“Have you smelled the towels they have here!” Steve asked us. We shook our heads since we were staying in the budget room. “They are incredible!” he exclaimed and proceeded to describe how much better they smelled than his backpack. “I just want to roll around in a pile of those towels all day! I do t know how they do it!”. We all laughed but secretly agreed with him.
Later that afternoon, as we boarded our shuttle, we joked about bumping into each other in the streets of Vang Vieng.
“See you at the next stop.” I said, waving goodbye, half jokingly. I honestly doubted we would meet again since we made no specific efforts to rejoin and left it strictly to fate.
The trip north to Vang Vieng was a dusty affair. The trees and brush that lined the unpaved roads were covered in red soot kicked up by the tires of cars, busses and bikes that zoomed along.
Vang Vieng is known for two things; tubing and drinking, often to deadly effect. We spent three days lounging in hammocks and enjoying the lagoons nearby. On our last night, walking back to our hotel, it dawned on me that our English connection must have been severed.
“I guess that’s it.” I said to my wife, dispiritedly. But no sooner had I turned back, there they were! Tall and decidedly not Laotian, Steve and Kate marched right towards us. “We just arrived,” they explained. “Boy was that a bumpy ride”.
We all laughed, delighting in the serendipity of it all. New stories about tube sharing and again, another farewell.
Off we went to Luang Prabang, our next stop and the jewel of Laos, full of tiny streets, trekking options and gorgeous sunsets. At night, a food and souvenir market explode onto the streets in a sea of enticing smells and colours.
Sitting elbow to elbow with other dinners in the dimly lit side street which makes up the crowded food market, we enjoyed a mix of BBQ chicken and stir fried vegetarian fare. And yet once again, destiny decided to reunite us with our tag partners.
I spotted Steve through the throng of diners, hunched over to avoid hitting his head on the canopy, browsing the food stalls. I waved him down through the crowd, shoving over on our seats to make room.
“This is incredible,” he said with his customary grin. We hugged and passed them our Lao beers before buying two more.
We shared similar stories about our journey into town and discovered we had both checked into the same guesthouse on the other side of town. That night and for the next day or so, we filled in the gaps between our encounters. We talked about how travel changes you and how much your mind alters to its ever changing environments.
Our last and final departure – we were both heading to Northern Thailand – was the hardest one to make for some reason. I suppose in my heart I knew it would be almost impossible to expect a chance encounter in the much bigger crowds of Thailand.
And indeed it was. Despite keeping our eyes open for them in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, we never met them again.
After 5 months of constant travel, we have met a lot of people and have had to say goodbye to all them, often in very short order. Our meetings with Steve and Kate, short though they were, were unique in that they included not just saying “goodbye” but also saying “hello again”.
After saying so many goodbyes, I found the change to be a nice turn of fate. Even now, as we make our way to Africa to continue our adventure, I’ll sometimes take a glance down the restaurant or along the train station, hoping beyond hope, looking to tag Steve and Kate and say, one more time, “You’re it”.
Peter Cresswell is a former software manager and now full time travel blogger traveling the world with his wife, Susana. Follow their story at their website www.alwaystwirling.com or on twitter @always_twirling.