“I’m wearing my elephant pants today… Like, the pants that have elephants on it, not the pants I wore while riding an elephant.”

“I love that we have to make that distinction.”

This was a typical conversation I had with my dad as he, my nana, and I traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for two and a half weeks. Out of all the places we went, one of my favorites was Ha Long Bay in Northeast Vietnam.

Usually, I try to steer clear of flatwater paddling because I become easily bored, however, during my travels we visited a location called Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, which is a bay that hosts over 2,000 islands. We boarded a wooden junk, a dying breed according to our guide as boats are transitioning to metal, and set sail from the port. I was supposed to be reading George Orwell’s “1984” for my English Literature class, but as I sat on the deck of our junk, with the massive islands looming above us and natural caves mysteriously out of reach, my homework was far from my priorities. Upon docking, we jumped into our kayaks and began paddling on the turquoise waters.

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The Kraken does exist. You know, that absolutely terrifying sea monster? Yeah, it lives in the form of the gigantic jellyfish which thrive in the waters of Ha Long Bay. I would be paddling in my boat, and then my paddle would scoop down and touch a creature with a massive top and twenty-foot-long tentacles. Every time I touched a jellyfish with my paddle, I would imagine it wrapping the tentacles around and pulling me into the water – I’ve been told I have a vivid imagination, but seriously, those jellyfish were terrifying. What wasn’t terrifying were the caves. We were able to paddle inside caves and I felt like a true adventurer.

I think we made our guide nervous, because he said no one kayaks into the caves, and I totally could not understand why. I’ve never paddled into a cave before, but it was one of the coolest things I’ve done in a boat ever. Upon entrance, the bright light and reflection of the sun vanished, and we were engulfed in darkness as we continued further back. I have no idea how far back our cave went, because we soon found ourselves unable to see at all and had to turn back. Bats dwelled above, and water rose and fell lazily with the outgoing tide. After our exploration, we returned to the junk and watched the sun set behind the mountainous islands.

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We flew out to Laos after our time in Vietnam and landed in a small town called Luang Prabang. This was my favorite location out of the entire trip, and a place I would willingly return to in a heartbeat. Outdoor recreation and adventure is not a flourishing industry in the area, but it is slowly growing. We teamed up with a local adventure company and were issued a guide named Phon who took us trekking in the backcountry of Laos. While it was blisteringly hot and the humidity level was high, I was amazed by the culture we were able to experience. In Laos, the locals burn entire sections of the mountains in order to plant rice in the upcoming season. We would be trekking through the jungle one minute, and then all of a sudden be surrounded by dirt and ash blowing in the wind – trees burnt and no vegetation visible.

There are villages spread along the tiny dirt trail we followed, each with their own language and with no electricity. I was able to give the children in the villages bouncy balls and they were extremely grateful for items we take for granted in the States.

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Life in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos is lived out of doors, the people accepting of the heat and humidity as they lack the money (or even if they have enough, do not desire to spend it) on air conditioning. While I was shocked initially by the extreme differences in food, culture, and lifestyle between these locations and my home in Virginia, I quickly grew to love each country for various and differing reasons. Through my travels to these locations, I was able to experience life in a much different way than I am used to and I look forward to having the opportunity to return.