Stranded on Cù Lao Chàm

And then it started to pour – nothing that different to basically any day in the monsoon season on this realm. Only it never stopped until the next evening, and it came with thunderstorm and lightning, with the occasional power cut and with darkened skies. The day before, the clear skies, the crystal water, the sun, the coconut palm trees, the sand – everything was like a distant memory of another life, in another place. We could only hope for a possible getaway – yet we should have abandoned all hope, because the storm went on and on well into the following night and day. Rivers of rain had incessantly poured down the streets and alleys of the island, infinite buckets of water had fallen for hours on end during these days where there was nothing left to do than observe the routine.

It was supposed to be a one-day trip out of Hội An, one of the most preciously beautiful cities in Vietnam, to see and enjoy a subtropical pristine island of a cluster that was once a military base and thus closed to public and tourism. We were to spend the day on the beach under coconut palms and the night there in a homestay and then go back to the mainland.

The day started according to plan: early in the morning, we got on a motorboat, arrived on the main island some 20 minutes later, and left our luggage at the homestay reception some two to three minutes after that, heading directly for the beach. It was a hot day, and the moment I could slouch on the sun bed forgotten were all the tenderly authentic market stalls we met on the way to the sun-drenched beach. I had wanted to stop a couple of times to get some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, only hesitated every time thinking I’d have plenty of time for this on the way back.

It turned out to be a clear-skyed and sunny day, and all we did was bathe, swim, read, talk, sip on juice and coffee, and fend off the locals´ tries to either ask for some made-up tax for unencumbered use of a public beach or move our sun beds to the portion of the beach that best suited the bar behind it and not the neighbours´.

The afternoon started with what turned out to be sort of a regular thing on beaches in Vietnam: team-building activities organized by companies for their employees. Nothing markworthy of it, except the use of loudspeakers to lead said team-building activities didn´t really do justice to a pristine and quiet beach. All of a sudden, our ears, thoughts, and possibly dreams were invaded by the directions and incentives employees received from their monitors on a very high-pitched speakers-amplified tone.

We head back to the homestay after having previously ordered a copious dinner made of fresh squid, stir fried vegetables and white as well as red wine to wait for us on the terrace we were supposed to share with other guests. It turned out it was ours to use, as a private terrace with a view to the sea and the mainland. The sun set but the beautiful light and the painted skies eluded us, since that could be seen from the other side of the island, behind the green hills that blocked our view. The food was delicious and simply cooked, the wine was sweet and cold, and we stayed on talking and joking until pretty late at night – that is, some four to five hours after the 6 pm sunset.

And then it started to pour – nothing that different to basically any day in the monsoon season on this realm. Only it never stopped until the next evening, and it came with thunderstorm and lightning, with the occasional power cut and with darkened skies. The day before, the clear skies, the crystal water, the sun, the coconut palm trees, the sand – everything was like a distant memory of another life, in another place. We could only hope for a possible getaway – yet we should have abandoned all hope, because the storm went on and on well into the following night and day.

The Vietnamese countryside is eclectic, but when stranded on a tropical island because of bad weather and visibly moody sea, I could notice a certain routine: everything ran on and exclusively along daylight hours, which were oh, so different from my Mediterranean/Madrid-desert like home.

You knew your sunrise because light pierced through the curtains around 5:30 am. Fear not, because what is more assertive than any alarm clock is the radioed institutional speech waved over the speakers around the same time, with information on weather, navigation restrictions, and vaccination incentives and recommendations.

After hearing and sight, your sense of smell is suddenly powerfully impressed to say the least around 8 am by fried garlic and morning glory, a whiff of scrambled eggs and maybe some scent of hot green tea, if you know your tea well enough.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon may be spent under a relatively calm spell. Perhaps it’s just a slight side effect of constantly checking the weather, vainly hoping for a different prognosis for tomorrow than the one from 15 minutes ago. Or maybe it’s just hallucinations and wishful thinking of a boat allowed to come from the mainland to come pick us up some time.

You think you can just take a nap, sound of waves on the background, have a chat, read or catch up on your travel notes, watch and listen to the rain. Yet the locals may have other plans, since boredom is not your prerogative. Life on a small, touristically unpromoted, rustic and authentical island can be painfully uneventful even for the owners of the dozen homestays aligned on the shore where mostly foreign tourists just want to go back on the mainland and have exhausted all rain and storm-proofed activities, have tried out all the menu, and maybe still haven’t checked the whole winery. Yet.

Around 3 pm, the islanders love to turn on the karaoke software they are all equipped with, volume up and beyond on humongous stereo speakers to share their musical preferences. I strongly suspect they have a list and respectfully take turns, because on the last day of our stay, it was our homestay’s hosts’ chance to indulge in entertaining us.

The next day turned out to truly be another day, that came with the early morning ten minute in advance warning that boats will be coming in to take us back to the mainland. I almost fell out of bed and into the bathroom and then gathered all my stuff in record time, got down and almost raced to the port where several boats were waiting to be loaded with who I believe were all the foreign tourists that had been stranded there for three days.

Rivers of rain had incessantly poured down the streets and alleys of the island, infinite buckets of water had fallen for hours on end during these days where there was nothing left to do than observe the routine. I had always thought that life on an island had other rhythm and pace, I knew that islanders live their lives more dependently on the weather or the sea, that they simply just cannot do pretty much anything they feel like at any given moment, but there were things that I came to appreciate looking back at the Cù Lao Chàm island, as it slowly faded away from sight. First came the resignation in front of the moods of the sea, and with it an admirable quiet and calm, an incentive or suggestion to lead your life in peace, far and beyond the impatience and the speed, hustle and bustle of modern metropoles. And then came the joy to realize that the monsoon had also hit the northern part of the coastline, which meant that the following parts of our journey, and namely the night spent on a cruise ship in a bay were completely out of the danger of cancellation. We had clear skies and seas for the rest of the journey.

Author: Ruxandra Constantinescu

My every now and then jottings run on this blog in English, Spanish, and Romanian, as a tribute to all cultures I currently find myself at the crossroads of. I was born and raised in Bucharest, but I had been traveling in my mind every since I could read. Eventually, I started doing it for real as soon as I could, so I got to study, work, live, and travel in Romania, Germany, France, and Spain. Take your pick of posts on books, travels, places, people, current social and emotional issues. International politics or current affairs are no stretch, as neither are movies, series, journalism and communication, nor teaching EFL.

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