have walker, will travel

My partner and I are just back from a three-week trip to Vietnam, where we encountered people from all over the world, including Finland, South Africa, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Singapore, Canada, Holland, and Moldova. Most were far younger than us, some our age, and a notable few significantly older.

Carol and Mathis were on our two-day boat tour of Halong Bay north of Hanoi, where over 3,000 limestone islands rise vertically out of the green water.  Spectacular. A retired French professor and Holocaust survivor, Mathis is a baby-faced 87. He has arthritis and stenosis (my ailments), and surgery on his cervical spine has impaired his balance, so he relies on a three-wheeled walker. He skipped a tour of one of Halong Bay’s spectacular caves and the kayak trip around a floating village. But when lunch was served at the other end a very long, very tippy, handrail-free floating walkway, Mathis heaved himself and his walker over the side of the boat and made his way down it, a bunch of young Eastern Europeans waiting patiently behind him. On the return trip he confided a fear of the water.

A week later we struck up a conversation with a woman at our hotel in Hoi An, in central Vietnam, a major trading center for over a millennium and UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s turned the lovely French colonial center into a tourists-only ghost town in the process, but it’s charming, and I loved the guidebook’s list of “treasures of the Orient” that passed through its warehouses: high-grade silk, fabrics, paper, porcelain, tea, sugar, molasses, areca nuts, pepper, Chinese medicines, elephant tusks, beeswax, mother-of-pearl, sulphur, and lead.” I pegged the woman’s accent as American, but she and her husband, whose curvature of the spine turns his face cruelly to the ground when he stands and who are probably in their late 70s, are Canadians who’ve lived in New Zealand for 44 years. They were at the tail end of six weeks in Vietnam, which they’d thoroughly enjoyed except for the time she passed out in the Mekong Delta because of what turned out to be very high blood pressure, previously undiagnosed and nearly fatal. After a brief stay in the hospital in Ho Chi Minh City to monitor her medication, she was back on the road. “Drink plenty of fluids,” she advised. When I commended her on her verticality, she told me she’d had a parasite in India and gotten salmonella on a felucca on the Nile that laid her up for a couple of weeks after her return. “Hard-boiled eggs, wouldn’t you think that would be the safest thing in the world? Everyone who ate from the basket on our side of the table got it.” 

“And here you are off again,” I chided her.  “Have you learned nothing?”

“I’ve learned nothing,” she confirmed, returning my high five with a grin. 

On another boat trip at the end of our trip, in the Mekong Delta, we shared a table with Pierre and Louise, a congenial couple from Ottawa. An afternoon excursion to a little village involved a trip in a tiny motorboat, so I wasn’t surprised that she wasn’t aboard. (Partial list of plants pointed out to us: pineapple, papaya, mango, yam, mangosteen, peppercorn vine, chili peppers, water apple, coconut palm, dragonfruit, jackfruit, longan, cassava, cashews, and of course rice – the fertile delta supports three crops a year.) But when we ended up in the village center at tables set out with tea and fruit, there sat Denise, walker, smile, and all. There were plenty of hands to help her back down the rickety gangplank and into the boat. 

I learned a while ago that physical mobility is relative, but these couples really put it in perspective. Mathis and his wife (also somewhat overweight, also indefatigable) had rented a car and driver to get around Burma – not what they’d have chosen had they been more agile, but it’s not an easy country to navigate and they’d gone all over the place. Bob and I can scramble into an upper bunk with ease — and did, travelling the length of the country overland — but eventually we’ll reserve lower ones. Or a car. Or something. One of the many things we learned from this wonderful trip is that if we want to keep seeing the world, we’ll find a way. 

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