Why travel friendships are great ... and intense

The intensity of the relationships you form while travelling make your friendships at home seem a bit dull.
The intensity of the relationships you form while travelling make your friendships at home seem a bit dull. Photo: Getty Images

Leanne was clearly the loudest person on the bus. As soon as I got on I could hear her, holding court from the wide back seat. "Well, you're bloody Australian," she was practically yelling at a fellow passenger in her rich London drawl, "Of course you'd say that!"

I took a seat near the back and pretty soon she was onto me as well. "Orright mate, where are you from?"

"Australia."

"Another Aussie! Jesus!"

You never know what you're going to get on trips like these. You roll into a travel agency picked at random, book yourself on a tour run by a local operator and hope for the best.

Nice accommodation, a good tour guide and fun fellow passengers would be ideal but, really, you'd settle for just getting back to Hanoi in one piece once you've seen the state of the traffic on the highway out of town.

I'd boarded the bus in the middle of Hanoi's Old Quarter, ready to be whisked out for a two-day boat cruise through Halong Bay. It was a fairly standard excursion that could be done for almost any price you wanted to pay. I'd gone low, so I was expecting basic accommodation and a bunch of backpackers to share it with. I was spot on.

"OK," Leanne was saying from the back of the bus, warming up as we hit the highway, "now who likes karaoke? Come on, we have to do karaoke! Vietnam will be disappointed if we don't."

I grinned. Leanne and I were going to get along just fine.

Being stuck in a bus with a loud Pom is probably some people's idea of hell but I like the fun ones and Leanne sounded like she was definitely going to be one of the fun ones.

Indeed, she was. We ended up sharing a room that first night on our junk boat and spent the cool evening up on the roof drinking cheap, horrible Vietnamese red wine and persuading our guide, Long, to sing traditional songs for us.

We spent the second night on Cat Ba Island ensconced in the local karaoke bar, singing a few traditional songs of our own. It didn't seem right after two days that the tour was coming to an end. That's it? Say goodbye and never see each other again? That seemed like a waste of a friendship.

So we met up again down south in Hue, hiring bikes and pedalling around the historical areas, stopping constantly to pump more air into my persistently flat back tyre. We ate noodle soup on tiny plastic chairs; we shared 333 tallies from probably dirty glasses.

We got the bus down to Hoi An together the next day and hit the fabric markets for some clothes shopping. I pretended I knew what I was talking about while Leanne compared silks for the dress she was having made: "Um ... yep, that one. No, that one. Um ... Maybe the first one."

We had a wild night out at a riverside bar, the kind that culminates in a mad midnight xe om (motorbike taxi) ride to nowhere in particular in search of the next party; the kind that results in a morning of hangover and regret.

We picked up Leanne's dress the next day before shopping in the market for food. The fabric? Perfect. I guess. We had a slightly quieter night of small Tiger beers and sanity.

Then we said goodbye. Leanne was heading south to Nha Trang and Saigon. I was heading west for a rendezvous with my brother in Phnom Penh. It was almost a teary goodbye until we realised the ridiculousness of the situation - we'd known each other five days.

Five days.

We should have been basically strangers but we felt like best friends. Travel days, however, aren't like home days.

OK, I admit it, I watched Lost in Translation again the other day. It's almost a travellers' cliche, that movie, but it's so brilliant at capturing the essence of relationships forged away from home after chance encounters that it bears repeating.

Like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson's characters, Leanne and I had a platonic whirlwind friendship in a foreign land, far from the distractions of everyday life.

It was swift and strong. We're still friends six years later, although we've seen each other only a couple of times since Vietnam. But that memory will always be there and friendships forged so quickly aren't easily broken. That's one of the reasons people get hooked on travelling.

It's not just the foreign sights, it's the intensity of the relationships you form. Everyday friendships from home just seem that tiny bit duller once you've packed a whole decade's worth of fun into a crazy week in a foreign country with a complete stranger.

Even if she was the loudest Pom on the bus.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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