– 16.10.14 – 17.10.14 –
Can you remember the first time you tried to ride a bicycle? How did you feel? What about the first time you pressed on the gas pedal of your parents’ car in the mall parking lot? Do you recall the moment when you seriously realized, as you merged onto the highway traffic for the first time, that you were now responsible for your own life?
That morning in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, pink-faced and still weak from the flu, I would not be the one gripping the handlebars of our motorbike, nor would it be Bailey’s first time driving something motorized. Yet, that wobbly and uneasy, but adrenaline-filled thought that we would now be utterly and completely independent, and almost entirely responsible for our safety, swept onto me. It was scary, and it was thrilling. After a 30 second overview on how to work the bike and approximately 5 seconds to think, Bailey seeped into the busy, chaotic Hanoian streets. Thank goodness for the flu medication, because if I wasn’t feeling the drowsy side effects, I would have been terrified.
Driving a new motorbike for the first time in downtown Hanoi is like learning to swim in the deepest part of the ocean. You have to have enough balls to convince yourself to go for it, but the right amount of stupid to actually do it. And I guess we were both ballsy and stupid enough.
Luckily and happily, it all went quite smoothly, and eventually Bailey was comfortable enough to dodge the random darting pedestrians crossing the road and the gazillion zigzagging motorcycles on the highway (seriously, there were a lot). Despite Bailey’s great ability to focus, and my semi-vegetative state, we both felt the rush. So with a tank full of gas, we escaped Hanoi’s traffic and slowly headed south-west towards Mai Châu, a rural town at about 160 km from the capital. There wasn’t much activity on the way, but seeing a change of scenery – and a change of pace – was incredible. I remember the houses having a European feel to them, the architecture reflecting the French colonial rule in the mid-19th century. Many of the houses were tall and very narrow, with a single façade of brightly-colored shutters and thick balcony railings. What a contrast it was from the often square-shaped and styleless Bangkok houses.
For the first couple of hours outside the city, I had an urge to take pictures of everything. It was so beautiful, so different, so vast. There were fewer people on the road and the houses became more and more spread out. The fields and the cliffs and the dense trees started populating our surroundings. Along with the grey skies, everything had a kind of mystical, smokey feel and the air smelled almost constantly of burned crops, reminiscent of a powerful fire camp. We stopped halfway to stretch our legs and admire the view beyond a small overpass. You could see a thin, sinuous river contouring some far away houses, this time more Chinese-like, with raised and pointy roof edges.
With little time to waste, we hopped back onto our trusty moped and drove for another two and a half hours. The sun was quickly setting, and we were on the look-out for a nhà nghỉ, which is the Vietnamese word for ‘guesthouse’. As independent budget travellers, it was indispensable for us to know this term, especially that we were planning on exploring more remote areas of the country. The Vietnam Coracle has a great and descriptive article about nhà nghis, if you wish to look into it.
As we were driving, I suddenly saw a Vietnamese man on the side of the road waving towards us frantically. Thinking nothing of it, we moved past him, but I realized he had quickly hopped onto his motorcycle and started chasing us down. Leaning towards Bailey, I shouted: “I think this man is trying to tell us something!”. The man sped up next to us, motioning for us to stop. Still suspicious, we slowed down and the man, huffing and puffing, handed us a business card in English. On it was written: Guesthouse. “My friend has guesthouse, very good! I take you, five minutes!”. Since it was getting darker by the second, we decided to check it out for we had no other plan. On our bikes, we wearily followed the man down a small, dirt path into the fields until appeared a series of charming wooden stilt houses with signs indicating nhà nghỉ. We parked at one of the houses, and a petite, slanted-eyed woman with a welcoming smile walked toward us. She was the owner of the homestay, along with her husband, and mother. We discussed prices and for a mere 200,000 dong each (12$ CAD), they offered us a home-cooked dinner, a room for the night, and breakfast. The room was on the second floor of their house, where lay two futon mattresses on the floor, surrounded by large mosquito nets. The walls were decorated with cheesy 80’s style wedding pictures, and the floors were covered with carpets and soft straw mats. It was cozy and quiet, perfect for the night.
As we unpacked our bags in the room, we met a young American couple who were biking across Vietnam just like us. “I hope this won’t offend you, but we’ve been telling everybody we’re Canadian”, one of them said. The recent Vietnam War (or the Second Indochina War, or the Resistance War Against Vietnam, depending on which side you’re on) still lingered in the nation’s memories. With only forty years since the fall of Saigon, the war scars were still palpable.
Along with four other young travellers from France and Denmark, the group of us sat and had the most incredible home-cooked Vietnamese dinner of steamed rice (lot’s of it!), coconut-cashew chicken, savoury tofu in tomato sauce, steamed greens and Hanoi beer. My only disappointment was not having had my full appetite back from the flu, as I felt like I was missing on some serious deliciousness.
After a great night’s sleep, we played with the owners’ adorable little girl (what a bundle of cuteness and joy, she was) and checked out the farm animals. We ate very well once again and after cleaning ourselves up, said goodbye to our fellow travellers who were making their own way. If you ever get the chance to travel Vietnam, I would highly recommend a homestay. The owners’ hospitality was amazing and you could feel their pride and humbleness as they welcomed us, like they were offering everything they had to make us feel comfortable.
Coming up: Vietnam Day 3 – Roadblocks and Cafe Da