Impression about Vietnam on a cycling tour
Posted Date: 6/25/201310:25 AM
By Kevin Rush
We were on a cycling trip that would encompass homestays and national parks, taking us from the Mai Chau valley some 100 miles south-west of Hanoi and close to the Laotian border, south-east towards the coast and the city of Ninh Binh. If you imagine the shape of Vietnam as rather like a giant upright prawn, we were going to do a neat cross-section just at the base of the head. No day would involve much more than 20 miles – about the limit for our nine-year-old – and there was always a support vehicle to pick up stragglers. The route would, we hoped, give us a complete range of Vietnamese experiences, from tribal homestays and untouched jungle hills to fast-developing towns.
Mai Chau was definitely at the less developed end of the Vietnamese spectrum. All around us the rice fields were being harvested by ladies in conical straw hats. Others were wafting nets to catch crickets or filling baskets with bundles of water hyacinth. In places, songbirds in bamboo cages had been hung in the shade of trees to ward off wild, food-stealing birds. The valley floor was almost completely devoted to rice, and generations of careful landscaping have left it almost flat. At the sides, perhaps a kilometre apart, the tangled secondary forest rose sharply to serrated peaks. There, at the junction of the horizontal and vertical worlds, people had built their houses on stilts. Curls of smoke rose from among them, where rice husks were being burned.
We rattled across a rusty suspension bridge and through a village. Every house seemed to lie at the centre of a perfect storm of picturesque food production. There were fish ponds and ducks. There were neat vegetable gardens filled with beans and cabbages. There were orchards of longans, rambutans and persimmon. Even the scrubbier patches were stocked with areca palms, which provide betel nut as well as support for prickly dragonfruit stems. Under the houses were recently harvested crops – rice, peanuts, taro roots and bamboo – plus all the paraphernalia of further operations: fish traps, coops and cages. What was significantly absent was any plastic litter or mess.
A few miles on, we left the bicycles in a hut and walked uphill to a tiny hamlet of wooden houses on stilts. Climbing the steps to one of them, we entered a traditional house of the White Thai tribe, a people who had come from Thailand several centuries ago and whose way of life seems largely unchanged. The floor was bamboo slats, worn to a glossy smoothness by years of bare feet. There was little in the way of furniture, just a huge low bed, a couple of benches and an altar for the ancestors. On the ceiling was a hand-painted tribute to Ho Chi Minh and in every window hung a chirruping bird cage. We had stayed in a similar house the previous night – the whole valley has embraced the homestay idea, giving the farmers a valuable side income. Success, however, has made some homestays more like guesthouses.
This one was certainly authentic. Green tea was brought and served in small bowls, then a toast of rice wine.
Lunch came on a large tray: bowls of noodles cooked with carp from the pond, tofu, slivers of bamboo and other strange leaves and roots. It was a magnificent feast in a country whose cuisine is one of the high points of human culture.
On our third day, after some gorgeous mountain scenery, we had reached Vietnam’s largest and oldest nature reserve: Cuc Phuong national park, a 50,000-acre area of forest slung over a stunning landscape of jagged mountains. It is home to 97 species of mammal and more than 300 species of bird, but after a six-mile trek and a 20-mile bike ride, we had spotted precisely one stick insect and heard exactly one gun shot.
Cage after cage of small furry creatures represent the last few examples of species endemic to Vietnam, most of them langurs, a long-tailed leaf-eating monkey. This is a country where tigers and elephants have been more or less wiped out and superstitious crazes for rare animal meats have sent dozens of species spiralling towards extinction, including five of the 11 species of langur.
Next day we rode into a landscape that is becoming more common in Asia: a strange melange of the traditional and natural with the newly industrialised, newly touristified. There would be achingly beautiful wetlands dotted with water buffalo and backed by jagged peaks, then a cement factory. There were sleepy, algae-encrusted Catholic churches and ancient temple gateways, then new concrete pagodas with huge coach parks. We passed fishermen in traditional hats setting bamboo fish traps and fishermen using truck batteries and electrodes. All around, limestone outcrops rose in jagged profusion, like pods of humpback whales.
The first boat in our group had entered the cave for the return trip when the woman paddling the second boat called out. There, on the top of the crags, silhouetted against the late sun, was a family group of langurs. More arrived, moving with total grace and vitality in their mountain fastness. There was, I estimated, around half the world’s remaining population on display. For several minutes we all watched them leaping around, and it felt good to be with local people who were as pleased as us. Our cross-section of modern Vietnam had, I felt, ended on a suitable high note.
Eventually we left the langurs and passed back through the cave, in time to see the magical sight of thousands of egrets flying over to their roost. We sat by our bikes and watched them settle as the light faded.
Way to go
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- Awesome scenery
- Tam Coc – the “Halong Bay on the rice fields”
- Homestay in Thai village
- Jungle trails
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