Minibuses, Motorbikes and Mai Chau
Posted Date: 6/25/201310:34 AM
You can actually function during the day, but when night comes, “Oh Boy!” You remember the feeling of standing on your head when you were younger? Well, just add a whole lot of face pain so you can’t sleep and you about have the feeling of this one.
For those of you who are as old or older than I, just bend over and touch your toes and stay there awhile.
Worst cold I can ever remember, but it’s only when you lie down to try to sleep. You know though, other than the cold which might be worth cutting your head off for and the little cough that just won’t go away, we haven’t got really sick even once. I’m reminded of that Crosby, Stills and Nash song, “Wooden Ships’ and we’ve been eating those purple berries…
I think making good decisions about what and where you eat probably has helped a lot. Our rule has been to wash our hands when we can, only allow ourselves “peel able” (is that a word?) fruit and really hot well-cooked items outside restaurants, and nothing that generally freaks you out.
Oh, by the way, our foreign readers may not understand the reference, but it might have helped a great deal – then again – maybe not. The cold continues unabated.
Duc, our guide, tried to keep me medicated to help with the symptoms and too his credit put in much effort to that end. The pharmacies here only appear to sell essential over-the-counter medicines although I suspect they may also fill doctors’ prescriptions. They are little stand alone shops you run across every once in awhile – not the mega drug store you find in the States or even the one you find in the Safeway store.
Road Sign – It Means Dangerous Road
The challenge is that you need an interpreter or to find a pharmacist who speaks English. Trouble is that you don’t really know what they actually understand. The interpreter method is probably the best and Duc has been very supportive of our needs throughout our stay in northern Vietnam.
“Anyways”, as Andy Gomez always used to say….
We left Hanoi on the morning of the 8th for a mid-point in our trip out of the city towards a further destination of Mai Chau (pronounced “my cho” with a long “o”). The village we stopped at is called Hoa Binh (pronounced “wha bin”). It’s located in the northern highlands east southeast of Hanoi and is perhaps a provincial capitol. Hoa Binh is also the name of the province – or at least the district – I get confused.
We drove for quite some time before we escaped from Hanoi. I think it’s 3-5 million people. I found the national highways to be in a fairly well maintained condition given the level of their use. Getting used to the “manner” in which the highways are used requires some explanation.
A House in the Village
Unlike Bangkok, which is pretty modern with rules, most traffic laws – if they exist – are really a suggestion. Kind of like Colorado speed limits. For us in the “west”, there are pretty clear cut rules for behavior which include a “right way” and a “wrong way” of doing things and the basis in law that would help determine who might be held responsible for their own driving choice if things didn’t go well.
Now it may be true that all that exists here as well. I may just not be able to understand it when I see it. Or perhaps, believe it when I see it?
Suffice it to say that our driver, Hai, really gets “it” and has made us feel pretty safe while he’s behind the wheel. I have not felt we were ever going to die! Can’t speak for Carrie though.
That said, things like passing (on a hill or curve is commonplace) and is more a dance than a maneuver. The incessant honking, light flashing, weaving, speeding up and slowing down all have in some way a “feel” you have many partners on the road and you all have a dance ticket, including the ox carts and pedestrians. Best part – no one is going very fast – you just can’t.
Terraced Rice Fields
We reached Hoa Binh in time for a late lunch. We pulled in to the Hoa Binh Hotel and Restaurant and interesting little place that reminded you a little of the Bates Motel only Asian style. The rooms were spartan though clean and comfortable. This was the only place we ate the entire trip where the food really wasn’t very tasty.
After lunch, we took a short vehicle trip to a start point for a short trek into a Muong village. We were met by a large group of children and older women all selling these little black woven hats with a number colorful balls hanging from them. All the same only different colored balls. We didn’t buy any.
The thatch-roofed houses were amazing. I think a photo is attached to the blog. It was just what you would expect, but have never seen before. Most of the houses are on stilts with the living quarters on the second floor. Duc mentioned that we’d be met by a village leader and sure enough a nice man about thirty or so met us, invited us to his home, made us tea, and of course, showed us some of the items his sister had made. Carrie bought a few small things.
The Ol’ Simmin’ Hole
After tea and the show of their wares, we were off to the elementary school for a look at rural education among the hill tribes. It was an interesting walk along a dirt path and road that wandered up and down through the countryside, sometime through people’s property as a shortcut, and off towards places we’d never been. It was fun!
The school was some kilometers away and when we finally got there we found about thirty students sort of cleaning up – sort of… Duc told me that the day was really a day off for the kids except some of them had to attend because they were being punished for their behavior in class. Evidently, cleaning the campus of leaves and trash is like detention. He gave the kids a hard time, but after awhile everyone was laughing and playing around like kids do. They were very interested in Carrie and I. We’d have short conversations with Duc interpreting. After some time visiting the school, we headed back to the car for a trip down the mountain and back to the hotel in Hoa Binh.
Inside the Home – Products for Sale
Before we got back to Hoa Binh, we stopped for a short side trip to a Dao village. It was located on the river and they were clearly making use of it commercially. We took a trek via foot path to get there, passing by individual houses, corals of water buffalo, and on to see if we might visit someone’s home. We met three women on the path who informed us that no one was home at the house we were planning to visit. A little disappointing though we did get to see fishermen working their nets and loading boats with produce for markets down river.
Now it’s somewhat important to note that the hotel is located on a curve just off the national highway (a very narrow two-lane blacktop). If you recall the discussion of driving behavior earlier, you’ll remember that there’s a lot of honking, light flashing, etc. In fact, everyone honks before they go around a curve including the cars, pickups, and semis. Trouble is that the walls are thin at the Bates Motel and the horns are loud and – of course – John has his cold to contend with… Not much sleep in Hoa Binh.
The following morning we continued our trip to Mai Chau. The road really rose out of Hoa Binh and soon we were in real mountains with switchbacks and all. Every once in awhile there would be a roadside “stand” (more like “sit”) where things – mostly food – was for sale. We stopped at the pass for a perspective look back at Hoa Binh and then over the top we dropped into a beautiful valley and Mai Chau.
Mai Chau is actually the main village in the valley. We did not actually stay there although we drove and walked through it a few times. Once in Mai Chau, we set off for Ban Lac (or was it Tong Dau or Hong Mo Loung?) a White Thai village a kilometer or two from Mai Chau.
We stayed at a guest house with a host family and fifteen French tourists. Fortunately, we had our own bedroom and private meals although hanging out with the French group might have been interesting. Carrie would have had to reach back a ways to conjure the meaning of all the French that was being spoken. In the end, we did have an opportunity to spend some time with them.
An older gentleman showed us to our room on our arrival, sat with us, and poured some tea. By then I was beginning to think this was a pretty standard ritual for the hill tribes, perhaps most in private homes. He spoke no English so we sat around and gestured and giggled a lot. He seemed quite pleasant. He laid out “rugs” on the bamboo floor.
Ah the floor! It was covered with very small (1/2″ wide) parallel strips of bamboo threaded together every two feet or so. You could see right through to the floor below between the bamboo. The construction below had beams that ran about every 10″ off center. For awhile, I was sure we’d fall right through until we got stuck. We never did, but it was a bit unnerving at first.
Lunch came after short time. It seemed like the same lunch we’d been eating for over a week. They called it a set menu. It always included: spring rolls, fish, a pork or chicken dish, some fresh vegetables, steamed rice, and a drink of some kind, often tea. It was basic, but quite good.
After lunch, it was time to explore the village and do some shopping. We were there for Sunday market! Most of the villagers had set out their hand crafts and weaving for display. It was very colorful and hard to choose from all the offerings. I’ve added some photos to give you a feel for the selections.
Later in the afternoon we trekked back through Mai Chau on to a village on the other side of the valley. It had a beautiful promenade that split two sets of terraced rice fields with an entrance gate to remind you how far away the village was and to welcome you once you got there.
This village was much less oriented to selling hand crafts, more agricultural I suppose. It was much calmer and included a kinder garden. It was fun to listen to the children on the second floor although it was impossible to see many of them. Sounded like 5 and 6 year olds anywhere.
We walked the paths throughout the village complex. This one was smaller than where we were staying. There were about 200 homes in all.
The weather in the valley was hot and humid. It was a surprising change from the summit we had crossed earlier in the day. Lots of sweating.
In the evening after dinner that included those five of six items we’d gotten used to eating, Duc had a secret he wanted to share. He had managed to get us invited to a performance in the French group’s sleeping quarter of traditional Muong, Dao, and White Thai dances in costume by local villagers.
We all got together about 8:00 p.m. for the show. The group of dancers we all about 20 years old or so and were chosen from the villages for their appearance first and dancing abilities second. They performed a number of dances. Each one included an explanation in Vietnamese followed by an explanation in French. Duc would fill us in as he could in English. The romantic dance was my favorite. Carrie and I have a little video to share with friends.
Toward the end of the performance, the dancers invited the audience to participate as well when they did a bamboo dance, clapping long bamboo stalks on the floor up and down and then together as everyone danced through. It reminded me of something Polynesian. They culminated with a group drink of rice wine from a pot with many bamboo straws. Carrie tried it. I had a cold and it didn’t seem right to expose others.
The next morning, Carrie and I walked to yet another village and explored it on our own. It was quiet and we found a lovely spot by the river to sit on a stone wall and watch some rice farmers working. Pretty pastoral. There were dogs around, ducks, chickens, a cows grazing nearby with a mountain backdrop that was simply stunning. We spent a couple of hours just relaxing and enjoying the day.
We left for a four-hour drive back to Hanoi thinking a lot about our experiences and looking forward to another excursion into the Old Quarter and our last night in Vietnam.
Source: jcdaggettco’s Travel Blog – Realtravel.