It was tough to say goodbye to Rein. It seemed so natural to have him around and I was hoping to have more fun and adventures with him. Our hug goodbye was a good one but it was also a sad one.
When he left I moved out of our cheap guesthouse and found some lovely couchsurfing.com hosts. A half hour cycle through the chaos of Hanoi’s streets brought me to their building. Correction, it brought me to a building that Google maps thought was their building. Rarely had it failed me. The building number was the same but it was in a neighbourhood about 15 minutes away.
I eventually found their fairly new looking building and took the stairs to their two bedroom apartment on the 9th floor. Rose and Loi greeted me and we became friends for life. I can’t help but ask myself what inspires a small-town couple to open their home to strangers. Is it simply out of the kindness of their heart. Is it out of curiosity or a way to practise their English. I imagine it’s a bit of a mix but mostly because it’s a way to travel and experience the fantastic diversity of cultures on this planet without leaving home. Try it. Speak to more strangers and people who look like they are foreign. You won’t regret it.
My new friends and hosts cooked the most delicious Vietnamese food and we feasted with their friends who came to visit. We went for nightly walks in the neighbourhood for super strong and bitter green tea. I came to love the stuff but I don’t think it was great for my sleeps. I spent the next few days cycling across the city attempting to sell my camera and/or a lens before I decided to keep it and buy a new microphone for it. It was a good move.
Throughout my time in Hanoi it was a far too common sight to see children who belonged in primary school working and sleeping on the streets. This inspired me to search out the Blue Dragon Childrens Foundation to see how I could help. I haven’t done much for them, besides writing this blog Street Dragons. Check out their site and if you’re inspired please donate to help them out. I can assure you they are doing great things.
I didn’t want to leave my new friends but I was crashing at their place and was more than ready to escape the heavily polluted air of Hanoi. Coal fired power plants are the main issue. The more remote and fresh air of the northern mountains was calling me. In the previous six months, I had battled with a flesh eating infection and bacterial dysentry, I had taken four rounds of antibiotics, one intense intravenous dose, and almost melted into the ocean and pavement in which I travelled. I was healthier now but I felt the need for some more legit natural healing.
I didn’t waste anytime to get far from Hanoi. In a few days I had cycled 250 km to a lovely lake nestled in lush tropical forested mountains. Ba bê lake. My days at the lake were quite relaxing, mostly spent writing and reading with a little bit of swimming and exploring the surrounding areas. The torrential rains took care of any scheduling concerns I might have had.
One day I went for a bike ride up the river valley along a nice single lane concrete path. I passed women fishing with large nets that they waved through the air like giant flags. My path forked and climbed up out of the valley towards another village that was reported to have a big waterfall. The path soon became so steep I was at risk of flipping backwards off my bike.
I breached the top of the hill and could see the waterfall in the distance. I rolled rapidly down into another valley and through a village that I assumed had been accustomed to seeing foreigners heading to the waterfall. As much as I love waterfalls I was more interested in the people living in this village. They seemed a bit shocked to see someone on a bicycle. That was a thing of the past in this remote village. Only their grandparents still rode bicycles out of stubbornness or resistance to change. They shouted support and enjoyed the spectacle. I wished I spoke more so I could communicate with them beyond that. I assumed they would have become very shy if I stopped to talk.
I climbed up the hill on the other side of the village and up a switchback road to where it ended and a rock trail led to the falls. I walked my bike up the trail a bit and then left it where I assumed it would be safe from the thieves of opportunity. I walked up the trail to where the mist and spray from the falls created a cooling atmosphere. I found a pool deep enough to swim and soaked up the refreshing energy.
Another day I went exploring up the mountain side to a cave I had spotted when I first arrived on my bicycle. It had a large pond on one side and massive boulders with stalagmites above them on the other. In between there looked to be someone’s long term campsite. I explored the boulder field and passages in between in search of a passage into the depths of the cave. Unfortunately I had forgotten my headlamp. I looked back towards the pond at one point and then I saw a ghost. No, it wasn’t a ghost. It was a live human.
A caveman had emerged out of nowhere. He was dirty with ragged clothes and barefeet. Sketchy looking. I wondered why he was there. I came to the conclusion that the cave served as the village’s prison or insane asylum. He seemed curious about me but also quite nervous in a nonchalant sort of way.
I realized I was intruding on his space, prison or not, and decided to leave without exploring into the dark any further. The thought also passed my mind that I didn’t want to give the caveman any time to strategize how he would rob me, or worse.
Sometimes when you spend so much time alone you forget that other people actually want company, and are interested in chatting. Because you are so comfortable not speaking, people you meet assume you don’t want to speak to them. Perhaps this is true for me sometimes, but most of the time I’m very curious and interested in the people around me. I imagine some people perceive me like I did the man in the cave, crazy and wanting my space, not interested in company. Most likely we both want, and need more of the opposite. Communication, affection, and hugs.
Have I spent so much time alone that I’ve dug myself a cave? Nahhhhh. Not even close. If you ran into me on this journey I’d likely say hello and hug you before you had a chance to think how to greet me.
The next morning I woke up and stepped outside of my room to 10 of the local women rehearsing their traditional dances in the common area of the homestay I was at. They asked me to film for them. I was more than happy to oblige! Their warm smiles, colourful clothing and elegant dancing will be in my memories for life.
In the week that I spent at the lake I watched the villagers planting rice in the fields that gradually sloped and disappeared into the lake, in parallel with the river that flowed out of the valley. Both men and women spent many long hours planting each individual bundle of rice seedlings into the muddy fields. The elders of the bunch walked around permanently hunched as if they were bending over to plant rice.
I then watched as the rains continued to fall and the fields and freshly planted rice completely disappeared under the surface of the rising lake waters. The rice fields quickly turned into their fishing grounds. Men in canoes would drag their nets in circles and smack the water with their paddles, apparently frightening the fish into their trap. It seemed a bit confusing to me and I guess it was also confusing for the fish. Does that mean I have fish brains?
Watching the backbreaking work that went into the rice being planted and harvested got me thinking about the energy return in its production. It seemed like a whole lot of work for a grain that was not particularly nutrient dense. I was right. It’s one of, if not the least, energy efficient crops. The return on energy input often ends up being a negative. In other words, you spend more energy planting and harvesting rice then you get from consuming it. Does this explain why Asians are some of the toughest, yet smallest people on earth? Hmmmmm
I was feeling rejuvenated. I had met some other travellers whose appreciation and stoke for what I was doing inspired me to do better at sharing my story. I brought out my camera more often and was determined to document more of my day to day life. The beginnings of starting a vlog were planted. See the results here on the Routes of Change Youtube Channel.
I was ready to ride further into the mountains and was rewarded for climbing uphill all day on my butt. The higher I bicycled the cooler and less busier the roads became. Sure, it was still the case that every vehicle which passed me blasted their horn in my ear but it was pleasantly less common to come across vehicles. As much as I like to say hello and communicate with people on the road, I find it challenging when their voice is an obnoxious horn.
The terraced rice paddies became steeper and steeper until they gave way to corn fields. The smiles and clothing of the people seemed to change from valley to valley. I was in one of the most culturally diverse parts of Asia. It reminded me of the Andean cultures in South America where I had first travelled when I was 20 years old. I felt at home, or like I was truly travelling once again, which is sort of the same thing for me.
I stopped for lunch at one nondescript dusty roadside town. It was common for none of the small restaurants in this area to have signs. I cruised up and down the main road in search of the most attractive looking table with a bottle of fish sauce and a bowl of chillies on it. I had learnt that this was a sign that they were open to feeding people.
I walked into a promising looking place that had not just one table, but several tables and a refrigerator behind a desk. Inside I found there were even more tables and one of them was occupied by a beautiful woman pushing a baby in a hammock with one hand and picking at what looked to be a big pile of broken up beehives with the other.
She seemed more surprised to see me then I did to see the buzzing insects in close proximity to her sleeping baby. In my broken Vietnamese I asked if they had food. As often was the case, she seemed nervous about how they could possibly serve this funny looking alien who didn’t speak their language. I asked for Pho (noodle soup that is served all day long and everywhere) and she seemed relieved. Her sister appeared with an apparent better understanding of my alien intentions. Then I asked for it without meat and they both looked at me like I was a lost weirdo. They nodded okay.
On closer inspection of the table with the hive on it, I realized the lady was not picking out honey or pieces of honey comb. The combs were filled with hundreds of squirming white larvae. Each had their own little individual comb hole and put up a bit of resistance to being tugged out, one at a time. It was both disgusting and fascinating.
I showed I was clearly interested when I brought out my camera to film them. Shortly after I sat down at my table and they brought me over a freshly prepared appetizer of wasp larvae salad.
There was a tiny amount of diced herb, tomato, and some lemon, but you could tell it was prepared to allow the larvae’s full flavour to shine through on the palette. It tasted earthy and nutty with a faint bitterness to it but the flavour was lost in the mushy texture of the recently deceased wiggly wasp babies.
I had a few larvae and expressed my delight at trying something new. Then my Pho arrived and filled up my stomach so I was unfortunately unable to finish the large bowl of larvae salad. Thanks anyways. I’m sure they are super healthy and I actually look forward to eating more bugs in the future.
Hello hello hello hello……
Its was tiring saying hello to all the shouting kids, but I took it as my duty to return the gesture. Sometimes in Vietnamese to express my appreciation of their culture and hope that they might also realize the value in their language; sometimes in English to express that there is value in learning, practicing, and suffering through those school days with it; and sometimes both! I saw the potential for it to make a huge difference in the lives of these kids. I might be the one interaction that they have with a foreigner and it could inspire them to continue learning English and get a good education and then return to their village to fight for their land rights as a lawyer. I do have a lot of time to thing while I’m cycling…
There was a clear distinction between the ethnic Vietnamese and the so called hill tribes. By and far the Vietnamese were the business owners and the tribal folks were the farmers, manual labourers, and grunt workers. Like everywhere in the world this area had a history of treating the minorities like second class citizens, using them, abusing them, and often much worse. They were viewed by the government like foreigners even if they had been living and working on the land for millennia longer than the age of the country.
The times were changing fast. Up until a decade ago the entire Northeast of Vietnam was closed to tourism. You can imagine why. It was now open for business and the hill tribes had become one of Vietnams biggest attractions. The fine line between cultural interaction and cultural appropriation and degradation was being crossed on the regular. Especially by the neighbouring Chinese.
Massive dams and power plants were under construction and paved roads brought investors and businessmen from the big cities. I was travelling the Ha Giang loop, as it was known. It had become a popular backpackers motorcycle circuit with cheap hostels, restaurants, and bars catering to the adventurous travellers.
They were having fun on their bikes but I was happy to be cycling on the quiet and nicely paved roads. Seeing, hearing, smelling, and experiencing more of the environment in which I traveled.
I was hoping to volunteer on a small tea plantation and reached out to several small places that were interested in help and language and cultural exchanges through the wwooof organization. Unfortunately none of them got back to me. What to do next? Find out in the next blog.