After having no luck finding a tea plantation to volunteer at I began searching for Couchsurfing hosts along the road ahead. I found someone in search of an English teacher to help with their school in return for room and board. I didn’t commit to anything long term as I had no idea what to expect.
I showed up in the small town of Viet Quang and An, his friends, and community welcomed me with open hearts and curiosity. I was given a simple room behind the classroom area of the English language school. It was very basic and they wanted to make sure I was comfortable with it. I was. An and his fellow teachers and friends then invited me out to have a feast.
The kids I taught English were fun and a pleasure to be around. I wasn’t given much in terms of teaching materials or lesson plans so I became creative with many games. The kids were quite shy at first so I did my best to get them speaking and making as many mistakes as possible!
I played football with the kids in town and went exploring in the surrounding hills. I also joined forces with a local dance group but they didn’t show when it came to filming our final creation.
I was invited to a party in celebration of the life of a friends mother. I felt a bit out of place but everyone seemed happy to have a foreign guest of honour. We feasted on floor mats and they even brought out a fancy bottle of scotch that a relative had brought back from overseas. It was likely 50 times more expensive than their local fire water. Several fairly drunk men came to visit beside me and have a conversation. My friend was only able to translate half of what they said as they were either incoherent or speaking in another local language that he did not understand. All smiles nonetheless!!
I extended my stay in the small town for almost three weeks. It wasn’t easy to leave but my Vietnamese visa was soon to expire. I had a big bike ahead of me to get to the Laos border. My route took me through some more breathtaking mountain scenery close to the border with China.
In this remote part of Vietnam it was clear by the looks from people that not many white foreigners passed through, especially not on bicycles. The roads were mostly empty and the riding was pleasant. I came to the large red river valley and descended for 15 km down the mountain side to the busier highway below. I followed it to the border town of Lao Cai where Chinese development was bursting up everywhere. If I wasn’t careful I would have accidentally rode my bike right up to the border post.
I spent a night here to rest before the big climb back up into the mountains. Some kids who had seen me recording a dance video in the street invited me to play some badminton. They were young but quite competitive when it came to hitting the birdy around.
I woke up the next morning ready for the big climb ahead and was invited by the owner of the guesthouse to join him for breakfast. I wasn’t expecting breakfast to include shots of the local fire water! I managed to politely escape while I still had my legs and set out on the road a little bit later than hoped.
It was only 33 km up the road to the popular tourist town of Sapa but it was one of the toughest climbs of the trip. 1700m of non stop elevation gain with the occasional jaw-dropping view out across steep rice paddy terraces. It would take me all day to make it into the touristic mess of Sapa. I found a decent place to stay on the outskirts of town and walked into the market for a delicious vegetarian feast.
I can see how Sapa became a popular destination but it appears to have lost much of it’s charm to development and the overpopulation of tourists. The town is nestled in a high green mountain pass that is frequently lost within the clouds. As the clouds disperse they reveal beautiful green valleys splendent with all sorts of agricultural delights. The local population is much more diverse than other parts of Vietnam with a number of different hill tribes trading their fare and doing business with the southern transplants and more recent Chinese immigrants.
While I was in Sapa my sister Tamsin organized a fundraiser for me back home in Toronto. I was able to do a live video call in during the event and awkwardly dance at a distance with some of the attendees. By the looks and sounds of it the event went very well. My sister is awesome.
The rest of my few days there were spent walking the small trails in the surrounding hills and river valleys. I watched as people harvested rice with their hands and smacked the grains loose into barrels. I would occasionally pass small groups of tourists on a guided trip who seemed so out of place to me. I’m sure I seemed even more out of place to them.
Lucky for me I happened to be in Sapa during the Full Moon Night Festival where there is a large procession of giant lanterns through town to the central square. Dragons, Mushrooms, Monkeys, and animals of all sort in van sized floats lighting up the night. It was quite the sight to behold but I was more interested in all the curious onlookers, most of whom seemed to be Vietnamese from the big city of Hanoi.
After a few restful days I then winded my way up and down some beautiful mountain valleys and peaceful roads, disturbed only by the excessive honking of passing motor vehicles. I stayed at little guesthouses for about $10 a night and survived on mostly Pho.
I made it to Dien Bien Phu with one day to spare before I would need to push on to the border with Laos. This was the site of an impressive war victory. I visited a war museum and was enlightened to the fact that Ho Chi Minh’s “success” sparked communist revolutions around the world.
The Vietnam War or 'Cuộc chiến tranh Mỹ' (The American War) is filled with tragic and fascinating stories. The resiliency and ingenuity of the Vietnamese in holding off the most powerful military in the world is just the surface of it.
On my walk home I happened upon a birthday party that had claimed over half of the street and was invited to join. I was soon singing Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” for everyone in attendance. I wasn’t asked for an encore.
The next day I made my way towards the border with Laos.