Part Two — The Mai Chau Valley: In which the author sleeps in a one-room stilt house with 12 sweaty strangers, eats the perfect breakfast, and really hopes the holes in the mosquito net are no big deal
In my experience there are three main considerations when preparing to travel in a developing nation:
1. What is the likelihood that an icky bug is going to bite me and make me sick/dead?
2. What is the likelihood that something I eat is going to make me sick/dead?
3. What is the likelihood that traffic is going to make me sick/dead?
After a month cycling more than 1,000 kilometres through Southeast Asia, I feel confident in dispelling any fears you may have about the odds of these calamities happening. I feel confident because I know the odds are 100%. To be clear: they are all for sure going to happen to you.
But all of these dangers lie in our near future, so ought not to be worried about right now. Besides, today we leave the hurly-burly of Hanoi for rural Vietnam.
By the way, the first known use of “hurly-burly” in print was the year 1539, the same year that “democracy” appeared, as well as “bloodthirsty,” “anarchy” and “varmint.” Not all in the same publication (that didn’t happen until today).
Of course, “hurly-burly” means uproar, bustle, furor, pandemonium, so it is the perfect phrase to describe the traffic in Hanoi: a lawless mess of diesel trucks, official government cars, peddlers with push-carts, animals, buses full of confused tourists, and literally millions of gas-powered scooters, usually piled high with the sort of things that you and I would probably put on a list of things that should not be piled high on scooters: industrial fire extinguishers, mattresses, pet goldfish in little bags, children, those kinds of things. I promise you I’m not making any of this up.
Thankfully, this morning a hired bus is navigating the chaos to bring us and our bikes to a safer launching point. It takes an hour and a half to get just thirty kilometres out of town. It’s worth it. Immediately our collective stress level goes down, we notice colours again, and even the air smells better. Not good, just better, as we’ve swapped the smell of human poo for the smell of animal poo.
Our destination is Mai Chau, a rural district in northern Vietnam, about 160 km outside of Hanoi. In many ways it is the opposite of busy, dirty, crowded Hanoi. Where Hanoi has eight million people, the entire 520 km2 Mai Chau valley has only 50,000. Where Hanoi has scooters and hustlers and Chinese agents, Mai Chau has scooters and farmers and Chinese agents. Also, many locals working hard to capitalize on this increasingly popular spot for tourists looking for a quieter, greener Vietnam.
It is good to be on a bicycle in the countryside. There is only a little traffic on the roads, which are smooth and flat, a happy consequence of the same geography that favours rice paddies, fields of sugarcane, and plantings of corn and sweet potatoes. Those same flat roads are used by the locals to dry the rice, sugarcane, corn and sweet potatoes.
Cycling past, I see chickens and bugs and other things too fierce to mention scratch and crawl and poop in the drying produce, which is left to bake in the sunshine unsupervised. I can’t help but think that if we knew exactly where food came from, we would probably find it easier to lose weight.
This is our first opportunity to really check out the rest of our cycle touring group. It’s a good group, and despite varying fitness levels and experience with chafed buns après-midi, we get along very well. As is common for cycle tours in developing nations, we come from all over, leaning heavily toward the Commonwealth: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, with a few Europeans thrown in for colour. For example:
Chantelle, a “French” woman (she understands no French and is clearly German) whose name is not pronounceable by our Vietnamese tour guide, Son Nguyen. Instead he calls her “Jackie Chan,” after the famous Hong Kong action film star. This makes no sense at all so, of course, the name sticks.
Daniel, a Swiss engineer whose two principal character traits are boundless enthusiasm and formidable athleticism. Several times each day Daniel zips past me, usually when the going is steep, smiling and waving and full of bonhomie. I hate him. Everyone in the group begins to secretly plot his death before the first week is over.
I don’t really hate Daniel, but his presence is a continual reminder that I should have done way more training before this trip, and eaten fewer turkeys and etc. over the Christmas holidays. What I’m saying is that he must die, and so I join in planning with the good Commonwealth folks.
The scenery is lovely. Think of big fluffy clouds sailing across deep blue skies. Think of green, jungle-covered hills rising dramatically from ultra-flat rice fields. Now stop thinking because you’re done; you have the entire concept and there is nothing more for you to do except maybe turn up the volume on whatever it is you’re listening to. It’s rural, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get any quiet rest.
I wouldn’t want to be our tour guide this afternoon. This is when he tells us about our accommodation tonight. Specifically, the twelve of us are all staying in the same room in a simple homestay backing on to a flooded rice field in the village of Poom Coong. The common room is perched on stilts, maybe twelve feet off the ground. The only way in or out (on or off?) – say you need to pee in the middle of the night – is via the steepest set of narrow stairs I have ever seen.
The animals that cohabitate with you in the homestay, whether you paid for that option or not, make a lot of noise. On a two-minute walk around the village, we meet barking dogs, crowing roosters, mooing cows, barking dogs, hissing cats, quacking ducks, barking dogs, and barking dogs. I feel like I’m in a children’s book about animal noises, only one with beer, which the homestay family sells to us at the slightly marked-up margin of 500%.
It turns out that’s okay, because the average cost for a homestay with a family in Mai Chau is about $12. That usually provides you with a sleeping mat, sheet and pillow, breakfast the next morning, access to a toilet and shower, and all the mosquito netting you can eat. Someone or something has already eaten holes in my mosquito net.
On our walkabout we also see quite a few men working on building more homestay platforms. They have a few power tools, and while half the men beaver away with the tools, the other half are busy making more tools. That’s right, what tools they don’t have, they make, usually out of tropical hardwood and old car parts.
As the sun sets over the jungle and rice paddies, we drink a few marked-up beers, and reminisce about the day together. Eventually, in ones or twos, we drift apart and make our ways up to the sleeping platform. Sleep comes, despite powerful Australian snoring, a happy benefit of cycling many miles in the hot sunshine. Or maybe it is the beer.
Breakfast at Poom Coong is unexpected: a perfect baguette, complete with fried egg, real butter, and a nice-sized pottle of pineapple jam. No one can think of a plausible explanation as to how our hosts managed to glom fresh European baking out here in the rice paddies. But no one is complaining, either. We all just mutter approvingly about “French influence,” conveniently forgetting about Hoa Lo prison and the whole Western-oppression-of-Indochina thing in favour of a really good breakfast.
Leaving Mai Chau
It’s raining today, more like a light Scotch mist on the west coast than the monsoon blasts common here in the wet season. Mai Chau gets 1,772 mm of rain annually, about three times more than Victoria. The other thing I learned about Mai Chau after three full seconds of internet research is that the region is classified as Cwa by Köppen and Geiger. I’ll bet you didn’t know that, did you?
Me neither. And I don’t know what it means, but I can tell you that in this light rain we are no wetter than usual. We have traded in a little heat for a little rain, which amounts to less sweat, but more mud splatter. At least I hope it’s mud. The single lane roads and concrete pathways between rice fields are slick with the passing of many water buffalo.
The scenery as we leave Mai Chau is otherworldly: tall spikes of limestone rock reach out of flooded rice paddies, jungle-topped grey towers that look like they could fall over at any second. Villagers wearing the traditional nón lá conical hat work in the fields, planting, spraying, and thinning rice shoots by hand. It looks to be back-breaking work, hunched over at an unfortunate angle for the entire day, standing or squatting in six inches of water.
Nevertheless, they all smile and wave as we cycle past. Most of them are from the Tai culture, the second-largest of the 53 ethnic groups officially-recognized in Vietnam, with some 1.5 million people farming in the northern part of the country, close to the highlands of Laos and China. Within the larger Tai culture, there are many subgroups, including Thái Đỏ (“Red Tai”), Thái Trắng (“White Tai”), and Tai Dam (“Black Tai”). Black Tie!!!” HA HA HA HA doesn’t anybody else think this is funny? No? No.
Each group has its own language, culture, and customs, from what they wear at a funeral to what they do with the placenta after birth. You could spend your life learning about these gentle mountain people, but I think a good place to start would be the beautiful smiles and welcoming waves to the crazy, cycling farrang. Farrang means “foreigners,” a term bastardized from the Thai word for the French: “farangsayt.” Today it means any white people or foreign tourists — there are no local tourists.
It’s another world, and what I really want to do is get back to that hilarious joke about black tie… Is it too soon?
Light rain, and bad jokes, and water buffalo splatter aside, the Mai Chau valley makes for a lovely bike ride. It’s the smiles and waves. You feel welcome; at home while far, far from home.