I found myself in Hanoi on the morning of 05 March, gazing over a two-stroke, 125cc Minsk motorbike and the prospect of piloting her through the Northern Highlands of Vietnam for the next 5 days. Sure I had some biking experience…namely a 10-speed thumb shifting Cannondale which had been ferreting me back and forth between school…but the addition of a internal combustion engine was a bit of a curve ball. But hey…if Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper could do it stoned across America, I could manage somewhat sober in northern Vietnam….
What followed was a five-day trek to Sapa, a gem of a town in the mountains of northern Vietnam near the highest peak of Mt. Fan Si Pan (3,143 m or 10,309 ft). The town of Sapa, regarded as one of the few remaining ‘trekking destinations’ (whatever that means…suffice to say it is sparsely attended – relatively – by tourists, though this is changing fast) in the world. Accompanying me was Jeff Ryder, a Georgetown classmate about whom I admit knowing very little prior to our trip. Jeff, well-traveled himself and a former Peace Corps resident of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, turned out to be a tremendously good companion, at times encouraging whether it be at a small trailhead or over a bottle of rice wine. Our guide, a six-year resident of Vietnam and native of Enfield, England, was equally deft with the bottle, more so with the wine rather than a jug of petrol (we ran out twice). Nevertheless, he fearlessly led us from Hanoi to Nghia Lo through Son Tray and Thu Cuc, then to Mu Cang Chai via Tu Le, then to Tam Duong via Binh Lu, arriving in Sapa then to Lao Cai, on the Viet-Chinese border, and return to Hanoi via an overnight train ride that ranks among the most drunken of my life (approximate route attached in pdf file). Also featured are a few shots from my time in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon for those like me who spent five days in the city, imitating some former French functionary a la Inspector Vigot – or Clouseau according to some opinions - by scurrying about in a white linen suit; my teammates dubbed me the Not-So-Quiet American).
Needless to say, I had never heard of these places before, and my guidebook map of Vietnam showcases a resounding blank space over the area which we traveled. Overall, few foreigners – if any in some places – travel over these roads and through these villages. The squeal of our Minsks and the sight of our teched-out equipment brought curious glances, gleeful ‘Hell-oh’s’ from the children running to catch a glimpse from the hillside paddies and condescending snorts of foraging water buffaloes. The Vietnamese highlands are a diverse place, and in addition to the Viet Kinh and Viet Hoa (ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese respectively), we encountered the nguoi thuong, what the French called the Montagnards or mountain people: Dao, Tay, Lu, H’mong – both red and black, Thai, Muong, each of whom are distinctive in terms of language, cultures and dress.
The diversity though contrasted with our quickly adopted daily rituals. Each morning was met with barely a splash of water (either for the face or stomach), a bowl of pho – the Vietnamese national dish of noodles, veggies and meat in a simmering broth – and an elaborate ritual of packing our saddle bags and jump-starting our cold bikes (temps were roughly 45-60 F). Evenings were finished with cups of rice wine – often distilled with added flavor in the bottle, perhaps an entire snake, a whole crow with feathers, bees or plum and apricot (supposedly, crow helps the back and snake enhances virility, though it all hurts the head in the morning) – and a feast of local fare (including simmered wild boar, sautéed deer, steamed fresh cabbage, fried spring rolls and the like…a very rich culinary tradition needless to say). Afternoon fortitude was reinforced by a beer, a few cups of tea and a tug of the thuoc lao (as in tuk with a long u and lao as in laos), a Vietnamese water pipe used to smoke a loosely dried tobacco). In between, each turn in the road, mountainous pass or new village overwhelmed us, each exceeding its preceding site in terms of beauty, obstacle or source of amazement.
There is plenty more to say…I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a couple of dangerous or reckless moments. My first concern was operating the bike (more than once I pulled the front brake, thinking it was my rear brake a la mountain bike, once earning myself a deep bruise on both my thigh and shoulder!), but then steering around other mopeds, army jeeps and trucks in the crowded Vietnamese streets. However, this was soon abated by my encounter with a rampaging water buffalo, then what Jeff dubbed the Mario Bros-like scenario of avoiding the construction cranes and earth-moving machinery at the numerous road construction sites along the way. Having to wave to passing children and navigate traffic was constant peril, but in the end the greatest challenge just seemed to be taking everything in.
There is a method to the madness of Vietnam, and many of the concerns pass from thought when looking out over the horizon, the simplicity of village life, the geometric serenity of ride paddies, the atmospheric comfort of mist passing over the hills and the numbing warmth of crow-infused rice wine. We were welcomed with two hands clasped together, a respectful gesture in Vietnam. Toasts were races to the bottom as both our Vietnamese hosts and members of our troika strived to meet one another’s glass below the other’s rim, as Vietnamese culture calls for the eldest – and most respected – toaster to have the honor of having his glass highest. Sharing a room with four other Vietnamese men was an odd experience, though I managed to have one bed to myself, but awoke at 6 am with eight feet on my bed as I realized that my bed blocked their path to the doorway. Even odder – but more understandable – was encountering a group of Russian tourists in Sapa at – of all things – a bathhouse.
All and all, Vietnam is an amazing country, rich and diverse, industrious and abundant. The five days I spent on the trek were merely a few of the 18 total spent in the country, but these were the most compelling (other photos will follow for those interested). Indeed there were sobering moments; monuments and museums to Vietnam’s centuries-old struggle for independence, the American War being only one in a long list of chapters, were reminders that the lush paddies and forests hid bomb craters, chemical defoliants and the blood of Vietnamese, Americans, French and Chinese. The hum of Ho Chi Minh City betrays fast development, neon lights and security of room service, rooftop pools and mobile phone service. In spite of the obvious propaganda, it is easy to understand the Vietnamese perspective and reconcile our own doubts towards our country’s involvement in the region. While Vietnam arises frequently in our national discourse, our comments on this period though were met with an earnest insistence that we look forward together rather than dwell on the past. An incredible lesson for an incredible place….
Josh Tulgan from USA