Hanoi held us for almost a week. A combination of comfortable lodging, crunchy baguettes and travel fatigue conspired to keep us pushing back our departure “just one more day” again and again and again.
While much time was spent holed up indoors, I did venture out for a walk around West Lake, Hanoi’s largest: 17 kilometers of shoreline to be exact. Leaving the guidebook stashed in the panniers and just wandering around is my favorite way to explore any city. And with the shore as my guide, getting lost seemed highly improbable. Mostly I met a lot of fisherman. Friendly ones who invited me over to have a look at their catch.
I also stumbled across Quán Thánh Temple where locals were busy preparing for Tet (the lunar new year). Many were presenting the Buddah with offerings of money, sweets and even booze… praying for health, happiness and luck in the new year. Others were lining up for scholars to pen good wishes for 2012.
In theory, Tet should be an interesting time to visit Vietnam—get an inside look at the celebrations; see colorful local life, etc. The stuff guidebooks rave about.
Reality is a bit different.
The streets of Hanoi were thronged with shoppers as we inched our way out of the city. Think Christmas Eve at the Mall of America. People zipped along with kumquat trees strapped to the back of motorbikes and bicycles. The deep orange fruit trees—which symbolize fertility– added a splash of color to the dreary winter scenery, but the overloaded machines were just one more road hazard to contend with.
As we cycled further along Highway 6 towards the Laos border, water buffalo on the road posed a bigger worry. And drunks.
From what we observed on the roads, Tet is little more than a three day drunk. Cycling is relatively safe until about mid-morning, since everybody’s still snug in bed nursing a hangover. But by about 10 AM, revelers have sufficiently recovered to start downing moonshine all over again. Packs of youth on scooters blaze down the highway, popping wheelies and weaving dangerously across the center line. Teenage girls hold on tight and giggle at the antics. Apparently traffic statistics during Tet 2012 showed some improvement over previous years. Just 167 road accidents across the country killing 137 people and injuring 148 others.
We witnessed several crashes and even more smashed helmets on the side of the road. In fact, we even had a crash of our own. A minor one. I’d pulled up beside Eric to bemoan the risky riding practices of a group of kids who had just roared past. As we chattered away, another pack of boys came blazing up from behind and we ended up smashing into each other. I went crashing into a cement pylon and tumbling down a slope. It hurt like hell, but all I had to show was big bump and some nasty scrapes. And yes, I was wearing my helmet at the time.
The biggest concern of all
Time not spent dodging drunks, was devoted to tracking down food. For non-meat eaters, Vietnam poses enough problems, but during Tet the difficulties reached new heights. [vsw id=”euPqrtMqDug” source=”youtube” width=”637″ height=”514″ autoplay=”no”]
Most businesses come to a grinding 3-day halt during the Lunar New Year. Even hotels close as workers head back to their home village to spend time with relatives.
Food is always an issue with us, as it is with most cyclists. Fortunately, we still had a few vegetables that we’d been carting around since leaving the capital. On day two of Tet a few small shops opened back up, but all that was available was junk food. We loaded up on choco-pies and sweeties plus a few packets of instant ramen noodles which pumped us with enough energy to climb the grueling hills.
No exaggeration this time
I know the word grueling finds its way into most of my blog posts, but we’re not talking hyperbole this time. 9,252 meters (30,354 feet) of climbing in just under 500 kilometers. Up and down all day long day after day all the way to Dien Bien Phu.
The lush highlands of Vietnam are very different from urban areas and coastal regions. First off, the vast majority of the highlanders belong to one of 15 different ethnic groups. Few ethnic Vietnamese live in the mountains where living conditions are often harsh. Subsistence farming is a way of life for most hill tribes. Women can often been seen weaving brightly colored fabric and men toiling away in the fields with their water buffalo.
Homes are simple, usually built of wood or even mud huts in very poor areas. Many hill tribe people live in stilt houses, with humans on top and animals living below.
One night we even got the chance to sleep in one of these quaint dwellings. Regular blog readers can imagine the scene: the sun is sliding behind the mountains, we’ve got what looks to be a long, steep climb ahead of us and there appears to be no place to sleep. Every inch of land in the highlands is occupied either by animals, people or crops.
I’m slogging away, gently cursing under my breath…I knew we should have stopped at the last village. We’re gonna be climbing this @#$#$ mountain till midnight.
“Stop , Stop,” I hear Eric bellowing, “there’s a hotel!” WHAAAAAT? No way, a hotel, out here in the middle of no where in the heart of the hill country? Impossible, I wail.
But Eric’s right. There is a hotel, of sorts.
Before you start conjuring up images of clean white sheets and hot showers, let me set a few things straight. Eric had spotted a sign announcing Nha Nghi. Guesthouse in Vietnamese.
There was a house, one on stilts, with the animals slumbering below, that was offering accommodation to passersby. Who might come to such a place I wondered. Certainly no middle class Vietnamese would put up with such rustic conditions. But foreigners would. For the “authentic” experience.
I climbed up a rickety ladder into a spacious room with mats for sleeping and a worn mosquito net for privacy. The old man in charge soon appeared with heavy blankets, all wrapped up in plastic to save them from the dust. He carefully swept out the room with and then jury-rigged lighting from the main house. There was a certain charm to the lodgings and you certainly couldn’t complain about the price at the equivalent of around $2.50.
Later, the lady of the house cooked up our remaining vegetables (no charge, part of the rural hospitality) and we drifted off to sleep to the sounds of the animals shifting and relieving themselves below.
Another evening, we were treated to hospitality from the village health center. The people of the mountains were some of the kindest we encountered
After almost a week’s riding from Hanoi, we conquered the final climb in Vietnam and rolled across the border into Laos: country 84.
This is a special place for us because Laos is where we met, some 15 years ago, when we were both embarking on our very first long-term travel experiences.
Back then, I would have never predicted that I’d end up devoting more than 8 years of my life to full-time travel. Back in 1996, I thought a stint travelling in Asia was just a short break from “real life.” After my little Asia adventure, I thought I’d return to the US, get another job in corporate America and slave way until 65.
I guess there’s no way one can predict life’s twists and turns.