Kicking off Adventure Travel. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

I found the place. You know the place I’m talking about. It’s the place you go to when you are down, depressed, or despondent. When you’re trying to remember “the good times.” These places are few and far between. You treasure them. I have a few of them. Like New Smyrna Beach and today – biking through the rice fields in Vietnam. Now, I just need to figure out how to bottle the thing.

Arriving in North Vietnam, Lao Cai

Train pulled into the Lao Cai station at 5:00 AM. Train lady banged on our door and screamed words I don’t understand. I’ve been awake for what seems like hours. I looked at my watch. The Chinese “Adidas” watch read 11:30 pm. Can’t be right.   It wasn’t.  Chinese battery died. Bought in China for $3. Lasted 5 weeks. Now, need to add battery to list of random purchases in Vietnam.

I kicked the top bunk. “Ang, is this our stop?” NO answer. Tour-Burn turns over. People were getting off the train. Wait, people who like look me were getting off the train.

I screamed, “Ang, is this our stop?” No answer. He was still asleep. I kicked the bunk hard with both feet. I felt like I was back at summer camp. I heard him grunt. Something moved.

Yes, this was our stop.  Time to cram and slam.

The boys were up and out in 3 mins while I was still shoving. Why is it boys are faster than girls? I mean, I could be tossing into a bag some lip gloss, sunscreen and a camera, and I’m still last. By this time, the train lady was peering in the window and screaming some Vietnamese mambo-jumbo. I waved back, raised my eyebrows and smiled.

The train corridors were even smaller than the Chinese trains. A six-foot gal caring a backpack and over-sized  bag could not fit.  It was not even 5:15 am, and I was sporting a sweat mustache.  Made it to the door. Tossed my bags. Jumped out. And, yes, I was proud to say, the last one to disembark.

The sun was making its entrance.  The town of Lao Cai welcomed us with honking horns and diesel fumes. We were not even out of the train parking lot and my short term memory kicked in. I thought, “OMG! I forgot my Kindle on the train. I don’t remember touching it.”

I panicked. Told Ang to stop. And, yelled, “Ang, hold it. I need to check my bag for something. Left something….left something…”

I mumbled and ripped open my bag. And, there it was. Laughing at me. My Kindle. “SUCKKKERRR!” Yea, ever since I left 1/6th of my stuff in Chiang Mai, the brain goes into “gotcha” mode when I cram and slam. Not fun.

I wheeled my half-opened bag across the parking lot and into a welcoming restaurant across the street. I spied ambiance.

Freshly squeezed OJ was waiting. Back to happy again. I headed straight to the washroom. Sitting toilets. With toilet paper. That flushed. Happy again.

For breakfast, they served Vietnamese/French banquette, fried eggs, cheese and butter. Happy again. You just got to love the positives from French occupation. Oh, almost forgot, the Vietnamese coffee was to die for. No need for chemicals or cream to dilute the taste. Yep, was happy again.

After breakfast, we waddled to the bikes. I changed into my biking outfit – H&M black leggings and the stretched out, Perfect Fit JCrew long sleeve T-shirt.

Ang raised my bike seat to its limit and said, “You big…” I tell him wrong word. We use the word “tall.” He just smiled.

Me: “Ang, how long is the ride today?”

Ang: “Morning ride is twenty-five kilometers.”

Me: “WHAT!  It sounds like a lot… I think it is 18 miles or so, right?  No hills, right?”

Ang ignored me. I continued to think this through. Have I ever biked 18 or 20 miles before? Can’t recall. Certainly NOT at a pub crawl at CSU (Colorado State University.) And, I believe that was the last time I was on a bike for any extended period of time.

We took off. It’s after 7 am and the little/big town of Lao Cai was waking up with a bang. Families gathered on mini-stools made for midgets. Kids lined up for breakfast from the street vendors.

Old women carried baskets of fruits and flip flops to sell at market. Random men readied themselves for a day of sitting, staring and spitting.

We peddled on.

Within minutes we were out of the diesel aroma and into rice-land. The scenery changed in seconds. Teen age girls were hand washing their clothes at the river. Or, hanging laundry by the road. Their mothers or older sisters were walking to the field with plows in one hand, basket in the other and a baby strapped on their back. Banana fields, green tea fields, rice fields, mango fields littered the landscape. Green screamed at us. The air was dry. It’s hoovered between 68 and 72 degrees. No humidity. No bugs. No motor-bikes. Just Silence. Pure silence. Expect me gasping for air. Happy again.

We hit our first hill. Wait, how do you shift gears? Which side is which? First hill was a disaster. Used all the wrong gears. Walked it. Tour-Burn was cycling patiently behind me. Poor thing. He stopped. Waited. Helped. So kind. It’s nice. I could not recall the last time a cute boy waited on me. Wait, let me rephrase that one. I don’t recall the last time I ALLOWED a cute boy to wait on me. Very different preposition. And, I liked it. Instead of bucking it, I just smiled. It was nice.

The whole morning was filled with Vietnamese adults and children running into the street and enthusiastically greeting us in their high pitched screams, “HI! HI! HELLO!” Their energy kept me moving. And, the mini-hills got better.

We stopped at one point to help a farmer. It’s sunny these next few days and perfect time to dry out corn along the road teaming with mack-trucks, motor-bikes and water buffalo. We helped him sort his corn and he just smiled and smiled and smiled.

The next thing I know, a heard of water buffalo trotted towards us being led by 10-year girls. School does not start until 11:00 am for the older kids, so they can help with farm chores before school.

I really couldn’t imagine walking the dog, let alone a heard of water buffalo, before school in fifth or sixth grade. No doubt, I would have pitched a fit and been grounded for weeks…

After 25 km, we finally stopped. The bike bus was waiting for us. Ang asked if we wanted to keep riding for another 20 km or take the bus to the restaurant. Honey, I was on a high. There was NO stopping me. I say – LETS’ do IT. Both boys nodded in agreement. Off we went. For another 20 km.

OK. About 10 mins into it, my butt froze. Muscle spasm. The pelvis was not used to this much moving, over such an extended period of time.

What was I thinking? I tried to channel this joy and happiness I was feeling earlier. It was difficult. How does Lawrence Armstrong do it?

My attitude changed when school was being let out and all the boys and girls filled the street – again waving at us and screaming “Hello! Hi!” They were SO happy to see us. They could not stop grinning and giggling and waving. Innocent little Vietnamese girls in oversized floppy pink hats, hello kitty back-packs and school uniforms rode along side of us. Their enthusiasm and laughter were intoxicating. I forgot about my paralyzed pelvis and focused on their smiles and hats. I wanted their HATS. I had to find their HATS. I’m buying those HATS…

By the last 3 km, my lower body was on fire. Ang was very far ahead of us. Sweet, patient Tour-Burn was riding next to me. I finally screamed out for Ang, and he just pointed. I could hear myself, “Pelvis is paralyzed…Need to stop…” Tour-Burn said Ang turned into the restaurant. We’re at the final destination. OK, back to happy again.

We cycled up. Stopped. My legs buckled and I fell off my bike. I tried to stretch. Tried to walk. Tried the outdoor toilet. Couldn’t feel a thing… Finally after 10 mins or so, synapses kicked in. I had feeling. And, lunch was waiting. I inhaled and even splurged on a REAL coke. Needed the sugar to help fight the numbness…

After inhaling, we loaded into a wooden boat and cruised down the river for 2 hours. In a matter of minutes, I zonked out. I was full, just biked 45+ km and the sound of the engine just put me out for the count.

When my eyes popped opened, beauty danced around me in the form of limestone mountains, green rice fields, dense jungles and tranquil water.

Of course, this scenery caused me to think not about beauty but about the US believing they could beat the Viet Cong? And, why does stuff like this pop in my mind, when I’m supposed to be relaxed in a beautiful setting? This has GOT to stop.

The boat motored on and we passed men on bamboo rafts dredging up sand from the river. The sand was needed for cement to build buildings, roads….

I wonder if they have a permit or anyone with an engine and some bamboo can extract sand from a river bed? No one could answer my question.

We motored onward.

I knew we arrived for I spied her first. It was a tree. She talked to me. How do I know this? She is one TALL tree. And, I’m TALL. Tall beings bond with each other. I’m sure short beings do the same. Katie, Daph and Chop please chime in here. Do cats and shrubs talk to you?

Tall tree stood out. Her branches reached to the heavens and roots dug deep into the ground. This tall mama has seen it all – French forces, US paratroopers and Viet Cong as well as the occasional water buffalo, pig and China man. She has stories to tell.

I forgot about my partially paralyzed pelvis and lept from my metal chair to take photos. I could not stop taking pictures. Every angle – every light. Boat man, slowed down. I thought he was being nice so I could take at least 100 more pics before my battery died. Nope. We were disembarking at the TALL TREE. Travel angels unite. I just smiled and said “hi” to the tree. I felt protected here – protected from yellow fever, rabbis, mosquitoes and food poison. I belonged.

Tonight, we were to stay with an ethnic tribe. I believe only 10% of the Vietnam population is considered ethnic. This tribe is called Thai, but pronounced as DAY. Yep, I knew it. These are my peeps.

After photographing the tree, my battery died. SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. The Day tribe is one big fat Kodak moment. Man, I hope this village has electricity. I spotted a wire in the distance. I walked towards the wire.

Ang shouted, “Amanda – this way…” I had to figure out where wire goes. I felt like a heroin addict needing a fix…

Need a few electrons. Just one electron will do – Give it to me now.

I pulled out my American hat – “Ang, do these people – the Day tribe – have power? Battery died. Needs recharging – We’re talking crisis here…” He smiled. “Yes, have power…Goes out at night.” All I heard was “yes and electrons.” Confident my people would have access to electrons.

The Day tribe daughter welcomes us to her bamboo home on stilts wearing her red PJ’s, accented with the Burberry design pattern. Red is my favorite color. Plus, she is wearing an oversized light blue, silk pock-a-dot floppy hat. Want the hat. Of course, she’s a DAY.

Found out later, she is a little over 40 and just had her second child. Her little girl is now one. Day village daughter looks all of 30. I wanted to take a picture, but was too embarrassed. Ang told me that her older son is 19. He’s off – carousing in the town and won’t return back to the village. Day girl wanted a girl, for girls take care of their mommies and daddies. So, her kids are almost 20 years apart. Wow…

Ang took us on a sightseeing mission of the Day Village. The village seemed sooo remote. We put-putted for over 2 hours to get here. Ang told us that the town where we ate lunch is only 7 km away and remember our little boat never went over 3 mph. So, bug spray and Coke Zero are right around the corner. Nice to know.

We came across a little girl cleaning rice with a Whirlpool fan. She looked like a mini-rice terrorists with her black scarf around her head. She’s about 14 and it’s her job to get rid of the unwanted rice kernels. Seriously, I will never look at rice the same. It’s HARD work. A lot of labor. And, I will assert Mr. Uncle Ben should be charging triple.

Next, we walked over to the loud noises. Hammering and music. This is where the men were. Shock city. They’re not sitting and sipping, they building a pagoda for the monks. The village has collected money to build a formal praying area for the local monks. The village does not have a hospital, but will have an oversized monk place to pray. Good to know. After our walk about, we headed back to the bamboo house on stilts for dinner. Another amazing V-nam meal. We inhaled. Then, curled up in our mosquito nets. The boys slept. I typed. Want to remember every moment of this day, even the pelvis pain.

Rise & Shine

My eyes flew open around 5 am. Roosters crowing. Pigs grunting. Birds twirping. Geese landing on our bamboo roof. Two snoring men next to me wrapped in mosquito nets.

My body was still. Mind just absorbing the sounds. I’m waking up with the Day tribe. I feel so blessed to be here. How am I here? Seriously. How in the world am I curled up in a mosquito net, sleeping on a bamboo mat in Northern Vietnam. How? It truly is a wonder. I wake amazed and grateful everyday. And, I’m not just saying that – I hate it when people say stuff like that because it sounds so annoying. You just want to smack them. I mean, waking up happy, joyful and excited to be alive? How is this possible? Well, I can’t tell you how, just can tell you I am.

The mosquito net stirred next to me. The noise of birds landing on the roof must have stirred Tour-burn. My brain goes to “I need to get up…need to go to the bathroom…need to…” But, my spirit said. “Be still. Stay still. And, talk to me.” I did the later.

The boys stirred around 7 am. Breakfast was around 7:30 am. Green tea. Crepes. Bananas. Sugar. We inhaled and then hiked through the Day village, observing their morning rituals. Some women were up early, washing clothes… veggies… babies. Other women were heading out to the fields. Sweeping their floors.

Tots with no underwear were running around. I finally figured out why village kids don’t wear pants. Diapers are too expensive or non-existent. Cloth diapers are too expensive or a pain to wash. They teach the kids how and where to pee and poop as soon as soon as they can crawl. It’s potty training at is finest people…

We hiked for an hour or so then our bus drove us to Day 2 of our bike trek through Northern Vietnam. This was the strenuous stretch day, whatever that means. I’m just happy to be here. Just happy.

One Response to “Kicking off Adventure Travel. Northern Vietnam.”

  1. Paige Rhymes 06/01/2011 at 3:45 pm #

    my neck hurts….I have just spent the last two+ hours trying to get up to date on your blogs. Wow, I am really behind! just hitting more of the travels in Vietnam and have so enjoyed all of your interesting blogs -funny, educational, frightening in parts (the rats on the boat would have been torture for me!) I have to get up and at ’em so I will have much more to read on my next sit-down. I do plan on getting up to date. The Day sister quality of being emotional also extends to the Seem sisters, at least this one, as I was teary reading several of your posts. And, another thought, I certainly don’t think the fact that you ‘like nice things’ is the most damning thing contained in your posts preventing your future career in politics! All truth be told, I would love to see someone real like you go into politics – have very little respect for any politicians these days…maybe that’s what you will do upon your return 🙂 Carpe Diem!!!!