Monday, March 23, 2009

Mai Chau...March 23, 2009

Reentry --
I'm in the lobby in a hotel in Ninh Binh, using the tour operator's laptop with a flaky wireless connection. We just had our evening meal of goat, goat, goat, (that is all they have is a fairly good sized town next to a river, but they said all the fish are sent to Hanoi). Our guides like rice liquor, so we had a few shots of that with our warm Bia Ha Noi. But that is now. I need to go back a few days to catch up.

Hanoi to Mai Chau -

We left Hanoi on Friday morning about 8:00 in a drizzly, grey, traffic laden rush hour headed south, I think to a town called Hoa Binh. It took at least an hour to get out of Hanoi and into some green hill country. Our first rest stop was owned/operated by Muong people who had some brilliant handicrafts, weaving and embroidery for sale. Further on we were able to change into our riding gear in the minivan and get onto the bikes. As I said, it was grey and drizzly, and John and I both were covered in brown, oily sludge within the first half hour. The road had some good climbs, not terrible traffic, and we only knocked down 10-15km before stopping for lunch. These guys love to eat and take a relaxed approach to things. I don't recall the food that first day, but the dogs roaming the restaurant kept the floor clean. We got back on the bikes for some 8% climbs, up and down, stopping for photo opps of the lush green valley floor below us. After another 15km, the driver stopped us and said the climb would be too radical and had us load the bikes into the minivan. He was right, I was glad we weren't riding as we climbed higher and higher before descending into the town of Mai Chau. At this point of the tour, we had Hieu, our guide in Hanoi, the driver (we still don't know his name, but the owner/operator told us he had several wives in different houses in Hanoi), and a young woman Houng, who was doing a sort of residency for her studies in tourism at Hanoi U. Same degree that Joe (owner/operator) and Hieu have. We did not stop in the town of Mai Chau, but went on a mile or two and turned off the main road into what they call the home stay village number 1 and number 2. These are White Thai villages of houses on stilts with one or two big rooms which are divided (if needed) by curtains or mosquito netting. The floors are joist with thin bamboo planking running across the joist. There is usually a water buffalo housed on the ground below. When the government realized what a tourist attraction these quaint villages were, with their incredible weaving and needle work, they subsidized the building of water closets separated from the house by a few yards. We slept on thin futons on the bamboo floor with mosquito netting surrounding us. The family and the guides were separated by curtains and netting. After dinner, very tasty beef with leafy vegetables, pork with leafy vegetables, etc., we went to a dance performance of traditional White Thai festival dances, to celebrate Spring, weddings, harvest, etc. The dancers were wearing colorful, traditional woven garb, and the dances were very well-coordinated. These villages are nestled in a verdant valley with water flowing, buffalo grazing, birds chirping. It has to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Next morning, we noticed the young apprentice was crying, and then she disappeared. Later, the guys told us she was complaining about the amount of work, so they sent her back to Hanoi. She had washed our muddy cycling clothes, and entertained us while we waited for the dance performance to begin. Her English was not great, spoken, so we communicated via the cell phone display where she texted what she wanted to convey.

Mai Chau to Cam Thuy -

Joe arrived early on Saturday morning. He had to finish a French group's tour before joining us. We left Mai Chau on a dirt road, two track path, through lowlands, as a 10km shortcut to the first village. This first village was on the (I think) Da river, and was the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Joe pointed to a rugged dirt path headed up the hill which was used for ground troops. The river was used to float heavy stuff, Soviet tanks, artillery southward. This little town was busy and dangerous. As we sat having bottled iced tea, and taking pictures, a pedestrian was hit by a motorbike. The walker seemed unhurt, but the biker did a faceplant onto the hard clay road, and seemed shaken. Our guys pulled out the first aid kit and applied some mercurochrome, and he rode away. The road out of this village was just one lane, but there was very little traffic, gorgeous views of the river, water buffalo drawn carts, and a lot of bamboo harvesting. We passed several chopstick factories where they cut the bamboo down to manageable size and clean it up, making thousands of pairs of chopsticks per day. There were baby ducks, baby chickens, baby pigs, baby buffalo, baby dogs, baby humans, everywhere. Little kids were eager to run to their fence and yell "hello" to the funny dressed people on funny bikes. The land along the road was full of terraced rice fields, people working at everything, irrigation, weeding, bamboo harvesting, fishing in the river. The road had many 8% and 10% grades and the heat and humidity were high. Everyone was friendly. Most women wear a mask which we thought was for latent fear of avian flu or protection from bad air, but the guides said they do it to protect their skin. As dusk approached, the guide said enough two wheeling, and we drove the final 10 or so km into Cam Thuy. A dusty little town where our hotel had given our room away to some govt official/brother-in-law who needed space for a wedding party. We found another little place (probably 1 star) where we wondered about bed bugs in the quilts we pulled out of the wardrobe. We had another meal of pork and beef which you wrap in rice paper with leaves of mint or other herbs and flowers and dip into a sauce, and pork cooked with pumpkin flower, rice, soup, etc., and many beers shared among the four of us.

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