touring in the tonkinese

kylie and i have spent the past 3 days in sapa, vietnam and i have discovered a new love. dodging waterbuffaloes on high mountain roads through picture perfect rice paddies on a motorbike.

both kylie and i felt a cold coming on during our last day in hanoi, so we laid low and didnt work too hard. unfortunately our immediate geography called for a trip to sapa, the trekking capital of vietnam, rather than a nice beach where we could just lie around and convalesce. our compromise was to expend as little energy as possible and rent a motorbike instead of hiking.

what an amazing experience! sapa is definitely a tourist town, full of ugly hotels and lovely vietnamese ladies from the hill tribes trying to get you to buy their needlework. but get on a motorbike and in 10 minutes you can be out of town touring the mountain villages and rice paddies of the tonkinese alps.

i have never examined rice paddies up close before but took many opporunities to do so in the past few days. malcolm gladwell posits a theory in his latest book, "outliers" that the precision and hard work necessary to obtain an optimum harvest from a rice paddy has shaped the asian culture and mind and allowed them to succeed in business and the sciences in the 20th and 21st centuries. i am inclined to agree. these fields obviously require an incredible amount of maintenance, as well as attention to detail. each paddy is mirror flat and walled off from its neighbour precisely. water flows from one paddy to the next through one single outlet, precision carved to produce the optimum water level in each paddy. beautiful.

the first day we drove over the highest mountain pass in vietnam to the city of lai chau. the roads were reasonably maintained and wound up and up and up. at one point we encountered construction and had to wait 30 min at an impromtu tea and pork and egg stand that had formed for the crew and waiting vehicles.

that night we were accosted by choi, a street seller from the black hwong tribe who convinced kylie to buy some earrings entirely by the force of her friendly personality. some people just have a spark that makes them light up a room. kylie has that spark and i noticed it in her the very first day i met her back in grade 10 in the sanctuary of e free church in lethbridge. choi had the same spark and we couldnt help but like her.

the next day our plan was to explore the mountainous regions north of sapa. i quite enjoyed the winding narrow roads and soon we arrived at an abandoned church from the days of the french occupation. the stone was covered with a wonderful orange lichen.

soon after leaving the church we met a lady on the side of the road who spoke very good english. her name was mang mei and apparently a canadian had lived with her and her family for 6 months and taught her. she invited us to see her house and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon with her and her family.
her grandkids were initially quite shy, but warmed to us with an impromptu game of blind man's bluff.

the one down side to this wonderful visit revolved around a cultural misunderstanding. mang had offered to cook lunch for us and we accepted. after working up an appetite with her grandkids we were seated at a table all by ourselves with a huge amount of food.

i understood that the family would eat after us, and although the food was EXTREMELY tasty, i made sure to eat only a reasonable amount and save enough for the rest of the family. even with this self restriction, we had an excellent lunch. after we finished and were walking around the yard i realized that the family was also tucking into a big meal in the room adjoining ours. so i guess the food was meant for us alone!

after dinner mang mei looked at us sadly and opined, "i am sorry the food was not fit for you." ohh! my heart hurt! i tried to reassure her that it was excellent but although she seemed slightly mollified by my compliments i am not sure she fully understood.

after dinner i entertained the kids by showing them tap tap dance on my ipod. think mini guitar hero without all the plastic. they loved it! it was fun to watch them figure it out despite the language barrier. music (and tapping) is universal i guess.
kylie bought some pillow covers from our hosts. one each from mang, her daughter and her friend. a week's work for them and a nice souvenir for us.

our third day in sapa was spent exploring the deep valley to the southeast. this valley offered the most spectacular views and we had to eventually stop taking pictures, as every corner offered a new stunning vista. we made our way around 50km down to the valley floor where we crossed the river several times on slightly rickety suspension bridges.

kylie and i were now quite comfortable with our bike, a kind of cross between a scooter and a motorbike, with 4 gears but no clutch, and it pained me to give it back and pack up to leave sapa. ripping up and down the windy mountain roads between rice paddies and waving to little vietnamese kids while deftly avoiding waterbuffalo and minibuses is one of the most amazing experiences i have ever had. this is exactly what i dreamed off when thinking of travelling in vietnam.


Shelley said...

Amazing! love it! Show us more, more more!

Josh said...

I'm jealous. Thanks for a great time in SE Asia. I'm happily back home in Juba. Enjoy your Asian travels. I'll travel vicariously on your blog.

Lowell & Julie said...

I think the whole family was hooked on Kylie's personality when you first brought her home:)

Sounds like you guys are having some amazing adventures. I love that you're playing with the kiddies and getting to know the people (not that I would expect any less from you). Great memories for you AND them!! (and funky pillow cases!)

tyrnandkelsey said...

Wow guys! I've been out of touch with your blog for a while, but this is an amazing post. I wish I could meet up with you guys this time, by some other mode than virtually.
Last summer, Kelsey and I steered around a bison on my motorbike in Elk Island Park, AB. Maybe something like the water buffalo experience. Looks like you're having an ace time in Thailand. Bottle beach will be beautiful. Enjoy! Kelsey says "HI!"
PS, Kelsey and I are moving to new jobs, neither are teaching. Crazy times.
Love Ya!