Well, it looks like I’ve got it! At least I’ve found a place that seems like the perfect one for doing next to nothing. Oh, there’s plenty to do, I’m sure, although I don’t know what it is since all I’ve been doing since I’ve awoken today is hanging out, playing with my photos (I finally found an easy way to crop them and it seems like I’m getting not only a knack for but a keen interest in photography!), and drinking green tea. Yes, relaxing indeed. And now it’s time to sit down and do some writing for the better part of the afternoon. We’re in a deep valley here at 300 meters elevation, surrounded with big mountains – I imagine I’ll hang out here for some days, so there’s plenty of time to see the mountainous and verdantly green countryside that awaits my exploration.
I left Cat Ba Island yesterday, headed for an area that wasn’t on my itinerary and one which would take some doing. But when I read the blurb from LP, Mai Chau (or rather the White Thai Hill Tribe Village of Ban Lac that lies just outside the town, sounded too good to pass up, even though it would take some journeying to get here. And journeying it did. The lovely man at the Duc Tuan Hotel on Cat Ba who met me at the ferry on that awful day assured me that my return to the ‘mainland’ would not be anything like my arrival. And I had been in touch with someone from here, the Mai Chau Nature Place, who told me how to get here once I arrived in Hanoi. Yes, that Hanoi, the capitol of Vietnam and one of the cities I swore I wouldn’t visit. But there was no way to bypass it. And I can still say I really didn’t go there, since I only passed through and the passing through was not only easy, but also a reminder of how right it was to decide to give the big cities a big pass. Ohyes, there are beautiful lakes all through Hanoi and no doubt, many other beautiful sites (I saw a few of them on the back of my moto taxi – that was enough!). But oh the traffic and the noise and the congestion and the busy-ness – while cities can be fun; without knowing them, they take too many days to find my way through them until I get to the point beyond overwhelm into a sense of familiarity … and I’m just not interested in investing that much time to make that happen.
So, I left Cat Ba at 7:15 am and arrived here at 6:30 pm – yikes, what a day of travel! But it was smooth, stress-free and easy! Other than being exhausted from how long it was, I arrived safely and relaxed! Seems I’ve found my way back off the tourist trail again, at least on the transportation I used – I was the only westerner for the entire day, although I understand that this area is popular for day trippers from Hanoi.
My Virgo energy seems to need to recount it all, so here goes:
7:15 – 8:00 am
Bus from Cat Ba town to the ferry dock at Ca Vieng.
8:00 – 8:40 am
Ferry from Ca Vieng to Haiphong (fortunately to a different harbor than the last one!).
8:45 – 9:00 am
Minibus from Haiphong harbor to Haiphong bus station.
9:05 – 11:30 am
Big, fancy, clean, air-conditioned bus from Haiphong to Luong Yen bus station in Hanoi.
11:40 – 12 noon
Moto taxi from Luong Yen bus station to My Dinh bus station in Hanoi.
12 noon – 2:00 pm
Waiting time at the My Dinh bus station for the next and last bus to Mai Chau – only westerner in the bus station – great for people watching (and being watched, which is different from being seen!)
2:00 – 6:00 pm
Local minibus from Hanoi to Mai Chau – jammed pack full – friendly people and lots of laughter.
6:00 – 6:15 pm
Ice-cold beer in Mai Chau town as I talk to the local women <always seek out the women!> about how to get to Mai Chau Nature Place (you understand by now that I’m liberal with my use of the word talk!).
6:15 – 6:30 pm
Moto taxi from Mai Chau to the Mai Chau Nature Place in the village of Ban Lac.
6:30 – 8:30 pm
Settle in to my new and very simple place. I chose to stay in the communal area, although no one else is staying in it but me. It’s upstairs, as are all the rooms in these homes – they are stilt houses built in the traditional style of the local tribes. I’ve got just a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net, but for $5 a night, it looks just fine to me! Then onto a lovely chat with a tour guide and his girlfriend who are staying here – they both spoke some of the best English of the Vietnamese people I’ve met, which made for a fun conversation and they gave me some good tips for touring the area. In no time, the woman here at the Homestay cooked up the perfect dinner for me – all vegetarian – potatoes (yes, imagine that, potatoes!), string beans with garlic, tofu in tomato sauce (a mainstay on the Vietnamese table), and of course, rice (mainstay is not a strong enough word for it!). Having not eaten all day save for the quick breakfast on Cat Ba, I was starving and pleasantly satiated by this lovely meal. Another cold beer washed it all down! Then I shared some Hawaiian music with the folks I was talking with and I’m sure it was the first time Hawaiian music has ever been heard in this tiny village of 300 people – doing my part to spread a little aloha around the world!
Then I heard a big drum being played and the woman working here (who speaks not a lick of English) pointed for me to follow it – I thought I’d just call it a night, but the drum called!
8:30 – 9:30 pm
Attended the local dance and music performance – seems like this is something that the locals put on for the few tourists who are around – they’re dressed in their traditional costumes, playing traditional music and giving me just a taste of the place I’ve landed in. But in no time, my body craves a lay down and when the rice wine comes out, I take my leave. I started to read, but the light was out just minutes after I put my head on the pillow!
I awoke today refreshed and while my back is a bit achy, it’s nothing that a few days of walking and bicycling won’t take care of. And there are free bicycles for the riding here, so I’ll enjoy that when the time comes for it. I’m so pleased to be here, in a place that I can be quiet, write and explore the peaceful, quiet village and countryside. There are no honking horns, few motorbikes and mostly just the local people doing their thing in this village. The guide from last night told me that only 5 years ago, this was an area of huge poppy growing and opium production by the local H’mong people; that is, until the government came in and changed all that. The government put some money into the villages (for things like electricity and water, for example, which these people hadn’t known before) and encouraged them to become merchants of their local weaving crafts. Then the Hanoi tour companies got in on it and now they’re offering day trips for tourists to come and see the local villages and do tours around the countryside. For better or worse (hard for me to say), these local people’s lives have been transformed into having their small village descended upon by the tour groups.
Fortunately for me, it’s off season and most of the tourists come for the day and leave by the mid-afternoon. That’s a bit crazy from where I sit, since it takes them four hours one way to get here and then another four to return, which leaves only a few hours to soak the place in – so be it for the organized tour scene. Unfortunately for me, there are lots of textile crafts here … and I wonder if I’ll have another buying frenzy like the one that hit me in Hoi An – yikes, I’m sure there’s no such post office services in this neck of the woods! I guess I’ll take my chances and see what happens – “only looking, only looking” – yeah right!
Ohhhh – the tourists have just descended, looking, I’d say, much more refreshed than I did when I arrived – delivered right here to the door in their fancy tourist mini-bus! That’s what you get when you do the package thing, which I seem to have an aversion to. A few of them will spend the night; the others have already raced off to get in their few hours of touring before they return to Hanoi. They’re all young, 20-somethings, except for one solo woman traveler who looks like she’s in her 40’s. The very best part of their arrival is the tour guide who told me that there’s internet here! I already found out there’s no wireless, so I thought for sure I had gotten off the internet track for the first time, but he showed me that there’s a cable connection – we’ll see if it works!
I hate to make generalizations, but my experience with most (definitely not all, by any means) of the 20-something traveling crowd is that they are exceedingly unfriendly and it seems, not terribly enchanted with their travels – in fact they look downright bored, flat affect and all. They don’t even make eye contact; but in my determination to stay friendly no matter their attitude, I greet them all as I do almost everywhere with a smile and a friendly hello. Some of them don’t even look my way. A few of them return the hello, but with hardly a smile. I don’t get it, really; but then, I guess I don’t have to, but I certainly notice it and wonder what’s up with them.
I did enjoy a break from writing and had lunch with the older solo woman traveler – Emmanuelle from Paris who speaks excellent English due to her several years of living in the States. She’s an anomaly amongst the French people I’ve met who rarely speak English and who, I’m sorry to say, have been far from friendly. I hesitate to make these comments about people, lest it sound like I’m coming from some critical, judgmental place – but these are my experiences, so I’m just saying it like I see it.
Sure enough, the internet works! This is excellent news on many fronts – I can post my writings which I plan on giving lots of time to and I can plan my onward travel, which won’t come for several more days. Had it not been here, I might have had to leave earlier than I would have liked so I could make the necessary train and hotel bookings headed up to the far northern Vietnam which borders China. But now I have all the more reason to stay put – YES!
Okay, so in only part of the time I’ve been sitting here writing, the tourists have come, eaten their lunches, took their short bicycle rides and now they’re safely seated back in their van and headed off to Hanoi – a whirlwind visit if ever I saw one. And here I still sit, content as I can possibly imagine – writing, listening to soft background music and taking in the sites in only this few square meters of the world that I’ve seen since I’ve arrived.
But in just this small space, there’s a whole world of life unfolding before me:
I see the nearby women squatting in front of their stilt houses, talking and laughing together, weaving, sewing and embroidering.
I see young boys walking down the street – yes, people walking!
I see the local dogs tucked under the tables hiding from the afternoon sun.
I hear the rooster making a racket, that same one I also heard way too early this morning. Oh, there he goes again!
I see an older woman right now, her gray hair tied in a bun on the top of her head, in her thick, long black velvety skirt and bright colorful top, pulling a wagon behind her down the street.
I see local kids bicycling.
I feel the warm, soft breeze on my skin.
I hear the woman chopping vegetables in the kitchen for tonight’s dinner.
I smell garlic wafting out of that same kitchen.
I see a woman walking towards me now, in her conical hat, with a huge rattan/bamboo basket that covers her entire back and is filled with fresh greens.
Now there’s a young woman leading a cow on a rope down the same street.
I hear the sound of the drum down the not-so-distant street.
Now there’s a man in traditional costume walking down the street with what looks like 12 very long (10-15 feet?) thick bamboo poles.
I smell a wood fire being burned, most likely for cooking.
I see a barefoot man climbing a 12-step bamboo ladder that’s propped up against the roof of the stilt house across the street. He’s got one of those long bamboo poles and he’s cleaning the big pile of dead leaves off the corrugated roof that fronts the market that fronts their home.
There are women below him, collecting the twigs and leaves and filling the backpack baskets – they’ll use the refuse for something, no doubt.
Now I see a woman who has just driven up on a motorbike – she’s got a bird in a bamboo bird cage (Vietnamese love their caged birds, sorry to say) strapped onto the back of her motorbike. A few people have gathered around to have a chat and give the bird a look.
I see a young man in traditional costume walking down the street with a bamboo, musical stringed instrument – we catch each other’s eyes and he smiles and waves. I return both.
Suddenly, I hear the sound of distant thunder and notice the skies have clouded over. Ohhhh and now the thunder gets louder and closer! Now people are scurrying about, putting things away in anticipation of the coming rain. I hope for a thunderstorm!
And it just keeps on coming – all the daily nitz and fritz of life here in Ban Lac village. There is certainly plenty for me to take in right here, right now, in this small little pocket of the world.
Imagine all the goings-on I would have missed if I went off exploring!
P.S. Well, I couldn’t quite pass up a short stroll around the village before dinner – wow! now I’ve even more convinced what an incredible stroke of genius it was to come here – just a half a block’s walk outside the village and I’m surrounded in gorgeous nature – huge mountains, green valleys and quiet, quiet, quiet! Oh, I’m just so absolutely thrilled to be here – it’s even melted away some of the weariness I had been feeling!
I did have some concerns when I first arrived that the village looked very touristy; and the truth is, yes, they are set up here with homestay guest houses and plenty of crafts and shopping opportunities. But they are very soft sellers, no one’s pushing their wares; they’re soft, gentle, easy folks and this is their life now. And all it takes is walking or bicycling five minutes out of the village and I’m surrounded with blissful nature. Oh indeed, I have landed in just the place for my vacation!