Saying Good-bye to Ban Lac, Mai Chau as the Village Readies for Reunification Day Celebrations

It’s been six glorious days of rest, relaxation and riting here in Ban Lac village (yes, I know that’s spelled wrong, I’m going for the written as well as the auditory alliteration!). For most of the time I’ve been here, I’ve been the only overnight guest and I’ve luxuriated in the solitude, being served and sharing lovely meals of loads of morning glory, omelettes, tofu, rice, sautéed fruit, spring rolls, stuffed leaves, rice and pho every day (although they are getting a bit repetitive), and witnessing the daily life of the villagers. But today, that’s come to a crashing halt. Now, eleven other guests have descended upon my retreat, with more promised for tomorrow; so I’m adjusting to the radical segue, even as I sit here and write while they all gather for libations and chit-chat.

The tourists who arrived were faced with the same challenge I encountered in finding a way to move about during this holiday week-end. Virtually all trains, buses, planes and hotels are booked solid. The Vietnamese are on the move! They only get two holidays a year – Tet (the biggest – a week-long celebration of Vietnamese New Year) and this one, a 2-day back-to-back holiday of April 30th, Reunification Day (and victory in the ‘American’ war) and May 1st, International Workers Day – and they take the time to travel and celebrate!

After spending hours upon hours of internet research, sending emails searching for a room and receiving return after return email telling me the same thing – no vacancies, highly inflated room prices, and encouragement to come another time; it looked like I might be ‘stuck’ here in Ban Lac, Mai Chau, although there are certainly worse places where that could happen. Still, though, I remained determined to get there. The Sunday Market in Bac Ha was the big draw (different than the Big Draw, for you BE people!) – it’s the largest market in the entire Sapa region and one focused not on tourists, but where all the local H’mong, Dzao and many other Hill Tribe villagers gather together in their full regalia. But nothing was coming through and I hadn’t even gotten to the point of booking the train part yet. It didn’t make sense to book a train, I figured, with no room; and it didn’t seem like a good idea to arrive without a room in the midst of the busy-ness.

What to do? I didn’t imagine I’d want to wait a whole ‘nother week for the next week-end market – that region is the coldest part of Vietnam; and as beautiful as it’s purported to be, I’m not quite up for a full week of freezing, although I’ll be glad to rid myself of schlepping the heavy jacket I bought in Dalat for the motorbike trip and for my Sapa visit.

Finally, in my perseverance and determination, I received that one email I had been hoping for and even from the Guest House that was high on my list. Granted, the price was inflated from its normal one, but no matter – I’ll be able to go to the Bac Ha Market! Then onto the train booking, which was easier than I expected. Some cars are set aside by certain travel agents which are First Class and a step up from the normal carriages – the first travel agency I contacted had a sleeper for me and the man who works here went to Hanoi today to pick up my ticket and he’ll return it to me tomorrow for when I return to Hanoi to take the overnight sleeper train north.

It’s Saturday morning now and I spent the rest of last night talking with the other tourists in my attempt to be at least a little bit social. They chipped in to have one of the local dance groups perform here at our Homestay, so that was fun, too. I especially enjoyed my conversations with the foursome of older Korean-Americans who live in Fairfield, California. One of the men even asked me for my blog address – I warned him that it can be a bit ‘out there’, perhaps risqué even. His response – “well, you’ve got to speak your truth when you’re writing, you can’t be writing for anyone else!” We were instant friends!

The other highlight of the evening was talking with one of the local tour guides – Toan Manh – a very cute 21-year old Vietnamese young man who spoke quite good English, was studying Economics at the University in Hanoi and was only too eager to practice his English. Long after everyone else was fast asleep, our conversation continued well into the night; covering everything from his relationship with his girlfriend from whom he had recently broken up and how freed-up he felt as a result; to the political system in Vietnam (his voice got quieter at that point as he moved closer to me, lest someone hear his thoughts, although I reminded him that no one could understand what he was saying!); to my two marriages and my choice not to be a mother (such an anomaly, but one I wanted to be honest with him about, in the midst of our ‘real’ conversation); to his desires to be able to travel the world someday and how financially stymied he feels in being able to ever realize those dreams. He was well-read, able to discuss historical issues in his country and so very curious about life and values of other cultures. He smiled broadly throughout our time together and thanked me repeatedly for taking the time to talk with him. I reminded him that it was a great pleasure for me, too. We shared email addresses and he said he’d look me up on Facebook – he didn’t seem bothered that the government prohibits it – he knows how to access it, so that’s all that matters.

(Late addition to this topic: Toan just returned from touring with the tourists and sat down next to me as I sat here writing. I told him I had written a little bit about him. He asked what I do with all these stories and I told him about my blog. “I would like to read it,” he said. Ohboy – “well”, I explained, “it’s pretty honest and I think some of it might shock you!” But he insisted on his interest and wondered if he would be able to understand the English. “I don’t know if you can understand it all, but it could be good practice for you.” It was settled – another opportunity presented itself to put myself out there and I responded.)

Now today, I am packed and ready to move on. Sorta. I’ve loved my retreat here and I am sorry to miss this evening’s holiday celebrations. The town is filled with visiting Vietnamese people buzzing about and I imagine it will be quite a night! But it was a choice I had to make to be able to go north to the Market, so as always, in light of not being able to do it all, I will say good-bye to Ban Lac with deep satisfaction for my almost-week here.

The tourists have taken off for their morning walk, which I will enjoy in quiet when they return (misanthrope I have apparently turned into!). For me, the morning has been a quiet one of the normal, simple tasks of life, ones I rather enjoy when I can do them with ease and in calm, without rushing to get anywhere else – I’ve gathered my things (ahem, I’ve added a few more, having not been able to resist some of the local crafts), gave myself a much-needed but not severe haircut, refreshed my purple toes, did a bit of laundry and readied myself for yet another full day of travel. I feel peaceful and relaxed; and as I see a few of my shirts and my sleep sack hanging and drying nearby in the breeze, they somehow symbolize the ways that I have come to feel quite at home here.

Ahhhh, the Vietnamese woman who works here and has sometimes been my only companion, just walked by and gave me a big hug and a squeeze, punctuated by her ever-present giggles. Last night Toan did some translating for us as we haven’t been able to say more than a few words to one another this whole week. She’s taught me a few Vietnamese words, but had little interest in taking on any English ones. She had a lot of questions and things to say to me. “What is she writing about? Why is she traveling alone? Tell her that I’ll miss her very much when she leaves.” Very sweet.

About now, it’s time for that walk, then lunch and onto my 4-hour, easy, comfy tourist shuttle to Hanoi!

 Ciao and Mille Grazie Ban Lac!

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