I only had a few days in Vietnam and, as enamoured with Hanoi as I was, I wanted to catch a glimpse of rural Vietnam. So, leaving behind Hanoi’s cafes, lakes, tree-lined streets and deliciously smooth and hideously cheap draft beer I headed out west.
With a natural aversion to buses and not enough time for a trip on one of the painfully slow trains the only option seemed to be two wheels. Throwing common sense aside I opted for Russian over Japanese.
The Russian Minsk is more commonly known as the ‘mule of the mountains’ and favoured by the locals for its basic approach to transport and its ability to tackle the rugged highland terrain. Added to that it is cheap and there are spare parts readily available everywhere from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and beyond.
Feeling oddly proud of my US$10 a day museum piece I secured backpack to seat and kicked the decades old two-stroke into action. Navigating through the mayhem and chaos of Hanoi’s streets is an adventure in itself. Officially Vietnamese drive on the right but anywhere between, and including, the paths on either side will do. Street lights and road markings are purely decorative.
Once out of Hanoi the scenery is quick to change. Retail becomes heavy industry which in turn becomes agriculture. Houses become fewer, smaller and with greater distance between them. Eventually the flat rice fields around Hanoi start to incline towards the mountainous region of the west on route 6, where rice is grown in terraces.
The Minsk copes admirably with the hills and trundles along at a steady pace. With no electrics or battery on-board judging speed and fuel consumption is down to guesswork.
The road is generally single lane and of poor quality. Drivers are surprisingly polite even in the very rural areas and as you go further from Hanoi the bounds of what passes as a vehicle get stretched to the limit. Any motorised farm implement with wheels is quickly decked out with a seat and attached to a trailer. Instant tractor!
In Hanoi Minsks are thin on the ground but in the mountains their popularity is clear. Every well dressed Vietnamese owns one. Struggling up a steep mountain road I passed a farmer on a Minsk with a young buffalo trussed up like a chicken and strapped to a board, broadside across the back of the bike. Blue smoke belched from the exhaust just inches from the buffalo’s nose as the two-stroke screamed its way up the mountain.
High in the mountains at around 1000m the temperature dropped and I regretted heading out in only a t-shirt. Stopping to pull another shirt from my backpack I was invited to drink tea with a man sat outside his house. Soon we were joined by two others, one holding a baby. None of them could speak English and I can’t speak Vietnamese but we somehow managed to communicate with a few words from my Lonely Planet guide and sign language.
With an hour to spare before sunset I reached Mai Chau, a village-sized town set in a flat valley base of rice fields surrounded by steep mountains on all sides. Hidden off the main road down a long and bumpy lane Mai Chau leads me to Ban Lac, a small hamlet of traditional ‘hill tribe style’ stilted wooden houses.
The people of this region are said to ancient relatives of the Thais in Thailand and known as White Thai. The houses here are very similar to the traditional stilted houses found in the northern region of Thailand.
For about US$6 I got a room for the night, and dinner and breakfast. The room was devoid of windows or furniture and had an old, thin, fold-up mattress thrown down under a mosquito net as a bed. A ceiling fan hung from the rafters and one bulb gave just enough light to read by.
A delicious dinner was served alfresco beneath the house, overlooking the rice fields. Having managed to get the message across that I am vegetarian I was served home grown vegetables, tofu, rice and deep fried homemade crisps, all washed down with a few bottles of the excellent Halich beer.
After dinner I chatted with the lady of the house. Being a Thai speaker, well sort of, I was amazed to discover that distant as the White Thai are to modern Thais there are still some similarities in the language. We managed to have quite a conversation using common Thai words and English.
The view from my bed was a magnificent panorama of rice fields and the steep, rugged mountains beyond. I went to bed with the sounds of rice paddies in my head; lizards, frogs and crickets chirruping contentedly in the darkness. By 2am the local dogs burst into song as a response to several over zealous cockerels and at 5.45am I was roused from my slumber by the sound of cow bells down in the lane. The cool mountain air, dull dong of the cow bells and gentle plodding of the cattle on the dirt road gave the whole thing an air of the Alps.
After an icy cold shower and breakfast of crusty bread, cheese, jam and local coffee I walked through the network of lanes, dodging small herds of cattle ambling slowly in front of their herders. Thick cloud had descended and the mountains were completely shrouded, leaving only the valley floor visible.
The lanes were alive with the gentle hum of conversation and the tapping of hammers. In several locations new wooden houses were being erected. Craftsmen and women were busy shaping wooden beams and carving out ornate mouldings for doors and stairs. Women and children were weaving traditional hill tribe clothing and wicker baskets.
Later on the journey back to Hanoi was cold, wet and with poor visibility. Going over the mountains surrounding the valley in which I’d spent the night the traffic was reduced to nothing more than a crawl with visibility down to about two metres.