Going on Solo Adventures in Northwest Vietnam
I finished my class hurriedly, got my compact backpack with all I needed for a day, and took the bus to Mọc Châu at that wet night. Sơn La City is less than 200 km away but I’m in the highlands so it should take me around 5 hours to get there. Hopped on the bus, shoes in a bag, horizontally leaned seats that comfortably embraced my back. “I shall get some good sleep”, I said to myself. It was so that I woke up in Hanoi and had missed my stop. Okay, my mission is not in this metropolis today. It’s actually in a rural village in the province I learned to call home for the following 6 months. Vietnam is a mostly rural country, so anywhere you go you’re not very far away from villages and crop fields, but the northern provinces are special. The majority of the over fifty ethnic minority groups that inhabit these bumpy lands can be found in the north. ‘Not bad!’ I though out loud. It gives me plenty of remote and bucolic places to look into. And I mean it, a visit to the ethnographic museum in Hanoi proved what was already in my imaginary: they are so unique, culturally rich, and live undisturbed in modern times. Some of them mingling a bit of modern to their traditional. I want to see it purely and feel like I am the first one to see their beauty expressed in weaving, architecture, majestic food and friendly features.
Never considered staying in Hanoi that day, so went back knowing my time in the village would be scant, with heavy sleepy eyes from a moving over wheels bed. It took me sometime to adjust, I was too tired. Having some help to get around made everything easy: quick recorded messages of a dear Vietnamese friend would help me get by. I put my feet on a muddy road at 11 am. “I work tomorrow but I am as stubborn as a pestilent fly so here I am. Let’s explore!”, I though cheerfully. Got to a home stay, best places to stay in Vietnam have this name, forget hotels or hostels. This one was the Bô House (the taxi driver said hose), a charming looking place I was supposed to spend the night. “It’s alright, they speak English there and I still can get some help”, I thought. “No, I don’t speak English”, said Bùy. He actually had said he did, but we resorted to google translate — my dearest friend. “Can you ride a bike? No? How unfortunate! I can call you a taxi for you to see the tea plantations”, he kindly said over the google translate’s voice. Bùy is a sweet 19-year-old boy I wanted to have as a younger brother. He always seemed at ease no matter the number of questions I bombarded him with. To all of them he answered patiently. “I need some food first, something typical”, I said excitedly. “You want good food? It’s very far, 7 kilometer, but I can call you a taxi”, Bùy answered. If there’s a regret in life is not being able to drive a motorbike, so I just walked to a restaurant three blocks away and stepped into the first busy restaurant I spotted: the only women there were me and the three workers who went up and down serving that mass of hungry men. I pointed and used my Vietnamese composed of key words: gà, cơm…at least chicken and rice I would always eat. Being alone always gives me the creeps, sometimes I just get over concious about my body and start to feel weird. It must have been due to the constant starring eyes I got, but I kept my cool. “Getting my stomach full and see what is out there. This doesn’t have to be the best food of my life”, I concluded. Got my nerves straight when caught up in a conversation with a brave man who had the guts to kill his curiosity and ask me whereabouts I intended to go. “Brazilian, English teacher, solo, tea fields. and you?” I answered and asked him and his two shy friends. They worked for the Mọc Châu company and were tasting beers before getting back to their jobs. “Look the tea fields”, the easygoing man said proudly pointing at the 5 feet picture on the wall. “They are even friendlier here, good sign”, I thought out loud this time and they overheard.
“There is no time to lose”, I told myself as I nearly dozing after having so much food and a beer hurriedly walk back to the home stay. Quietness and a girl behind the counter, my friend is not there. “Bui?” I ask her, even pronouncing names is a shot in the dark. She nods and walks toward the room. “No, it’s OK. Nap time, of course”, I conclude. It’s just 2 km away, if his instructions were right I just go always straight. I stroll by the side of the narrow potholed road careful not to get to close to a stream of clear water that separates the gnarled lopsided concrete pavement of houses and shops. It’s nearly 1 pm and my sweat starts to pour unsure if I am ever going to get there. I instantly brighten up, fifteen minutes later and there lay infinite patterns of hilly green fields. On one side it is still a town, but look at the right and there tea crops reign supreme. “See the waterfall and visit a village, I better be quick” a western mind always tricking me to tick a must-do list when I should just relax to that bucolic scenery. Through the lonely rows of tea, a straw hat contrasts with the rest. “Xin Chào”, I greet her. Kneeling down, with weed in her hand she opens a broad smile that’s inviting for a photo. I answered back with a thankful grin meaning not to disturb her from her duties. A few meters away and you cannot spot a living soul until getting to the lined houses that stand in between where other rows of tea continue beyond. A little girl bouncing in talks to me in a language that is anything but Vietnamese. Perhaps creating her own was the best way out of the communication barrier that separated us. I decided to keep going as the landscape gets beautifully steeper to the right, when unfriendly barks stop me from going any further. As I go back there she is, in
her red and yellow school uniform. Nguyễn stretches her arms and invites me to come inside with a movement of her tiny hands. She’s a gracious eight-year old determined to show me what her world is like. “OK, but I can’t take very long” I hesitantly accept. “OK” she answers to just about anything I say whether an open question or a plea. Her granny kindly greets me from a room of what looks like an upcoming home stay. I bid farewell and go on curiously looking for new angles now that the sky has turned radiant and I can almost see the sun. I’m not alone anymore, the kid follows me and grabs me by the hand saying indistinct words. Nguyễn guides me this time to the adjacent house so persuasively I let myself be led. A spring green covers both the outer and inner walls of the simple house where her grandpa and two aunties talk. “You’re a beautiful family and I loved the color of your house”, I break the ice trusting my expression would make them understand the compliment. My child friend is not done yet, and we sneak in a third house after taking our shoes off, “No! You’re not waking anybody up!” I whisper. “OK”, she answers. It’s dark and right after a tiny body leaps right in to my arms. Her younger sister still confused now dozes on my shoulder. Nguyễn taps on the sofa of a wide living room where her granny sits with her sister. “Here?” I ask sitting down with the baby girl on lap. It wasn’t very long until her father walks in and she makes a sound as if a welcomed visitor had arrived unharmed from a long awaited journey. The decent looking young man wearing the Mộc Châu Milk uniform embarrassingly nods his head and smiles at me. “I have been invited by your lovely daughter” I explain resolutely putting the discomfort to an end. Dried leaves that had withered in their backyard now rest in my yellowish hot tea making my mouth rest at the feeling of joy. I slow down the pace of that day, after all, I don’t need no dramatic waterfalls, no remote villages when I live the very moment and experience a profound gratitude for being right where I am.