Thursday, July 24, 2014

Not what I wanted, but what I needed.

It started off as a rough day.  I was running behind schedule and I had not planned out my route.  From Nghia Lo I started down the road and made my way south.  I ended up in the town of Yen Bai. 
At this point I realized that I was lost.  I had traveled about 40 km or 25 miles in the wrong direction. On this rough and winding road 40 km took one and a half hours of riding.  I would have to backtrack. One and a half hours in the wrong direction, one and a half hours to backtrack.  That meant that I had wasted three hours of precious daylight.  It was the middle of the day and the sun was draining my resolve.  I was extremely upset with myself.  I was physically tired.  I was mentally exhausted. And for some reason I was very sleepy too. 

I eventually made my way back one and a half hours to where I needed to be in the town of Van Chan. How had I missed this intersection? 

As I was passing through the town I noticed a bicycle shop.  I thought to myself that I should stop and purchase a bicycle tire pump.  After getting lost on a rough road I began thinking that I should prep a little better for these types of situations.  When traveling by motorcycle I always like to have the necessary tools and equipment for roadside repairs.  I had most of the basic tools and two spare inner tubes in case I were to get a flat tire. But I didn't have a pump to inflate the tubes.  So I stopped at the bicycle shop to see if there might be a pump for sell. 
This smiling gentleman came out to greet me.  He could tell that I wasn't his typical customer by the way that I was dressed and the way that I was acting.  I greated him with a hello in Vietnamese.  Then I pointed to one of the tires on a bicycle and made a pumping action with my hands.  I'm becoming an expert at pantomiming.  He understood immediately that was looking for a pump.  He nodded his head yes and showed me a electric pneumatic pump that he had in his shop.  I pantomimed that I needed a small handheld pump.  He shook his head right and left indicating that he did not have one.  But he pointed across the street at a hardware store and indicated that they might have one for sell.  I thanked him and walked across the street to the hardware store.  I called out, but no one responded.  Then the gentleman walked across the street and called out for the owner.  The shop keeper emerged.  The gentleman explained that I needed a small hand pump.  The shop owner directed me to one aisle of the store and pulled out a footpump.  I indicated that I was looking for small handheld pump.  The shopkeeper eventually pulled out a bicycle hand to foot pump.  The pump was not exactly what I was looking for, but it would meet my needs.  And it only cost 40,000 dong or about two dollars.  So I bought it. 

As I was walking back towards my motorcycle the gentleman made a gesture to me.  He moved his hand as if he were holding a cup and lifted it toward his mouth.  I smiled at him and shook my head... Yes... I needed a drink. I was parched and really beyond just thirsty.  However, I thought that he was telling me that I should go into the small grocery store next door a buy a drink. So I started walking in the direction of the grocery store.  But then I realized that he was actually inviting me for a drink inside his house.  So I turned around and I followed him.
Inside the living room we sat across from one another.  There was one child playing on the couch and another child playing on the floor.  Soon a woman walked in and the gentleman explained that she was his wife.  The gentleman then began to prepare some hot tea.

I can only speak and understand about five words in Vietnamese.  But over three or four cups of hot tea I learned a few things about this man and women. 

I learned that this nice couple were husband and wife.  I learned that they had one son and these children were their grandchildren.  The television was turned on and the program that was being shown was a program about travel within Vietnam.  So I assumed this gentleman liked travel stories.  I showed him the list of towns in Vietnam that I had visited and was planning to visit.  He seemed to appreciate the journey that I was on.  I think that it is amazing what you can share and learn with gestures and a few words. 
In the end, what became important wasn't about what I learned about this man, his wife and his family. Nor was it important what I shared about myself, my family and my journey.

This gentleman didn't have what I wanted, but he gave me exactly what I needed. When all I really wanted was a bicycle pump, he showed me kindness. When all I really wanted was a cold drink, he showed me warmth.  Was this man a mind reader?  I don't know. 

But at that time and at that place, he gave me just what I needed... humanity. 

I do not know if it was the break from riding, time out from under the sun, the stillness of the moment, or the three or four cups of tea that I drank, but when I began to ride my motorcycle I felt very alive.  

For the remainder of the day I rode like the wind.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Northern Vietnam... Sa Pa to Ngai Lo

After spending a few days in Sa Pa I decided that it was time to start heading South. Since I did not speak the language in Vietnam I used a method that I devised while riding in South America. I would look up the name of a destination that I wanted to visit and then write on a piece of paper the destination and all the little towns in between my current location and my destination. Mostly it would be the names of the towns that fall on crossroads. This way, if I were to ever get lost and were to need to ask for directions I could simply point to the next town on the list and generally a person would know how to provide me directions by pointing. If I were to ask for directions to my final destination, the directions could get too complicated. But one town at a time always seemed to work just fine. The list above was a simple example of this technique and just happened to be the route that I chose to follow on this particular day. 
As I headed south, I passed by some amazing scenery. The road was in decent condition and very twisty. I decided to ride fairly cautiously because it was rainy and cloudy. There was one section of the route through the clouds where the visibility was probably less than 100 feet (30 meters). Luckily there was not much traffic. 
I pased by a number of waterfalls, but only stopped at this one to take a photo. I was enjoying the ride too much to stop. 
After riding through the mountains for a couple of hours the land began to flatten out. There were still a number of terraced rice fields, but the valleys were now wider and more expansive.
A number of times I would see a large group of motorcycles parked along the side of the road. At first I thought that perhaps a group of riders had pulled over to to rest or socialize.
But then I realized that the motos belonged to the group of workers that were planting the fields nearby. In Texas you might see a similar scene with pickup trucks pulled over to the side of the road. Here in Vietnam you see motorcycles... the true workhorses of Vietnam.
While I was on the side of the road taking photos of the rice fields this striking lady walked by. She was dressed in an outfit that consisted of both modern and traditional clothing. I think that she pulled off the look nicely... Vietnamese nouveau chic.
I think that she was just as curious about what I was wearing as I was about what she was wearing. My style might be considered retro moto renaissance.
Many of the fields in this area were still being planted. It actually allowed me the opportunity to see how intricately the terraces were constructed. The terraces followed the contours of the land and flowed naturally one into another... fine sculptured masterpieces. 

I rode until I ran out of day light. I ended up stopping in a small town called Ngai Lo. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Northern Vietnam... Sa Pa

I traveled to the town of Sa Pa. Everyone said that I had to visit Sa Pa, both the locals and the travelers. In the middle of Sa Pa there is a little lake. 
And also this Catholic church. It was the first church that I has seen in quite a while.
Across from the church was an open park where a football match was being played. 

Check out the video. http://youtu.be/PphOcnS4wpg
Around the corner the local version of hackysack was being played by the tuk tuk drivers. 
I walked around the town and found this staircase. I did not know where it would lead but I decided to climb it. It led to nowhere in particular, but sometimes I just go where I feel led. 
Later, and I found the market.
I picked up some bananas to eat for a snack and for breakfast.
I didn't pick up these dried goods, but they looked interesting... some ginger and nuts. 
In another part of the market there were some restaurants that specialized in grilled or barbecued items. You select the items that you want, then the restaurant grills them on an open fire. 
I opted for a different restaurant that served this fish and rice meal. It was perhaps the best seafood meal that I had eaten in Vietnam.
Sa Pa is known as a tourist town. The main attraction is a visit to the hill tribe villages and the rice fields. It can be a lucrative business for the hill tribe people to lead tours through their villages. Rain or shine, every day groups of people would take tours to visit the villages.
Since I had my own motorcycle I decided to take my own tour. I rode down the street and out to the countryside where I came across views like this one with terraced rice fields. 

Mountains with a river running through it. 
With my little moto I was able to visit three or four different villages. I would simply park my moto near a house and walk around the village meeting people. 
I took in the wide angle.
I came across these oxen.
And these little ox herders.
Check out the video. http://youtu.be/CvP5lGlPDMw
The red bull of Vietnam. 
I was debating with myself if I should trade in my moto for an ox. 
You have to be careful when rounding some of the corners. Unfortunately some of the hill tribe villagers drink a little bit too much on the weekends.
Fields of green.
Towards the end of the day I met this cute little old lady. 

This Hmong lady was sitting by the road all by herself in the middle of nowhere. I drove by and said hello. She started talking to me, but I could not understand her. But she kindly grabbed my arm like a grandmother and would not let go. She pointed down the road. I concluded that she needed a ride to her village... so I offered her a ride. She had trouble getting on and off my moto so I had to pick her up. She probably only weighed 75 pounds. When we were riding on the moto she was yelling "ciao" to people.  I believe that the Hmong speak their own unique language. I believe xin chao is how you say hello in Vietnamese. And chao is an abbreviated version for foreigners. 

We rode together for about 5 km. We reached a little break in the forrest and she tapped me on the side to let me know we had reached her village. I stopped and picked her up and set her down off of my moto. She gave me a big hug and a little woven bracelet. 
She actually tied it on my wrist.

At the end of the ride we took the selfie photo above, I showed it to her and she really like it. Then we said goodbye, each in our own language, and she disappeared down a dirt trail. 



Northern Vietnam... Dong Van to Sa Pa

Dong Van is at the very most northern part of Vietnam. From Dong Van there was no other direction to go other than South. Venturing North would mean crossing the border into China. 
So I headed South through the countryside. The villages that I passed through consisted mostly of stilt houses constructed of wood. 
When I was stopped on the side of the road taking photos this cart being pulled by a cow passed by.
Inside... a man and a bunch of kids enjoying the ride. 
Along my route I passed by village after village where people were drying thin sheets of wood. The only thing that I could think that this material would be used for would be vaneer finishes. 
Some people simply dried the wood along the road and others stacked their wood in racks. 
For the first few hours I followed a road that paralleled a river.
I came across these kids playing in a metal cart. I believe that their parents were nearby working in the field.
But these kids were having a great time simply playing with each other in the cart.
The road wound through the mountains and varied between asphalt and dirt. But my little motorcycle seemed to handle the terrain perfectly. For the most part I was traveling at 25-45 km/h.
Terraced rice fields up close.
Clouds, mountains, rivers, roads, fields afar.

To reach the town of Sa Pa I rode about 10 hours. Every moment was breathtaking. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Northern Vietnam... Ha Giang to Dong Van


I woke up later than I wanted to, perhaps I was tired from the long ride from the previous day. I picked up some bread from the little bakery and headed down the road. 

My objective for the day was to reach the town of Dong Van which is the northernmost town in Vietnam and a place where there is a colorful market on Sunday that is attended by many of the various hill tribe people. It is not well known by the backpacker crowd, and I actually discovered that it is not known by many Vietnamese. But my Vietnamese friends in Hanoi told me about it and encouraged me to try to visit it. 

I encountered a million shades of green. 
I passed over a muddy river. There was farmland all around.
Away from the city I passed by village after village. The houses were no longer made of brick, but were made of wood and bamboo and elevated on stilts. 
Rice fields as far as the my eyes could see. Some were deeply seeded and lushly green. Some were newly planted in orderly rows. 
When riding around the corners I traveled slowly because on the other side might be an ox, a cow or a kid. There was enough space for us all to share the road.
A panarama photo of the long and winding road. 
A combination of dirt, water and rice seedlings would hopefully yield a good harvest.
Around this bend was a mother plowing a small patch of a rice field with a traditional wooden plow attached to an ox. It doesn't get any more real than this. Her two children were trying to help round up two smaller oxen, but they seemed to be playing more than working. One girl that was probably 6 years old was trying to lead a small ox out of the field so that her mother could plow the field. The ox started to pull away. The kid held on to the rope, but slipped and fell into the muddy water. She lifted herself up out of the muddy water up and began to laugh. The other kid then chased the ox out of the patch. It was work, play and family all in one.
Check out the video on youtube. 
I encountered this little girl and her sister carrying something to the fields. It seemed the further into the mountains I traveled the more colorful the people's clothing became.
I was trying to ride swiftly because I did not know how long the Sunday market would last. But at the same time I wanted to stop and take a few photos of the beautify scenery and the twisty road. Truly it was a motorcyclist's dream. 
While I was stopped on the road taking the previous photo, this man wearing the traditional clothing of the people in this area walked by. I waved hello to him and he waved hello back to me. I held up my camera to show him the photo that I had taken. He smiled with an assured smile as if to say... yes I live hear and yes it is beautiful. 
I then asked him if I could take a photo with him. He nodded his head in approval. I reversed the camera on my iphone and snapped this photo. I showed him the photo. He smiled, then continued walking on his way. 
Then this gentleman walked by with a look of curiousity. 
I motioned for him to step close to me. He was skeptical. But then I stepped close to him and snapped this photo. I showed him this image and he burst out laughing. I don't know if it was the image  of himself, the image of me or the image of this odd pair from opposites side of the world standing next to each other that was so funny. We both had a good laugh. He was walking in the same direction as I was riding so I motioned to him to ask if he wanted a ride. He nodded in agreement. I did not know how far he wanted to ride, but luckily it seemed that the road was going downhill. After rounding a few corners I saw a mid size town. I assumed that he was heading into the town. 
I did not know exactly where my new passenger and friend wanted to go, but I just assumed that he would tap me on the shoulder when we arrived. He actually knew exactly where he wanted to go. He started to motion to me to turn right, then left, then right, then straight. I saw a gathering of people ahead of me in an area that looked like a market. When we arrived to a clearing I slowed down to a stop. There was a crowd of people staring at us. I'm guessing they the sight of a foreigner giving a local a ride to the market was just not a common experience. My friend jumped off, we exchanged smiles, then he disappeared through these gates into the market. I thought about following him in, but it was already getting close to noon time and I did not know how much further I needed to ride. So I turned my moto around, wound my way through the town and back onto the mountain highway. 
For about another hour of riding, I was surrounded by fields of plenty. 
At around 1 o'clock I finally reached Dong Van.
The Sunday market had already come to a close. I had an indication that I might be late because as I was entering town, I saw many people leaving town. Oh well. Sometimes you roll the dice and you end up rolling snake eyes. There were a few people still lingering around. 
However, most of the stalls were empty and most of the people gone.
It has still be a beautiful ride of 10 hours the first day and 6 hours the second day, in order to see... nothingness.
It was just a reminder that an adventure should really be about the journey and not only about the destination. 
I found a little open air cafe to get a drink. At the table next to me was a group of Vietnamese travelers that had probably come from a big city to see the market. There was five of them sitting at a table, none of them were talking to each other, they were all deeply engaged with their phones or tables. What a shame. I finished my drink and decided to take a spin around the town.
There was a police station.
A government building.
And there seemed to be quite a bit of construction going on. I don't know if the central government had identified Dong Van as a future potential tourist spot or if private investors were looking to jump on an early opportunity, but there was construction of new buildings everywhere. I'm guessing that in 3 to 5 years this place will be completely different.
The sun began to set. I decided that I should look for a place to stay. I found a hotel. When I was checking in the clerk mentioned to me that I needed to check in with the police station and pay 250,000 dong because the town was situated so close to the Chinese border. I told her that I had a legit passport and visa and should not need an additional visa. She said that I did. We went back and forth about this for a while. I was actually concerned that if I got stamped with a second visa that it might void my original visa which was a 3 month single entry visa. She eventually mentioned that I could check in to the room, clean up, rest and then check into the police station later. This sounded good to me, all except checking in with the police and paying 250,000 dong.

So I checked in to the hotel and just kind of forgot to get the second visa. 

The next day I rode around the hill country taking photos, then I would start to make my way South and West.