From the mountains to Hanoi

The photo shows what happens when the village youth gets their collective hands on a tablet. First they win three consecutive Solitaire games, and then they guide a knight to victory against fire-breathing zombies. A normal day in the village.

I took the night train to Hanoi and spent the day there. At dawn I watched people at the lake in the center of Hanoi do their morning gymnastics, T’ai Chi, weight lifting, and mass back massage. After the days in the remote village up north it’s odd to be in a place with traffic, tourists, cafes, and password-protected WLANs – in Lao Cai at the train station they are all unprotected. I know Hanoi, I don’t need a guide here. I can practice my street-crossing skills again: at the right moment, just walking into traffic, oblivious to the endless swarms of motorcycles, walking at a slow steady pace and watching the traffic flow around me. Becomes second nature quickly, but it would get me killed in Berlin.

Speaking of which – something has come up and I need to return home. Besides, I need to recover from this braindead blogging app by Google. My plans to see Taiwan and the Philippines will have to wait. This blog will be silent for a while but expect more stories in the future!

Rural life in Vietnam

A friend invited me to his family’s home in a small village in the mountains of northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. I was welcomed at a small homestead by three generations for three days. The house is built from bamboo cement and wood. They have six dogs, three cats, two buffalo, two pens of pigs, and flocks of chickens and ducks. Meals are eaten on mats on the floor, with a view of the fields and mountains surrounding the house. For the last dinner, one of the ducks had to die. One of the small children was gnawing on the duck’s head all evening. Animals are not pets, they serve a purpose.

Amenities are basic, but there is a hot shower (a bucket filled with hot water), a kitchen with an open fire, opulent wooden furniture, a TV running at all times, and a scenic outdoor toilet behind the pig pens. It’s all very homey and comfortable. There is electricity but no Internet anywhere. (Hence you’ll be reading this after I return to Lao Cai.) I had a wonderful time there, everyone really made me feel at home. In a Vietnamese family, people do not disappear into their own rooms.

We spent the days visiting the surrounding villages, friends of the family, a market, and generally following the beautiful trails between the hills and fields. The harvest will begin in two weeks, so the men in the villages have time to play dominoes and card games. Wherever I go, everyone stops what they were doing to stare at me. I am the first western tourist visiting these remote villages, ever, and people are curious about my size – I am at least a head taller than everyone else -, the hair on my arms, my camera, and my lack of Vietnamese vocabulary beyond hello, good bye, and thank you.

The trail to Vietnam

Why is it that every next leg on my journey requires taking a bus at six o’clock in the morning… And one of those local things, built for people a head smaller than me. And the local buses always operate in “never full” mode… Anyway, to my surprise they run a direct bus from Muang Khua in Laos to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. The border formalities were easy. One of the border policemen pulled out his wallet and offered to change kip to dong with a really horrible exchange rate. Moonlighting as a currency scammer, how exotic.

Dien Bien Phu is known as the place where the French lost a major battle against the Viet Minh guerilla, and afterwards pulled out of Indochina. It’s a modern town with some nice war memorials and museums but I didn’t come for those, so I got on a bus to Lai Chau in the very far north of Vietnam, using highway 12. Which turned out to be a rutted trail full of potholes, deep mud, and big rocks. It’s too narrow for passing, so I saw a lot of daring maneuvers that are not  commonly seen on European roads. This is odd because in general the roads in Vietnam are excellent. Once we forded a river in the bus, with steam rising up from the hot engine where it touched the water.

The reason to do this trip was the fantastic mountain scenery, following deep valleys and lakeshores, in never-ending twists and turns up on the edge of the mountains. We lost a few hours waiting for road crews resurfacing the road, with absolutely no discernible success, but it was fun to watch them kick huge rocks into the river from high up. Spent 14 hours in the bus.

Travelling the Nam Ou river

The Nam Ou is a tributary of the Mekong, coming from the mountains in the north and joining the Mekong near Luang Prabang. I am hoping to cross the border to Vietnam there, and travelling on the river is the most scenic way there. I had to stop at Muang Ngoi, a small village stretched along a single dirt road,  and spend the night there because upriver travel is slow. They have no Internet, no cell towers, and no electricity except for a few generators that run for a few hours in the evening. The guesthouse charged €3.50 per night.

This morning I wanted to go further up the river, to Muang Khua, but the boat won’t go with fewer than 10 passengers and I was alone. So I chartered the entire boat. Being a rich farang has its upsides. (Farang comes from “français” and means foreigner; all foreigners are automatically assumed to be rich.) So I actually made it. Muang Khua is tiny but they have electricity and an Internet café. Actually it’s a bicycle repair shop with an Ethernet cable hanging from the ceiling, but I travel with a small access point for cases like this to connect my tablet.

Unfortunately the bus to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam only goes in the very early morning so I have to stay another night in Laos. And I don’t actually know if foreigners are allowed to enter Vietnam in this very remote corner of the country, cross your fingers…