The time I got lost in Vietnam
When I travel, often the unexpected experiences that happen unplanned, or things go wrong, end up creating the best stories and the most treasured memories, and getting lost in Vietnam ended up being one of my most memorable and enlightening experiences in over 2 years of travel.
I wanted to visit Mai Chau and stay in a homestay but thought the tours and taxis were too expensive, so instead we hired a scooter for a few days and set off on our own journey across the 140 km between Ninh Binh to Mai Chai, where getting lost actually became the highlight of the trip!
I had wanted an authentic, rural Vietnamese experience but I had ended up getting a bit more than I bargained for!
Road Tripping Vietnam
With no map, no Vietnamese, and only a handful of road signs we hired a motorbike and set off on the 140km from Ninh Binh to Mai Chau, a journey estimated to take 2 hours which ended up as an 8 hour ordeal battling a dusty, grey, noisy assortment of careering lorries and trucks on the highways and negotiating pot holed rural roads.
Road is really an overstatement as bicycles, lorries, buses, motorbikes and a handful of 4 wheel drive cars angled for space down the single lane track, complete with ambling cows, bicycles and rice laid out to dry on the road, which changed rapidly from road to gravel to mud.
Pot holes, puddles and mud became more dominant than the road and process was painfully bumpy and slow as we bumped our way through trying to skirt around the worst puddles of mud, moving over while trucks bounced past splashing us with mud.
Just when my body was numb and I was about the give up suddenly a smooth, straight asphalt road reappeared and we speed through the scenic green countryside.
Relying on kindness rather than a map we had to stop at every crossroads and, with a mixture of charades as due to the language barrier, ask to be pointed in the direction of Mai Chau
We winded for miles above flooded paddy fields interspersed with fascinating cemeteries with elaborate temple like tombs amongst the Halong Bay like limestone karst towers.
The scenery turned ever more rural and we rode through a valley of jungle forested hills and lush green fields of bamboo interspersed with huddled wooden villages of small houses.
The green and yellow rice paddies started to rise up into terraces in the hills on either side of the road which was lined with huddles of bamboo shacks and wooden stilt houses.
Motorbikes were used as vehicles to carry whole families, furniture and to pull trailers 3 times the size as the motorbikes and tractor engines rattled along pulling carts piled high with wood.
The ride had been both awful and amazing, the worst journey ever and also the best as every time the road became unbearable or I gave up hope or ever going in the right direction something would surprise and delight me, the road would turn smooth and the countryside beautiful and glistening green that would give me the strength to carry on.
Up in the hills the air was damp and by now the light was fading fast as the road turned into a wet slippery track snaking around the hills in the dark.
The conditions became ever more treacherous as we couldn’t see the pot holes until it was too late and the bike started to slide around on the muddy roads but we were still 60km from Mai Chau. Attempting to reach the town would be suicide.
The Kindness of Strangers
A small wooden shack served as a village shop and we stopped to drink a red bull. A young family with one young baby ran and lived in the shop. It seemed all the villagers came to the shack to shake our hands. They looked horrified when we tried to explain we were attempting to get to Mai Chau.
After a game of charades to try to communicate I was amazed at their kindness as the family guestered that we would sleep here in the village shop shack as it was too dangerous to drive over the hills in the dark.
The shack we ended up staying the night in
Relived to not be sliding around dark mountain tracks I took time to look around our abode for the night. The ‘house’ was just a wooden frame, the roof thatched with hay, banana leaves and bamboo, the walls made from bamboo and the floor just mud. At the counter at the front of the shop were displayed fish heads along with a cauldron of some funny smelling liquid, sachets of shampoo, snacks and two jars each with a whole snake inside!
The snakes in jars freaked me out a little. I’m still not sure what they were used for.
The couple didn’t speak any English and it was difficult to communicate only able to smile, nod and guester to each other what we were trying to say and trying to be polite and gracious guests.
The mother, Yin didn’t look any older than mid twenties and had a young baby, Nei was under a year old. We weren’t even sure if the family were Vietnamese as many of these poor farmers are minority Muong or white Thai hill tribes.
Dinner is Killed … and Served
We sat on little plastic stools in the mud, underneath the single, intermittently light bulb that attracted swarms of mosquitoes and insects and profusely thanked the young family for their kindness at taking us in.
Just then a chicken flew, squawking wildly into the hut and landed in the corner. As if on cue the father snatched the bird up and hit on the head with a hammer. Then he took it outside where he started ripping the feathers off. I was a little shocked, but at least I knew dinner would be fresh!
Killing and cooking the chicken for dinner
The family’s living quarters were behind the shop part of the shack and consisted of a raised wooden platform, an kitchen area with some buckets and pots and pans and a small cooking stove and a wooden bed wrapped up on a holey mosquito net. A lot of coming and going ensued as the family went to a lot of trouble to prepare dinner, in between also serving customers.
Yin was very smiley, open and kind and guestered for us that we would sleep on the wooden platform and to watch the young baby as she let it out from the sling she had made to carry it and he crawled around on the platform playing with a broken rattle and some plastic bags.
We watched baby Nei while the family prepared dinner. She was less than a year old and content to play with broken toys and plastic bags
In between taking drags on his bubbling opium pipe, the father had plucked, cooked and roughly hacked up the chicken. It was then served on the wooden platform with steaming hot, fresh rice, mint leaves, a garlic and chilli sauce and a soup of some spinach like green leaves.
Yin looked so pleased with the feast they had prepared and then, to my horror, a bowl of fried caterpillars were placed in front of us. She seemed especially proud of the caterpillars so I took a deep breath and tucked in; eating them, as the family did, with a spring of mint and dipped in the extremely garlicky sauce. To my surprise the caterpillars weren’t too bad after getting over the initial queasiness of eating such creatures.
The leafy soup and the hot, sticky rice tasted so fresh and delicious but the chicken was a little hard to tear of the bone with chopsticks but none of the chicken was wasted as the father crunched away at the claw and the liver, stomach were all devoured.
A jug was filled from the funny smelling cauldron of what we think was rice wine. The father poured it into shot glasses, raised a toast and then we downed the rather rancid drink. It seemed to become a contest between Kevin and the father who kept raising the toast to rapidly down shot after shot but thankfully no opium was offered to us.
A Restless Night
After dinner and some awkward guestering I was shown outside to the toilet facilities, merely some straw covered muddy ground outside the back of the hut and a puddle with a little bowl to scoop out some water for a rough wash but there was no water to drink or to risk brushing teeth in.
Back inside Yin arranged a bed for us consisting of a reed mat and some heavy blankets and strung a holey mosquito need above our heads. As she turned off the single light bulb the hut was pitch black and I lay, uncomfortably on the hard wooden platform with my bones aching and listened to the racket that the wildlife outside was making.
As the rain started to pitter patter on the thatched roof and as the hut stayed dry I was thankful that, however uncomfortable it was, at least we were not dangerously traversing wet, dark, bumpy mountain roads all night or worse laying on one with broken limbs not to be found until the morning!
I drifted off into a fitful and uncomfortable sleep haunted with dreams of being lost on the bumpy road, bitten by malarial mosquitoes, squirming caterpillars and snakes in jars until at around 3am in the pitch black I woke with a start as I heard rustling, scrabbling and bone chomping behind us on the mud floor or the wooden thatched hut. Pans clattered in the darkness but no sound of footsteps.The lack of a sound of feet, trotters or paws began to scare us into thinking it was a snake and cursing that we hadn’t bought a torch as my thoughts turned towards the large snake I had seen earlier in the jar, but in the pitch black, without electricity, all I could do was imagine a snake sliding around near us on the floor that was my bed for the night.
After a while the baby started to cry and the father switched on the light, had another hit of opium, and then investigated the noises but whatever was finishing off the chicken bones had gone leaving a dead bat in the pot and we guessed it was probably just a cat. Outside, despite the pitch black, cockerels started crowing until the family opened up the hatch of the shop at 6.30am.
Leaving as Friends
Bleary eyed we thanked the family profusely while the village gathered outside to wave us off toward Mai Chau. and gave then $20 worth in Vietnamese Dong – more than what we would have needed to pay for a hotel and meal in town but there were so hospitable and desperately poor and we wanted to show our appreciation of their kindness. We didn’t have much on us but we also gave then a photo of us that had been taken earlier in the day on the boat in touristy Tam Coc which they seemed delighted with.
Despite the damp and misty conditions, in the morning light the real beauty of the hills were apparent as rice terraces tumbled down the mountains glistening in different shades of emerald green and gold.
We winded through small villages of wooden stilt huts as women in conical hats bent over picking the rice and other crops, dogs, cows, goats and chickens played in the road, children wobbled along on bicycles and men lead their buffalo into the fields to graze.
Older men watched us from their open windows while smoking on their opium pipes and all around us everybody seemed to be gathering or carrying some rice, green leaves or sticks. We swerved to avoid lumbering carts pulled by buffalo and oxen and stopped to take pictures of the breath taking vistas, the quaint houses and fields and women at work while everyone we passed waved and greeted us with genuine enthusiasm and curiosity.
I was simply amazed at the beautiful scenery and bucolic, rural way of life although now had a better appreciation for how basic the living conditions and how difficult it must be for these poor people.
However, the communities, buffaloes and rice fields did look idyllic and I was so amazed and grateful to the kindness of strangers, to discovering and experiencing a way of life so very different to my own, to feeling way out of my comfort zone eating caterpillars and sleeping on the hard floor of the hut and came away with a better appreciation of life in it’s many forms.
I was in awe of the kindness of strangers, these people trusting us, opening up their home and sharing what little they had. I was glad to experience a homestay after all – just an extremely authentic one!
It also brings it home how different our lives are but how, without knowing any of the other’s language, we all pretty much need the same things – food and somewhere safe and dry to sleep and how a family with seemingly so little can provide this so hospitably to two complete mad strange foreigners who turn up on a motorbike in the dark. We are not really very different at all.
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Have you ever been taken in by a local family on your travels? I’d love to hear about your experiences.