Exploring Hanoi & Biking in Mai Chau
Hello, from the comforts of our own homes! Where we can drink water from the tap, throw our toilet paper in the toilet (as opposed to the wastebasket), and sleep in a bed that doesn't put gaping holes in our back from the spring coils. It feels great to be back but we're not done blogging yet, people! Teedo and I still have three days in Hanoi, the capital city and one day in Mai Chau, a sleepy village surrounded by mountains to tell you about.
When we last wrote, we had arrived in Hanoi from our 4 hour shuttle ride in Halong Bay. After spending an hour walking around Hoan Kiem Lake, we had already decided we liked Hanoi better than Ho Chi Minh City. The people appeared friendlier, the weather more pleasant, and the streets were easier to navigate (well, kind of). The insane traffic and incessant honking still existed but overall, we loved it. We chose to stay in a little hotel on a busy street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Everything about the hotel was perfect...impeccable service, yummy breakfast, clean rooms, and it was cheap ($28 a night for the both of us). However there was just one, teensy drawback. We definitely heard rats the size of small children in our ceiling. Not all the time; maybe three times during our stay but we will never forget the sound of their nails scurrying above us. Let's just pretend they were cute little kittens running around so we feel better. What's that? I think I heard an adorable meow....
We spent our first day in Hanoi with our soon-to-be new friend, Andrea. And where was Andrea from? Yep, Zumbrota, Minnesota (5 minutes from where mom lives and my hometown). She is my mom's friend's daughter and happened to be in Hanoi teaching English for a few months. She also happened to be our tour guide for the day...thank you, Andrea. To get acquainted with one another, we made our way through a retail shop, down a skinny hallway, up a spiral staircase and plopped ourselves down on a balcony table and chair overlooking the city. We ordered coffee while admiring the views and talking about our travels. This, by the way, was just one of the numerous coffee shops and restaurants hidden within the city (we'll be visiting two more as the day goes on).
After we were hopped up on Vietnamese coffee, we hit the Hanoi streets, famous for its street vendors. I had been looking forward to devouring the food while sitting on the miniature chairs and watching the chaos roll by. But just that morning, there was a mysterious gurgling in my stomach and I'll just say it wasn't indigestion or hunger. So without going into detail, I was not willing to gamble and possibly lose. I had popped some antibiotics that morning and although they already seemed to be working, I decided to play it safe and snack on beer instead. The ladies, however, slurped up on one of the most popular soup dishes here called Pho (pronounced 'Fah'), among other things.
The rest of the day and into the evening was spent walking, drinking and eating our way through Hanoi. I think probably the highlight of the day was when we discovered a secret alleyway that led up to the cutest drinking hole with great people-watching views. The balcony was tiny, the stools were uncomfortable but there was something about that place that won us over. Perhaps the beer was talking? That night we went back to our hotel room feeling quite blessed. Thanks to Andrea, we had such a great introduction to Hanoi and truly enjoyed her company.
Hanoi was a fantastic city to explore and in the end, dare I say it almost felt comfortable. We still got lost every time we stepped outside our hotel and feared for our lives when attempting to cross the streets but I think I can speak for both of us when I say we fell in love the energy of this city.
Writing about our last day in Vietnam brings tears to my eyes. I can guarantee that Teedo's feelings are reciprocal when I say the village of Mai Chau, 4 hours drive from Hanoi, was definitely the icing on the cake and what truly sealed the deal with our love for Vietnam. We were not stoked about another long drive on winding, bumpy roads but after arriving in the valley where Mai Chau is nestled we realized it was well worth it. The beauty of this place was indescribable. Unreal. Picturesque. Stunning. Colorful. Want me to keep going? Okay. Mountainous. Friendly. And rich in culture. That should sum it up nicely.
The adventure for our day in Mai Chau consisted of a leisurely two hour bike ride around the valley with two college-aged Vietnamese girls and our tour guide. As we got underway, our guide was thorough in teaching us about the people of Mai Chau and how they lived. Two main tribes make up the largest ethnic population in the district, White Thai and Black Thai, named not because of the color of their skin but the color of their dress. What's also unique about this area are the stilt houses which are made of timber, palm leaf roofs and polished bamboo-slat floors. The stilt houses are elevated 10 feet off the ground in order to shelter their animals from the elements and avoid water damage. Throughout our tour, we were welcomed into three different homes to get a glimpse into the life they live. Slipping off our shoes at the bottom of the steps, climbing the rickety stairs, and stepping inside the bamboo house was like stepping back into time. One of the most shocking features would have to be the thin bamboo floorboards which made you feel like you were going to fall straight through. Depending on the level of affluence, beds ranged from flimsy bamboo mats to thick mattress pads, and the bathrooms consisted of a hole in the ground outside of the home. Then characteristics that stuck out like a sore thumb...an entertainment stand showcasing a television and kitchen housing a refrigerator. Very strange.
Much of our bike ride was spent in silence reflecting about this beautiful place that had won us over. It's always fascinating to see people living in such different conditions than us and see that they are happy and succeeding in the life they live. I think we left feeling a mix of emotions. We partially felt sad after we met one gentlemen who was napping on the floor of his house when our tour guide woke him. Tiny kittens were running around his yard, there was no door on his house, and he didn't appear to be in the best of health. But as the people did, he welcomed us in to watch him smoke his bong. I'm assuming it was tobacco in there but who knows what they're smoking. The Vietnamese girls summed it up nicely "We would LOVE to live here. But only for a week!" These people live a hard life. And have to eat nasty bugs for meals. I'm not sure I could do that but it sure is a fascinating place.
The time came when we had to jump back on the shuttle and leave the new friends we had just made on our bike tour. Prior to leaving, one of the Vietnamese girls that was on the tour with us handed me her scarf. I didn't want to take it from her (but I did love it!). She pushed it back, threw it around my neck and said 'it's a present from me; so you remember our country.' My heard just melted. I hadn't experienced something so true and real like that in awhile.
This is going to be hard but I have found it nearly impossible to sum up our trip in one paragraph. I think after reading through the blog, the different cities we visited and encounters we've had, we can all agree that we loved Vietnam. Going in to this, I thought that the trip was going to be great, that the places would be beautiful and that we'd have a good time. But it was somehow better than I expected. I can't pinpoint one favorite moment. There were many...sitting on top of the pineapple boat in the Mekong Delta, conversations with Mr. Hung, Hoi An and the beautiful lanterns at night, kayaking through Halong Bay, and meeting the people of Mai Chau are definitely up there. Then to be able to do this all with my mom. There are no words. I think it was a trip that we both needed to take with each other; to learn about one another again. It's amazing how much a person can grow and change over the years. Sure, she still asks if I remembered to brush my teeth before bed but hey, I have to remember that she's just looking out for me. I won't forget our time in Vietnam. It's still so vivid in my mind and I have to say it definitely left a mark on our hearts. (Okay, I gotta run and get the tissues again...I'm a mess).
Thanks again for coming along with us! We'll leave you with a very true quote :)
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends… The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy
-Lindsay and Marti