We began the morning as usual with phở bò nearby the hotel and then checked-out, and sat outside with our backpacks for coffee at the lady with the wagon. Pretty quick the Easy Riders showed up – Mister Lam with flames painted on the front of his heavy motorcycle, and Yen, with a big red motorcycle. They began loading our bags on their bikes as Quoc and his wife Giang were also getting ready for the trip, Quac with a small sports camera attached to his helmet. When we were all ready Roni and I went on the Easy Rider’s bikes – me behind Yen and Roni behind Mister Lam. The bike ignited with a load growl and we started navigating our way outside the city as Quac and Giang driving ahead of us.
In a few minutes I got used to the motorcycle’s tremblings and its metallic feel, and leaned back on my bag that was tied behind. I took a big orange scarf with me which I bought back then from an old woman in Sapa and covered my mouth and nose with it, and a plastic part of the helmet protected my eyes. We stopped right outside the city by a small shack with a big yard where three middle-aged women sat and weaved rugs in red, yellow and green. Two of them worked on a rug as one adds more strings to the loom with a long hook and the other arranges the interwoven ones, and the third and oldest sat on the side and talked with the two others. They let Roni and I try it in turns, and we managed to slowly weave a clumsy line.
We drove on narrow roads between fields and small houses in faded colors scattered here and there. We stopped by a rice field and took some of the tall plants growing like wheat with small tough rice beans inside the leaves. We passed on a long shaky wooden bridge stretching above a green river. Mister Lam said that the rains start at November and the river overflows so the locals break it apart and put it together afterwards, a process that takes three months.
We made another brief stop in another shack were some women made flat crunchy pastries made of rice and sesame, which goes great with the hot spicy food. They make some kind of a mush out of the ground seeds and pour it on a hot plate which in minutes consolidate it into some kind of a soft pancake, which they then move to a straw surface and take it outside to dry for several hours in the beating sun. Lam said they begin their work at 3 AM and finish at 1 PM, before the rains begin. Quoc and Giang were there with us as well and Giang said she hardly ever sees those rural people, because she doesn’t leave the city much.
They took us to a workshop of a sculptor that works with wood. He lives in a tiny house with a huge yard where four barking puppies are tied. On the bare ground tools and wood chips with a strong smell of rain were scattered, and the place was full of statues in different levels of finishings. The ready sculptures were smooth and covered in wax and were mostly of fat laughing Buddhas with big earlobes – a sign for luck, long lives, riches, fertility. Other and smaller ones were of gods actually coming out of the logs, which is a part of their bodies. An impressive furniture was standing on one corner – a big tree lying on its side with bare roots, forming into a long bench, and on the other side there’s a smiling Buddha sitting, all made out of one piece. The sculptor said it’s a very expensive furniture which only rich people with a big house can afford.
We stopped by a local village and Roni and I explored the place by foot while the bikers waited on the other side. Some curious children looked at us, and small pigs and poultry strolled around at the sides of the trail. We were accompanied by two dogs who barked at us from a safe distance, and a black puppy was playing in one of the yards. At the village’s entrance there were stalls with diagonal tables, where dozens of yellow hand-like bamboo leaves were placed.
Outside of that village we passed by a sugar cane field and Yen chopped us small branch from one of the plants and told us to chew. It’s tough and fibrous, but after you work on it a sweet fresh juice come out. We moved on, now on open and free highways, driving much faster. I felt my feet vibrating near the motor and the scarf flapping behind me. The longer we drove, the higher the mountains around us became and the air was chiller, and the wind felt like tiny tinglings on the skin. It was freshening to finally feel a cool breeze after weeks on the humid shoreline.
After about 45 minutes of consecutive ride we stopped on a bridge towering above a big waterfall, and went off the bikes. Aside from us there were only a couple of locals with big straw hats. We walked across the bridge until we reached at a small path with lots of stingy vegetation, and after we passed it and climbed over some black rocks we found the chill waterfall. We dipped our hands and feet in the freezing water. It was dead silence there, the plants absorbed every little rustle from the highway.
We went back to the motorcycles and started climbing over the mountains. White clouds cruised around us like steam, sliding amongst the mountains and covering us here and there. The skies got darker and it began raining – light at first and then fast and heavily, the raindrops stinging like hailstones because of the bike’s speed. We stopped by the side of the road to cover our backpacks and wear some sort of blue plastic overalls that protect from the rain, and moved on. We reached at a tiny village in the middle of nowhere and stopped by a wooden house with a tall straw roof, and went up inside with a small ladder. It was empty aside of a few long wooden benches. Mister Lam said this was where the locals gather up for discussions or special occasions, and such a building is a sign of a strong community. There were similar buildings nearby, their roofs not as tall, and the only living soul around was a chicken picking in the moist ground with its chicks hiding between its legs.
it was noon and we were getting hungry. We stopped at a small place on the sides of the road where a local woman served rice with fried pork and small bowls of soup, and sliced persimmon for dessert. We gave the bones to a pregnant cat who was meowing under the table and moved on. We passed by a strawberries farm and tasted the fruits straight from the ground. We talked with the farmer, a laughing bearded man, who said he was also growing potatoes and persimmons. Not far from there we stopped again at a coffee farm and tried the red coffee beans – they grow on bushes, like berries. The bikers told us that the coffee came with the French who saw Vietnam has the optimal conditions for growing it, and before that they used to drink only tea. They said there are some kind of squirrels (later on it turned out they meant weasels) that eat the beans and then take them out whole, and it’s used to make high quality coffee because of a chemical process the beans go through in their stomach. Light rain was falling and somehow the conversation rolled onto our country, and we tried to explain them the Israeli – Palestinian conflict in simple words, a thing we do not really understand ourselves.
Towards the late noon we arrived at the city, which was surrounded with greenhouses and homes in various colors. We stopped at a colorful pagoda which was heavily decorated with loads of sculptures of flowers and small animals, and walked inside. There was a small garden in the center that had a pool with big orange fish swimming in it, and statues of dragons and people with three or four faces holding swords. The place had a few temples we’ve felt a bit uncomfortable getting into, where severe women with blue clothes sat by their entrance. We went up to the second floor, where huge Buddha sculptures were placed, and wandered in there for a bit. After we explored the whole place we went downstairs and sat with our drivers, Yen and Mister Lam, for coffee while they talked about the Buddhist beliefs. Its symbol looks like a swastika but much more ancient and stands for Karma – what goes around comes around. After dying one can reincarnate as different creatures, depending on what the soul deserves basing on its actions in previous lives – animal, human, something higher than human or lower than animal. It reminded me of a book I’ve read before the trip, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, about a man who dies in his village and reincarnate as various animals until he learns his lesson.
The last stop was an old train station, that according to what they told us all the hipsters in Vietnam go there to take artistic photos.
Eventually they took us to Ken’s House – the hotel where we stayed together with Quoc and Giang from Nha Trang. We thanked the bikers and said goodbye, and went inside. It’s a small place, very colorful and clean, with wall-to-wall carpets in every room and a worm homey feeling which fits well in the cold city on the mountains. We checked-in with Hien, a beautiful receptionist who said her name means “Gentle”, and after taking off our shoes and leaving them in a cupboard by the entrance we went up to our room. It was charming, tiny with a floral painting on one of the walls and colorful sheets. We were wet and muddy from the long ride and while we showered in turns Hien showed up by the door with a tray of tea and spring rolls, which was right on time.
We rested for a while and got ready for the evening, since we scheduled that Quoc and Giang would take us to their favorite restaurant.