70 Kilometers on the Road to Hồ Chí Minh

When we went outside the hotel to get soup for breakfast, we saw Cambodia  a valley, and then a row of mountains that is already in another country. After breakfast we went back to the hotel for coffee with Nip and Quan, as next to us sat a bunch of giggling women who spit shells of seeds on the floor. I had a feeling they were laughing at Roni and I, because they were from the outskirts areas and hadn’t seen a lot of white people in their lives.

Before nine we were on the bikes again, back on the roads. The sun was beaming and strange tan marks began to form on my thighs. We stopped here and there at monuments for the war fatalities, and on a narrow road inside a jungle. Quan showed us a small rough fruit you can eat its soft core, and said in broken English that they used to eat that in the war to survive. He saw a root with a strong perfumed scent, and said you can chew on it if you have fever. We continued the ride, stopping here and there in front of landscapes that broke my heart.

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We reached at a relatively big village with 10,000 residents, and Quan took us for a walk in the marketplace. Curious children followed us as we looked at the vegetables and meat, tubs of seafood, live poultry and one crab that escaped a tub and walked in the market’s alleys. Outside we met Nip, who waited by the bikes. We bought some fresh fruits, had sugar-cane juice and continued.

We passed by a field of guavas and Nip bought some home, and then stopped at a Mường village  a minority in Vietnam. Girls walked around with school shirts and colorful skirts and some kids stared at us while we sat on a bench in one of the yards. Nip said that minorities get support from the government, so they have electricity and TVs in their homes. He also said that the Mườngs often get married to their relatives so the children might be under developed. And stupid, he added quietly. I peeped at their faces, and saw that indeed some of them seemed to look under developed, physically and mentally.

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After that we stopped again at a remote town, to look for lunch. The skies got dark and as soon as the afternoon rains began we got under a shed at an old lady’s yard. We sat by a long wooden table as the nice woman took out rice, fried pork, greens, small bowls of soup. Heavy raindrops dripped from the edges of the roof. While Nip and Quan talked, I could already understand some words. Even when he spoke Vietnamese, Quan pronounced long slow letters.

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As the rain stopped we began with a long ride of 70 kilometers to the bus station, where we will take the bus to Hồ Chí Minh. Above us were red and green mountains and above them the big skies, beneath us a valley and lakes with floating houses. It was raining lightly part of the time. Once in a while we passed by a truck or a bike that emerged from beyond the road’s curves, and here and there we stopped to stretch and look at the view. I don’t know how long this ride took, perhaps even hours. Eventually more vehicles appeared and we arrived at a town, and then to a bus stop. We paid Nip and Quan, thanked them and said goodbye. Again, with this strange feeling of letting people go.

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A clumsy sleeping bus approached the station. The ride took forever. Pretty quick it got too dark to read, and I’ve forgot my phone at the hotel in Đà Lạt so I couldn’t listen to music. After three days of open roads it was wierd to sit inside the bus, on the bottom bed near the floor, as bare feet passing by.
Towards ten PM we began to see through the windows some buildings, skyscrapers, colorful lights, and eventually the bus stopped at a broad main street. Lots of cabs passed by and one driver asked us where we need to go to. After we gave him the adress of the hotel he said it was just a few minutes away, and showed us where to go. Inside the block he was pointing at there was a hidden ally that led into a crazy maze of narrow streets. We arrived at the small hotel and the owner, a young woman who said her name was “Miss Vy”, greeted us kindly. After she gave me my phone, that was sent there by Hien from the hotel at Đà Lạt, she showed us our room and said to ring a bell by the entrance if we go out and want to come back.

We went outside to the busy street and found a small place for dinner, and as we ate I looked at the people. For a second I’ve felt like in Bangkok again, at the Khaosan, because of big groups of tan European and American tourists. It was full of music and bars everywhere and the locals seemed to be more modern than in other places  young women with mini-skirts leaning against motorcycles and smoking, flirting, two fancy transgender tip-toeing on high heels, merchants with small wagons crossing the streets and selling dried salted octopuses, drunk men laughing loudly.

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The next morning I woke up early but stayed to cuddle in the bed, and eventually went down to the lobby at nine. We sat with Miss Vy on the couch and she showed us on a map places to go to. She then took us through the narrow alleys out to the main avenue to a woman that sold Bánh  outside. The recommendation was great. We ate the Bánh  at a park across the street and then kept walking along it and had iced coffee, and then went to the market. The sun was high in the sky and inside the market building it was shadier than on the streets, and very crowded, and people from all around tried to sell us things.

We passed the hot hours with watermelon juice and lots of iced-tea, and after a quick shower at the hotel we went to “The Bánh  King”. With hair dyed to black and huge rings on his fingers, the Bánh mì King ruled his small kingdom, and his staff produced dozens of crispy Bánhs with huge amounts of butter and pate, which made the Bánh  taste divine. We ate standing under a roof while the heavy rains began to fall.

We planned on staying for two days at Hồ Chí Minh before traveling south and then back to the city, and on the first visit it seemed to me cynical and alienated. The huge main roads busy with hundreds of motorcycles, the tall buildings, the nights when neon lights ignite and the streets fill with tourists. It was hard to see what’s real and what’s not. Young women were standing at each corner with fake smiles, belonging to the sex industry and not happy at all. By the evening I had the same feeling I had in Bangkok, like meeting somebody radiant and glamorous that would never let me into their heart.

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On the morning of the second day we went to a travel agency to book a bus to our next destination, Cần Thơ. Fans on the ceiling swirled the air lazily as a sweaty agent suggested some deals for tours and sightseeing in different towns by the Mekong, and said we didn’t have much to do in Cần Thơ for more than a day or two. Yet we refused for the deals and only chose a bus ride there because we preferred to not be tied to schedules.
We went back to the room and packed some stuff. Then we went to the mail post to send a few things home and save space and weight in our bags. We found the one clerk that spoke English, who wasn’t particularly friendly, and it seemed we were bothering her. She unpacked our things and checked them one by one, and then repacked them into cardboard boxes that didn’t seem to be strong enough to survive the trip. The packings and paperwork took almost two hours. When we finally went out it was pouring rain and we were hungry, so we ran to the marketplace building nearby and ate rice and fried pork. After the rain stopped we went back outside, and passed the day lazily. As evening came I began to like the city. The streets are huge, but inside every block of buildings there’s a web of tangled alleys that amongst them there are peaceful everyday lives. Later on the night market was opened, and the sleaze I’ve felt the night before turned into a feeling of life and freedom. There were mostly clothes and shoes in there, and I found the perfect pair of shoes at a tiny crowded store that was run by a loud woman. I decided to wait and buy them when we come back, so I don’t have to carry them during our trip at the Mekong.

We finished the day at a BBQ place on the street where we had meats and cold beers, and went to bed early.

Down, Down, Down

We got up at seven-thirty, got dressed and went downstairs for a hot coffee and bread with butter at the lobby. I looked at the town, that on daytime seemed different – a main road, a square, small houses. Next to us sat the blonde who traveled alone and had coffee with her guide, and I thought about how easy it was in this country to just travel alone with a stranger man with no fear.

The bike ignited and we rode into the mountains until we stopped above Lak Lake. Nip said the lake’s height changes dramatically with the rains, and when the water level is low enough they grow rice on the damp ground. We walked uphill for a while until we reached at Lak Lake Resort, some sort of hotel with a museum dedicated to a king who ruled there, not so long ago. He had 2,000 wives (Nip said it must be tiring), and anyone who got caught looking into his eyes would be killed. There was a black and white photo on one of the walls, of the king when he was a child, surrounded with grown-ups, looking seriously directly into the camera.

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We drove back down the mountain and through a straight road, between fields, and stopped in front of a small church that was burned during the war. The black ruins were surrounded with green thick plants, and from inside what used to be the main hall you could see the white skies. Nip told us about the warriors, that had to start fires for food etc so they put sets of tubes on the ground that dispersed the smoke away, so they won’t be seen inside the jungle.

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After that we arrived at a small village, matriarchal too. Loyal dogs barked at us from the yards, and the houses were built upon polls over half-open pits in the ground, as the farm animals were protected inside them. Chickens picked the ground with groups of nestlings running around their legs, and little children peeked at us curiously from inside the kinder garden. Here and there were burning piles of logs, that were being used later as coal.

We moved on to a tiles factory, which left me with a bitter feeling. It was a big yard where men and women worked hard loading clay into a large machine that created the tile shape, taking them with wagons to the area were they set them to dry, and putting them into furnaces. Some of the women had small children, who couldn’t stay alone at home. A middle-aged woman carried a heavy wagon as her children helped her.

We also visited at an artist’s yard, where he created stone and marble statues combined with gemstones – frogs with coins in their mouths were a recurring subject. We walked in the yard and examined the smooth shiny sculptures as the artist looking at us with smiling eyes. A big dog and her puppies barked toward us if we got too close.

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Before lunch we passed by a black-pepper field, which grow like tiny green berries on bushes that climbed around polls. Lots of white butterflies flew around. Roni took a few fruits, and we drove to a restaurant where lots of trucks were parked outside – as mentioned, that’s a sign for a good place. They served free range chicken that was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, rich with bone marrow, together with steamed rice, some soup and iced tea. We were hungry, and the food was tasty and filling.

We continued the long ride through villages and towns. children finished their school days and drove by us on the rural roads with their small bikes. Nip bought a ticket at the entrance of a nature reserve, and we went on. We went down a bumpy road surrounded with jungles, once in a while a blue-green lake is peeping from within the trees, way down. We stopped where the road split into a dirt path. While Nip waited by the bikes Quan led us down the path, between rocks and boulders, thick plants, grasshoppers, dragonflies, black mosquitoes. The path was steep and there wasn’t always something to get a grip on, and the skin ached from sweat and stinging ants. Once in a while the pool emerged, each time a bit closer – turquoise and chill, a body of water amongst small waterfalls. As we arrived Quan left us there to swim, told us to go back in half an hour, and began climbing back up. We got undressed into swimwear, and I made my way on the muddy ground into the water. Big cobwebs blocked the way but nothing scared or startled me anymore, so I shoved it aside and went inside. The water was cold and I didn’t know its depth, and water plants made it so turbid you couldn’t see if anything was lurking inside. By the edges there were rockier areas you could stand on, and once in a while seaweed, or tentacles, stroked the feet. Climbing plants created small caves on the water with their branches. Water dripped into one side of the pool from higher rocks, and on the other side a gentle drift led into a small waterfall, blocked by boulders. I’ve felt myself tiny, on the head of a narrow water pit with endless depth, as any moment a huge hand might emerge from depths and take me down. Somehow, this vulnerability feeling was soothing.

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After about half an hour two French tourists with a guide arrived, as we were just getting out of the water and sitting on the rocks to dry. The French took their time getting inside, which associatively made me think they must be on the beginning of their trip. Light rain began to fall as we went back up and I tought it might make the ground and rocks slippery, but the treetops kept the path relatively dry and it was easier to go up than down. We went on the bikes again and drove towards the reserve entrance, where we had hot coffee with a curious kitten who peeked from under the table. When we finished our coffee Nip showed us where to go to get to a big waterfall, so we walked towards the direction and went down some stone steps. The steps led to a small bridge that turned into a trail, which was half inside water. My feet were soggy anyway so I walked carefully inside the water, and Roni somehow managed to walk on rocks without getting wet. After a short walk on the simple road we reached at a huge spectacular waterfall, and sat there together on a rock in front of the storming wall of water.

On the way back the light rain got stronger. We’ve met three Russian tourists with a local guide who were also on their way to the huge waterfall, and stopped to talk for a while. The guide knew a lot about Israel, and mentioned names of leaders from the past. He said Israel was interesting for many Vietnamese because of the agriculture, since we’ve learned how to grow crops in the desert – in countries with tropical weather things grow easily, and they don’t need advanced technologies. As we got back the rain started pouring. We sat under a pagoda at the cafe and I poured out all the water that gathered in my shoes, and then we put the rain coats on and continued with the ride. The rain was getting weaker and stronger and weaker again until it stopped completely, only a black cloud appeared here and there. We drove in open rural ways, crossed towns with orange muddy ground. We made a stop at a field of gum trees, that dripped a white stuff that hardened into actual rubber, and another stop at a cocoa field with heavy cocoa fruits, some white and some red.

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Eventually we parked at another small town, right by the border with Cambodia, and went up a curved stairway of a small hotel. After showers Roni and I went for tea at a quiet place, where aside of us sat only the employee with her friends. The sun set a while ago and aside of that place it was utter darkness, only a street lamp shed light on a part of the road.
At six thirty we met Nip and Quan again at the hotel lobby, and went to a BBQ restaurant. We had Saigon beer and ate some sort of big rice cracker, and then the food arrived at the table – first the grill itself, on which we fried the meat, and then the food – soft and yummy goat meat, its leg and tought udder, and another part of the leg that arrived in a lemony salad. We ate and drank and talked about generations gap. They said that the adults begin to be exposed to the gay community and it seems very strange to them, but they slowly realize that they don’t have to understand different people as long as they don’t hurt anyone. Around nearby tables gathered groups of people, mostly men, adult and young ones, all drinking heavily and talk and laugh with loud voices. Since the city was so dark and empty, it felt like sitting in the last happy spot inside a void.

We ordered small empty glasses to the table and drank with small sips the rest of the rice wine – “One person drinks, makes to people happy”, winked Nip. We walked for several minutes in the darkness towards the hotel, where we sat at the lobby with a strong ginger tea that relieved the body after another long day of traveling. As I lay in bed later, between sleep and wakefulness, I felt like I was still in the lake, ready to be swalloed into it.

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A Chautauqua About Elephants Falling

If the strong tasty coffee we had at the hotel didn’t wake me up, the motorcycle’s growls on the rugged road and the wind on my face sure did. After about thirty minutes of driving out of town we stopped at a rose farm, where we got off the bikes and Nip told us about his life, and life in general. Nip had a strong roaring voice like his bike and he spoke passionately, with extreme facial expressions and wide gestures. Quan on the other hand didn’t have good English, so he talked flatly as he’s spreading syllables while he’s thinking about the next word. Nip spoke about the American war, the one we’re calling “Vietnam War”, and said they are a communist country since but it’s a matter of a generation or two before they become capitalist since that’s what the people reallt want. “Communist here” he said and pointed at his head, and then put his hand on his chest and whispered “But capitalist here”. He pointed at the flowers surrounding us and said that poor people care more about having food and clothing than to give flowers to their wives, and then told that his two sons are learning engineering and one of them wants to move to Hồ Chí Minh City and his wife is always crying because of that.

Afterwards we stopped by a large coffee farm with a field of tall coffee bushes and a pen next to it full of weasels, who cuddled together in a furry pile inside wooden rooms. When we approached they took out their tiny noses and sniffed the air, and went back to sleep. By the pen stood a few tables with the coffee beans after they went through the weasel’s stomachs, got cleaned and dried. Wooden steps led to a second floor, where they had a store and a cafe that served the fancy weasels coffee. Roni ordered for himself a cup of Moca beans coffee and I chose the Robusta, and we sat to drink it in front of the view of the farm. Each cup costs about 2-3 Dollars, which is five times more expensive than a regular one, and the coffee has a strong fresh flavour.

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The next stop was at a silk factory, where only women work. First we got into the room where they keep the hungry caterpillars and cocoons on a bed of strawberry leafs. On a second, larger room, there were big containers full of hot water and the miserable cocoons inside, each one with a fine string attached to some sort of loom. They showed us two kinds of cocoons – with one caterpillar or with two, which are called “Romeo and Juliet”. On one of the walls different kinds of silk sheets were hanged. At the end they fry the dead caterpillars with loads of lemon grass, a popular snack. It has a strong flavour of lemon grass and it’s crispy on the outside and mushy on the inside, and pretty tasty once you forget it’s a bug.

From there we went to the Elephant Falls, a big stormy waterfall. The bikers waited for us as we went down some stairs which led to a bridge, that led to more stairs. As we went down the air got cooler and the vegetation thicker, and the ground damp and slippery. We carefully climbed the rocks, passed some lizards and huge spiders and when we almost got to the best lookout point of the waterfall I flinched and couldn’t move forward because I was afraid of slipping on the wet rocks. A couple of Australian pensioners passed by, the man with a moustache and the woman with white hair tied in two ponytails, and the man helped me move on. It really was a great lookout, right by the point where the stormy waterfall meets the river and sprays water drops. We stayed there for a while to look at the river and the people around. Next to us a few women sat with fancy dresses on the muddy tree trunks for a strange fashion shoot, and a large group of Chinese tourists walked behind us. When they got closer we cleared the view-point for them and climbed back up. Next to where the bikers waited we met the Australian couple again, and they told us they loved traveling and mountain climbing.

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Before lunch we made a little stop at a Buddhist pagoda, a beautiful and quiet place. Nip told us about the monk’s lifestyle, different customs such as shaving their heads and chores they need to do during their trainings, and just as he said they eat only one meal each day my stomach began to growl and we went to eat. We stopped at a roadside restaurant where many trucks were parked, and Nip said that parking trucks are a sign for a good place. They ordered to the table chicken, pork, boar, fish, rice and morning-glory. We kept sitting there with the beers and talked for a while after we finished eating. I looked at a tall blonde woman who sat with another Easy Rider.

After eating we deviated from the highway to a dirt road that let into a small local farm. Some animals greeted us – aside of chickens and geese, a small dog ran towards us barking and growling but was too scared to get close. A few kittens were hidden inside a pile of bags with pig’s food and played with their tiny tails peeking out, and a nursing cat slept on top of the pile. A young piglet escaped into a pen with muddy ground and clumsily climbed into its cage, where it felt safe. The adult pigs woke up from their nap and got up heavily, sticking their curious snouts between the fences. Quan led us into a room where the family makes strong rice-wine and then move it into jars with conserved snakes. The room was loaded with big dark containers with flies buzzing around, full of liquid with a strong smell of yeasts. We said goodbye to the big family, and they gave us some of the rice-wine in a plastic bottle.

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Close to the farm there was a village, where most of the people and animals have already retired for their afternoon nap. We walked with Nip and Quan on the main street while they told us it was a Matriarchal village, where the women are dominant. At the end of the street stood a wooden house and a few women sat at the porch, their limbs spread comfortably as they’re chain-smoking, a habit that is usually maintained by the Vietnamese men. In the center sat a middle-aged woman who looked at us confidently and greeted us. A young toddler, the only male creature around, bursted crying and the women laughed, and told us he’s never seen Western people before. The mature woman, the alpha female, talked in Vietnamese and Nip translated. The men go to work and the women take care of the children, which creates a strong female community and the kids get their mother’s last names. It was a Sunday and the Catholic village had the quiet and sleepy vibe of a holiday. As the woman spoke she made more eye contact with me than with Roni, Nip or Quan. We said goodbye and went back to the roads.

During the long consecutive ride that came after visiting the village my mind wandered, to our country, to coming back home, to the future. I thought about a job Roni and I were offered when we get back home, an offer that was too perfect to be real. I imagined how I was going to do the job on the best side, without fear, being the best I could be. I ran it in my mind, like a movie, the day we will finish the trip with its beaches and roads and the wind in the hair, and on Sunday we will go to our new office for the very first time and work. And on the next day, and on the next one. But we will do something amazing, move forward, make money. And we will have an orginized schedule, with normal hours and weekends off and vacations in the holidays, unlike the jobs we used to have until than. And we couldn’t go to the beach on the quiet mornings during week days, but that’s fine, we will go on Saturday afternoon, when everybody else is going, and it’s not too bad since we’ll be satisfied of our job. There will be Winter days in the office, we will leave when it’s dark outside and work sitting above a table. The bike went through convoluted roads between the mountains and fear began to seep in, so I stopped thinking about it and thought instead about a dream I had one day, that a girl I knew has a large tattoo of a white elephant on her arm.

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We stopped for cold coffee at a tiny stop on the sides of the road where a young woman worked. She sat with me and said she’d learned English and wants to be a teacher, but there’s no demand for that. We stopped again on top of a high bridge stretching above a river, with houses floating on it, like in Hạ Long Bay. During the rainy season the river rises so the houses almost reach at the bridge. Nip said they once made a trip with some young Israelis guys that were after their military service, and they jumped into the river with a perfect dive. They served in a dangerous secret unit  in the navy where they learned how to jump into water from heights without being hurt – from the description I understood they were fleet forces. I wanted to say I was in the navy as well, but didn’t feel like thinking about the long days in the office back than so I kept quiet and watched the floating houses.

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The skies went dark and heavy rain began to fall as we arrived at a town and went into a tiny motel with heavy wooden furniture. Quan spoke to the owner and got the keys, and we settled in our rooms. I found out I forgot my phone on the sofa at the lobby in Đà Lạt when we had our morning coffee, but when Roni connected to the wi-fi we saw that Hien from the hotel contacted him via Facebook to ask where we’re going to stay in Hồ Chí Minh and send my phone there. It was nice to be phone-less. We showered, put our wet shoes under the air conditioner and chatted with the woman who offered us the job back home. We went outside to find a place to have tea at. It was utter darkness outside except for a tiny spot lit in yellow – some sort of shop, or a kiosk, or a cafe, where a few plastic chairs were spread. We sat there as the tall blonde woman we saw earlier at the restaurant tried to buy cigarettes and the people around laughed, since they were not used to women smoking, or blonde people, or tall people. Quan and Nip met us there and took us to a restaurant, that aside of the cafe was the only place that showed signs of life. We had a big satisfactory meal of noodles with bamboo leafs and vegetables, fresh vegetables, and duck stew. Together with the beer we ordered, Quan asked for four small glasses to which he poured the rice-wine we got at noon from that family. We sat there for a long while and talked, and drank from the strong wine. When we ordered some more food Roni, that used to be a cook before the trip, asked to look at the kitchen and the way the lady who owns the place makes the food. Lizards bustled around us and stray dogs nibbled on the bones on the floor, and I thought that I might miss working in restaurants. We payed and walked back to the motel, where I stayed up for a while to write about the long day.

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Taking Off, Again

I walked alone and listened to music, and tried to find the Crazy House – a place I saw marked on the map they gave us at the hotel, but didn’t really know what it was. I found the place after looking for it for a long time in a maze of small streets and alleys. At the entrance some Russian tourists stood and local women sold merchandise and strawberries. I bought a ticket for 40,000 Dong (about a Dollar and a half) and entered. It was lovely inside, special and different, like being in a Doctor Seuss’s book. It’s some kind of a museum that functions as a hotel as well, built of a few buildings with lots of steep staircases leading into and out of strange rooms. There are small cosy bedrooms looking as if they’ve been carved out of rocks or tree trunks. Hidden at the bottom floor of a building, there’s a lobby and a living room with wooden furniture and maps on the walls, a funny gift shop is concealed somewhere, and amongst the buildings there are yards with sculptures and hidden places, ladders, low porches. If you go high enough some of the staircases are becoming bridges that go over the whole Crazy House and whole Đà Lạt and you can see the rooftops of the small colorful houses.

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I went downstairs, where there was a small kiosk, and bought passionfruit juice. I sat with my book by a lake, while toads cackled with their gruff voices and groups of tadpoles swam in the water. When I finished the chapter I walked around some more – I looked at a big cage where different species of fat doves napped on the branches of a tree. As the skies got cloudy again I walked back to the hotel, where Roni was already waiting. Rain began falling outside and after we showered we sat on the bed and watched “The Social Network” that I somehow managed to download to my phone, and by evening, as the rain stopped, we went for dinner. We sat at one of the places where you get a small grill to the table and order skewers to roast on it, ate fresh meats and drank beer. Heavy rain was falling again, and when it weakened we quickly went back to the hotel. It was cold and we cuddled in the bed, and continued watching the movie until we fell asleep.

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In the morning we ate soup with mushrooms for breakfast. At the table near us a woman with a Chinese look and an American accent tried Vietnamese coffee for the first time and admired its chocolate flavour. After eating we went to the market again to find me some shoes. At the hotel’s entrance there was a place to put your shoes at, and in one of the days my sandals just disappeared from there. On the second floor of the market there was an area with only different kinds of shoe shops, from practical ones for work to fancy ones, and I found flat colorful canvas shoes which I liked immediately. I still have them in my closet and they’re starting to fall apart, but I can’t throw them yet because they remind me of Đà Lạt.

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For lunch we ate again at the small restaurant a meal of meat and rice, and then went to the Crazy House because I wanted Roni to see it too. I was glad to go back because everything was so cute and strange, and Roni liked it as well. Meanwhile evening came slowly. It was our last day in Đà Lạt and I was a bit sad to leave – the sweet homey hotel, Hien the receptionist, the chill city. We had dinner at a place similar to the night before, with a small grill served to the table, and for the first time I tried a roasted chicken leg. It was nice but poor with meat and with lots of bones. A local mother sat next to us with two little girls who were scared of the grill’s red sparks.

We moved from there to the night market, which was closed to cars and very busy with people and vendors. At the central square stood two people with huge costumes of a Minion and Hello-Kitty, and some teenagers pushed them to make them fall down. We walked around a little, Roni got himself a pair of shoes, and then we had ice-cream at a small cafe. We went back, organized our backpacks and went to sleep.

We got up at seven AM, got dressed quickly and went downstairs for check-out. We sat with Hien for a breakfast of rice leaves rolled with meat, and coffee. Her cute sister joined us too but her English wasn’t so good so she mostly smiled in silence. A rough rolling sound broke the silence – Nip and Quan, the motorcyclists, parked their heavy motorcycles outside. As we loaded our things on the bikes Hien gave Roni and I scarves as a gift to cover our mouths and noses during the rife. Roni went on the bike behind Nip, a middle-aged man with a smile and a moustache, and I sat behind Quan, a quiet man with moon-face that seemed age-less even though he must be over 60. The motor ignited and rumbled beneath us as we made our way in the heavy morning traffic. After we passed by the central square we catched up with Nip and Roni, who disappeared in the distance for a while. The bike accelerated and the wind began blowing through the hair as we left the city, towards another journey.

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A Journy to Đà Lạt

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mountains & Markets

We began to feel strange at Sapa after two days. I downloaded Trip Advisor and read some reviews about the hotel we stayed at, with creepy stories about the tall man with the yellow teeth in the reception. Additionally we shared a porch with the neighboring room, where some noisy locals stayed and got drunk and sang loudly right in the shared porch. The city itself had a heavy feeling, mostly because of the many tourists and the poor women who were desperate to sell things.

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We spent most of the afternoon in the market, had different soups and Roni bought some big knives, and by the evening we went to a busy BBQ restaurant. We had fried skewers and shared a table with an Italian guy who told us that he’s back from one of the nearby villages and spent the days at one of the women’s house, together with her husband and five children. He said that each morning she took him hiking, and at noon he joined the men at the rice fields. He gave us her name her number when he finished eating, and a couple of Australians took his place as he left and told us that they don’t really like Sapa since it’s too touristic. After dinner we went to have some beer, and I ordered a random cocktail without knowing what I’m going to get.

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It was still noisy in the room and there was no window apart from the door that opened to the porch where the drunk locals sat, so we’ve felt a bit suffocated. We talked about moving on the following day to the next destination but we sent our clothes for laundry at the hotel, and we had to wait for it to dry. We decided to stay another night.

The next morning we went to the market and had breakfast where we ate the first day, and after a black coffee we got back to the room to change to better shoes and went traveling outside the city. We went out to the fresh chill air, got to a small cemetery with high grass growing wild and strolled around in the dusty paths between the mountains and the small villages. We had coffee at a small place with the view of the terraces with the rice fields, and went back to the town. We had another soup at the market with some sticky rice leaves rolled in meat and salty sauce, and went to have some strong ginger tea and mango juice at that cafe in the yard with the lazy dogs. When the sun set we had a brief shower at the hotel and went to have dinner at the BBQ restaurant where we ate the previous day. It was a big place with many people and a big grill at the entrance with some skewers and a big pig cooking slowly. We ordered some skewers and a slice of the pig and sat next to two locals, who were busy with their phones throughout the whole meal. The food was warm, fatty and comforting. When we finished we tried to find some tap beer, and when we couldn’t find we went to a big area with many restaurants under the open night skies and ordered two bottles of beer. We played with the idea of coming back to Hanoi, that from there seemd like a simple and easy city, but instead we booked a hotel in Bắc Hà – a small town in the area that has a market each Sunday, and people from all the surrounding villages gather there every week. We paid the woman with a twisted arm who worked there and got back to the hotel, payed for everything and took back the dry laundry, and went to bed.

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The next morning we got up early and began walking with our heavy backpacks uphill towards a red bus that waited in front of a small church in the city center, and after about ten minutes we began the ride. I couldn’t sleep because there were many turns and jerkings, but the way wasn’t very long and after about an hour the driver dropped us at Lào Cai – another town on the way to Bắc Hà. We stood in the middle of a parking lot and had no idea where to go next so we just tried to find some coffee, since we didn’t have any in the morning, when a brown van stopped by and a young tattooed guy stood by the door and called “Bắc Hà! Bắc Hà!”. We joined them, since we had no better idea. He put our bags in the back and signaled the driver to go, and the van moved on while honking loudly. It stopped for a few moments at a garage to get something and I used to opportunity to go to the bathroom, where a little boy stood and held a huge dog on a leash. We went on. The young guy loaded the vehicle with more and more people, among them some very old women from the nearby villages with rice baskets on their backs, people who delivered different stuff, some coughing soldiers, a man with a drum that was used as another seat. The van was completely full and stopped once in a while at different places. It seemed endless to me as I was half sleeping, and felt awkward to wake up here and there into this van with all those weird people.

Eventually the young guy signaled us to get down at a station in the dozy Bắc Hà. A shrunken woman led us to the main street where the hotel was, and a nice plump man greeted us at the reception. After we settled in the small room we went for a walk in the town, and noticed immediately that it had a completely different vibe than Sapa – rural, calm, less touristic. We finally had our first coffee, and went on to find something to eat. After we passed by some restaurants where mostly tourists sat we moved on towards the market, but it opened only at the evening and we only saw a few booths of fruits and vegetables. Eventually we found a small place where mostly locals sat, so we joined them on the low benches and ordered small bowls of soup, rice, meat, tofu and other things that you mix together and eat. They also served tap beer in a plastic bottle, and everything was super tasty. The owner served us the food while holding a toddler with one hand and breastfeeded him with her exposed breasts. Some very old local women sat there, probably at least 400 years old, and spat rice out of their mouths as they ate and chattered loudly.

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We passed the afternoon lazily, strolled around the town and brooded at the hotel, and when we were hungry again we went downstairs to eat at the hotel’s restaurant that was pretty good. Afterward we looked for somewhere to have beer in the area of the night market. We walked in the empty streets and followed the few people towards the market, where there were lots of people and a big stage with shows. Some woman played such a strange up-bit music, that I told Roni that if he told me that this is a Gorillaz’s song – I would have believed him. I skinny middle-aged woman with black clothes invited us to have beer at her place, so we sat at the white plastic chairs as her young sons served us the beer and some snacks. She pointed enthusiasticly towards some girls who danced on the stage and shouted “Bangkok! Bangkok!”. One of her sons, who didn’t spoke English, wrote us with his phone through Google-Translate that they are celebrating the many minorities in Vietnam. She sat next to us and tried to have a small talk as she is pouring more and more beer, and we managed to understand from her that all the people around are her children or grandchildren. The shows on the stage changed every minutes and mostly children from different tribes and minorities starred in them. Eventually all the locals formed a circle and danced around a huge bonfire that rose out of no where. We’ve already been a bit drunk and the dance of the people who looked like dark silhouettes against the fire seem pagan and strange. After it was over the whole place shut down at once and emptied, and we finished the day and went to bed.

The Witches of Sapa

We got up a bit before six AM, packed everything quickly and went downstairs to have coffee. A small woman with narrow face that worked at the hotel’s dinning room made us sandwiches for the ride and packed them, and when the bus to the North arrived we began to make the way outside of Hanoi. I had the chance to say one last goodbye to the streets and houses as the driver gathered more passengers from the Hoan Kiem and then drove through the highway, crossed the big river and went outside to the outskirts of the city. Aside from us were mostly  groups of loud British women on the bus, that slept on the half empty seats most of the time.

We stopped at a gas station where several people were scattered around and sold strange foods. We got some steamed dumplings filled with pork and quail egg from a skinny wrinkled woman, and I tried some kind of meat rolled in banana leaves. I tried to ask her which meat it was but she didn’t know a word in English, so after I tried to mimic some animals and used the few words I knew in Vietnamese, she put her hands by her head like horns and made some low “mooo” sound, so I guess it was buffalo or something.

The wind that blew from the window got colder as the bus climbed up on steep mountains. There were big hills with terraces of levelled rice fields all around, with different hues of yellow and green. I saw this picture so many times in articles about Vietnam before the trip that I couldn’t realize it’s real, that I’m really there. After a few hours of ride between forests and clouds we arrived at Sapa. It’s a strange city, chill and rainy and once in a while it’s covered by a heavy cloud. There are many minorities in North Vietnam, many different tribes and villages, and Sapa is some kind of a center for them – since it’s full of tourists. While the men work in the fields the women walk around the city wrapped with colorful heavy clothes, full of silver jewelry, some of them carry babies on their back, and sell things for tourists. Most of them sell jewelry, scarves, skirts, small instruments that they make. A weird woman with a harelip approached us several time and whispered “Hash hash, opium opium”. Some of them offer lodging in their homes for a few Dollars, including meals with their families and instructed hikes. It gave me an odd feeling. How poor are these women, that they need to open their own homes for strangers? Among them walk around some very old women, like witches, with heavy scarves covering their heads and bony hands, peeking out of their tiny eyes and selling god knows what.

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The bus stopped at a big parking lot and right away about 20 women ran towards us, and I saw them focusing with their eyes on each of us as we descended the bus. Two women approached Roni and I as we got out and followed us while we looked for a hotel, and probably wanted to offer us lodging at their houses, until Roni told them we didn’t want to buy anything and they left.

After we checked-in at a kind of grungy hotel we went outside to explore the city. It took me a moment to realize that we are alone, don’t know anyone in the city and not depending on any schedule. Until then Belle from the hotel helped us plan ahead the days and the trips, and this was the first time since Bangkok that we were completely spontaneous. We looked for something to eat on the main street but most places were touristic and the food was just pricey and not interesting. Mostly Englishmen and Scots sat there and we saw a group of four Israelis, for the first time since we got to Vietnam. After eating we kept traveling around, going out of the main street to smaller ones. Since Sapa is built on mountains it is very steep and full of narrow staircases made of white rocks, and together with the fresh cool air and the forests all around it kind of reminded me of a strange quiet version of Jerusalem. We sat in a small place and had hot coffee, unlike warmer places in Vietnam where they drink the coffee cold. Aside from us sat there two Scots our age, and after they unsuccessfully tried to haggle on the price the man dived into a book and the woman wrote in her journal with her organized handwriting.

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We went uphill from there, passing by a cute lake next to a school where many teenagers with green coats hanged around and stared at us, some construction sites with builders that smiled at us and eventually we arrived at a market. On the outside they sold mostly fruits and vegetables that they put in boxes on the orange ground, and on an inside part that was covered with a roof they sold meat and by-product and it took a while to get used to the strong smell. In another part there were tubs full of water with seafood and fish, crabs and oysters, and some silk worms. We entered a big building and at the entrance a woman invited us to have soup at her place, but we weren’t hungry yet so we moved on. There were mostly clothes and housewares, big knives and sets of plants and dried lizards, but the place was closing so after a while we returned to the woman with the soup. We sat on a long bench in a hall where more women sold different foods, and had a hot and spicy meat soup while the locals were staring at us. I was glad to find a less touristic area, and began to get used to the fact that we were the strange ones.

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We made our way back to the hotel to take a shower and get some warmer clothes, since the evening came and it got chilly. The city was covered with a cloud and we could only see a few meters ahead, and the lake was covered in white and looked enchanted. The shower at the hotel was leaping and creaking and I didn’t feel clean afterwards and while Roni took a shower I noticed that the room was dirty and it kind of disgusted me, so we decided to walk around and look for another hotel. We checked the Lonely Planet and went outside, and booked a room for the next night at a place that seemed nice and humble ran by a tall man with yellow teeth. Afterward we went to a place that served fried meat and had pork and vegetables on skewers, chicken wings and sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo stick, and beer. It was an open and big place, under the sky, and a kid sat in front of a TV in the corner and watched cartoons. We sat next to a young couple and a middle-aged woman with black clothes that held a fried chicken leg, ate it and spat the bones on the floor, and they switched a channel to an Indian movie dubbed into Vietnamese and watched it fascinated. When the movie was over the child, that served us the beers, switched back to the cartoons and a loud woman with red clothes got mad and lightly slapped his scruff and turned the TV off. Later on he climbed on her lap and fell asleep.

We sat there for a while and came back to the hotel and fell asleep. There were two single beds, each one in a different side of the room, and it was weird to sleep like that, reminded me of sleepover parties when we were kids or school trips.

At the morning we packed and moved to the other hotel. It was difficult to climb the stairs to our room in the fourth floor, but the room was nice and clean with an okay shower and a porch with a wide view. We went to get some coffee in some kind of a yard – we had to climb some stairs to get there and there were small buildings here and there, and somebody got a tattoo in one of them. While we tried to plan ahead the trip a few lazy dogs walked around with a small puppy that ran around and played. I’ve felt a complete freedom, that we can stay or leave whenever we want, without committing to anything.

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