After a few days of these much improved conditions, I rolled into Mai Chau on the back of a 20km downhill. A town much like any other in rural Vietnam, Mai Chau sees its fair share of visitors due to the fact that the local White Thai tribes have opened their homes up to tourists as guesthouses. I found myself in a beautiful wooden and bamboo home complete with a balcony overlooking the vast rice fields in the valley below where local villagers toiled beneath the huge mountains towering above. The accommodation was authentic, meaning basic. My bed consisted of a mat on the floor of a large communal bamboo-floored room, but it came with all the creature comforts one needs including electricity and cold beer. In any case, I spent the majority of my time there lounging in the balcony hammock, which is the most under-utilised piece of furniture in the world, particularly in Oz where the climate just screams for them.
For anyone feeling a bit stressed or suffering from anxiety, my suggestion would be to forget shrinks and prescription drugs and to buy a hammock and stretch out for half an hour a day because once snug in that cocoon, it is impossible to do anything but relax.
I could have spent quite some time in such a chilled-out, slow-paced and downright beautiful environment, but i wanted to be in Hanoi for Christmas where I was to meet cousin Luke. Besides, I would be passing through this way again in not too long.
Seeing Luke step out of his airport taxi after fumbling with all of his dong as he paid the driver, was fantastic. We gave eachother a typical awkward, manly, half-handshake, half-hug that put our inhibitions on display, went for some noodle soup and a much-needed chat and a laugh (it’s ok, I made him give me a decent embrace a couple of days later in the street).
With Luke just finishing another year at uni and me having been on the road for six months, we felt the need to celebrate and soon became creatures of the night, returning to our hotel at 7, 8, 9am and sleeping until dusk. This meant seeking out the pubs and clubs that remained open late, either defying local law or simply paying off those who enforced it. These establishments gave the outward appearance of being closed, but upon opening the door, one would find groups of rowdy, drunken backpackers playing jenga, seasoned travellers with blackened feet laying on cushions smoking sheesha while listening to Bob Marley or a bunch of baby boomer expats rocking out to a DVD of a live concert by The Who.
Whatever the crowd, there was always a good night to be had.
Christmas in Hanoi was somewhat of a non-event with a few decorations placed on shopfronts to gratify the tourists, so it was good to see that New Years was widely celebrated and done so in style. Luke and I ended up at Titanic, a floating nightclub in a beautiful setting on the Red River. In saying that, not much time was spent enjoying the scenery, at least not the type that didn’t shake their stuff on the dance floor. It turned out to be a fantastic party; the music was pumping, there was plenty of dancing to be had and the crowd was a very friendly mix of Hanoians and Westerners. It was a great way to bring in the massive year of 2008!
It also marked a turning point for Luke and I whereby we decided to try and get back to some kind of normality and see Hanoi during the light of day. This meant engaging in some slightly more tame, though no less enjoyable, activites such as visiting the botanical gardens and hiring a giant swan in which we pedalled around West Lake, something we both agreed was very romantic.
I also used this recovery time to do something I haven’t done in two years; get a haircut. So in true Vietnamese style, I sat out on the footpath looking into a mirror that leant against a concrete wall while my barber/bia hoi drinking buddy, Cuong, removed the locks I had worked so hard for. By the time it was over I looked like a cross between a paedophile on crimestoppers, a teenage goth and Prince Valiant, but what do you expect for $1?
Finally, we decided it was time to take our leave from Hanoi where the weather over the previous two weeks had been overcast, grey and often downright cold, in search of sunshine and open spaces. Luke signed up for a tour of Halong Bay while I pedalled off in the direction of the Laos border. We met again 10kms from Mai Chau when I saw Luke hanging out of a bus window as it crawled past me on the steep incline of a mountain. I whizzed by it 15 minutes later going down the other side.
Luke took to Mai Chau as much as I had, for this was his first sight of rural Vietnam, which is in total contrast to the urban parts of the country. As we sat on the patio enjoying a cold Tiger, he decided that we should climb one of the mountains that stood over us in the distance. He assured me that he could see a path leading to the top, though try as I might, I could see no such path, only dense jungle on steep mountain slopes.
Regardless, the following day we set out under the midday sun and proceeded to climb Luke’s path, that was in fact a dried creek bed. It ended up being a challenging though rewarding hike that provided great views over the plains below and the rolling hills beyond. We did have aspirations to reach the summit, but no matter how many times we walked for “just 15 more minutes” amongst foliage that was getting thicker and thicker, it never appeared to get any closer. So eventually, satisfied and buggered, we began the slippery descent.
We parted ways again the next day as Luke stayed behind to attempt to buy a motorbike so that he could follow his dream of riding in front of me while I choked on his exhaust. We are still yet to meet up again and I’m not sure exactly where he is, but I know he successfully crossed the border on a moto because the Lao immigration officer had no problem with me going through his documents.
After a couple of days of tough riding through the scorching hot mountainside where the jungle was as dense as anywhere I’ve been, I arrived at the tiny, little-used border town of Nam Xoi. The following morning, after four months or two-thirds of my entire time on tour, I farewelled Vietnam………………….just as I was starting to get used to being constantly felt-up aswell.
Perhaps it’s the close living quarters or the tight family and community ties, but something I have noticed throughout my travels is that the people within these asian cultures are far more affectionate towards one another than those of us in the West. It is not uncommon to see two male friends walking down the street with their arms around one another or five crammed onto a bench that should really only seat three or two girls holding hands while riding their bicycles home from school. It is only in Vietnam however, that this physical affection has been extended to me, usually from men who have just had their daily quota of rice wine.
It would start when they noticed my hairy arms, which they would all take turns to stroke and compare to their own hairless limbs. They would then move down to my calves and thighs, which would be cause for particular excitement if they knew I was a cyclist. They would give them a firm, tight squeeze and make strange grunting noises. If I was lucky, that would be the extent of the encounter that left me feeling like some exotic animal in a petting zoo. If not, I would soon find hands reaching down my shirt to caress the curls of my hairy chest.
Even after the initial excitement, hands would linger and it would not be uncommon for me to be sitting around a table, being practically forced to down shots of rice wine (just what I needed at 9am to wash down my breakfast before a big ride) while the man next to me stroked my thigh beneath my shorts.
There will be things I will miss about Vietnam and there will definitely be things I won’t, this experience encompasses both sides of that spectrum.
Most notably, what I will miss is the amazingly diverse scenery and the equally diverse inhabitants of these places, from beautiful, white-sand beaches to lush, thick, green jungle to vast rice plains to enormously overbearing mountains to the absolutely unique characteristics of The Gulf of Tonkin. It truly has been second to none for the tour and I am so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to experience it all on such an intimate level.