I was awaken by my host early in the morning which I had expected since their day usually begins at the crack of dawn if not earlier but I was beside myself when I realized it was not yet even six in the morning. After paying the man some money as thanks which according to his reaction did not seem to be enough but oh well, I began to ride with more than enough daylight to occupy me. In the next village which stood quite near, I got my breakfast of champions bowl of pho with the locals and stood flummoxed at the sight of a group of men taking down shots of rice whisky as if it were their daily vitamins. I shivered at the sight of such a scene, too worried that being a foreigner I may get invited over to join them for drinks just as James had experienced a few days back causing his own breakfast buzz. Luckily, I was spared but I still can’t fathom the idea of taking shots, let alone in the morning at six o’clock nonetheless. It must be apart of some social practice that I pray never leaves the Vietnamese borders. So at six thirty in the morning I officially began my ride passing local upon confused local. While passing the many women around me, I could not and still can not get over how beautiful Vietnamese women are. I don’t know if it is because they are not fake wearing overdone makeup like so many Westerner girls do or I just caught a strong case of yellow fever. Either way, I respect what I see. Also while passing all these locals who likely have not seen a Westerner in ages besides on the rare television screen, I kept observing people of all ages doing work. As long as you are over the age of five and still have a breath to spare, you are expected to work. So that means, kids are running fruit and vegetable stands or mushing along the family buffaloes/cows and the elderly are carrying whatever weight they can upon their strong arched shoulders. Villagers and anyone in Asia or at least Vietnam (that doesn’t have some kind of white suit business to uphold) do not have much time for hobbies or exercise pursuits. Their job which usually resides out of their own home is quite minimally don but means they are stuck to that spot for the majority of the day while keeping up on daily chores. I don’t understand how they make enough money selling what little they do to keep up with expenses but at least in the villages, they are not required to earn much to break even. Likely, homes are passed down through the family as several generations live under one roof (as my “homestay” was a testament to) and they are very self-sufficient amongst themselves as they essentially trade their goods to cover what each needs. The system is incredible to watch unfold but as well as everyone gets covered (you don’t see beggars hanging around) they have no ability to escape; they are essentially stuck. Even if a kid is blessed with some astounding God given abilities, he or she will likely be stuck keeping up the family farm. I had aspirations for the day that I could even Sapa since I started so early in the day but I was realistic and planned to stay the night in Mu Cang Chai as I continued working my way north. Following the road signs and my own offline map, everything was running smoothly until I saw the road signs now signally the main destination to be Hanoi which felt out of place with what my devices had given me. Hanoi lay to the south; how can this be? While chatting with some older women about which way to head towards (hardly a two way chat but it was fun playing around with them), I found out that I needed to take the other road at the T-intersection 9 km back. I took that road and continued humming along until I realized that I had seen these rice fields before; I know Vietnam has a lot of rice fields but the scenery looked all too familiar. Apparently I had completed a loop and was now retreading my rolling path back to my homestay. Although I had time to kill I grew very frustrated in that moment feeling for the first time that I was truly lost. After taking a new avenue on how to explain where I needed to go using a different city that everyone I asked seem to know, I was back at it in the direction I originally planned on taking. The scenery did not stand as much as before but the elusiveness of being so far off the beaten track continued to hold its appeal. Every 20 kilometers or so (or at least whenever I met a crucial intersection/dividing point, I asked a local if I was heading in the right direction with the name of the city emblazoned up my hand like a tattoo. Eventually I did arrive in the city of Nghia Lo and decided that it would be a good place to take a break and let the engine cool since the motorbike had been sounding quite chatty lately. The sky looked as promising as my bike sounded at times. The sky moaned and tore upon into a fresh continuous rain. I waited out that short spurt of rainfall at a coffee shop while contemplating whether to press on and complete the last 100 km to Mu Cang Chai. Since it was likely the one and only point to sleep somewhere I had to make sure I could complete the stretch by nightfall which still stood hours away could become tricky with rain slowing my progress plus I would hate to ride along a road that promised to be one of the best based on the one and only blogger website that suggested this route. As much as I would like to take all the glory that I was setting off by myself without any preconceived notions, the picture posted online from a little known blog drew me in, promising stunning rice terraces far away from touristy Sapa. I chose to give the road a try with the canvas above me beginning to open up to clearer skies. The road was mountainous and hilly with numerous switchbacks and gear dependent climbs. The scenery took my breath away besides the fact that I was progressing towards the clouds. I am falling hard for Vietnam; if she were a women, I would gladly marry her. Even though it was getting cooler, I was shivering for other reasons. The goosebumps and shakes came from the disbelief at what I was seeing. Here in front of me were rice terraces, something that I had long waited to see. While touring Myanmar and Cambodia, much of what I saw was brown, dead countryside and hills, which gave me pause to my hopes of witnessing one of those natural wonders in the form of rice fields scattered precariously in layers on the edges of mountains leading down to the valley floor. It was everything that I had wanted and it was only just the beginning. The best moments were when I could park the motorbike high in the mountains for a much needed scenic break to view all the winding roadway that I had covered and absorb the sight of the mysterious designs of the rice fields. At a little more than 11 km away from Mu Cang Chai the previous views that I had just witnessed still fresh and bubbly in my memory were now trumped at what lay off the road on both sides of me. Rice terraces upon rice terraces rose high into the gray strained clouds that masked some of its brilliance all the from the river that cut the two spans in between. These rice terraces just as the ones I saw earlier today were a work in progress. Much of the land has likely been molded over the years by previous generations but still must be re-sculpted and replanted. Not every step of the rice terraces were brightly green but that would be impossible to expect considering the amount of work and land necessary to cover. I was beginning to think that I had rode through the pearly gates of heaven along one of those winding curves to arrive at this place. Especially with the late afternoon/early evening light setting innocently on the land, the rice terraces green and brown sparkled. While resting curbside at a spot where the land truly opened up unveiling more rice terraces than I could have imagined, a slew of village children trickled in around me. One girl, the first one that came across me, was especially shy but still managed a smile to reflect my own. The kids were not too keen with the pictures at first (probably confused by this robotic equipment that I held) but I managed to get a few to capture the moment. Maybe it was their dirty clothes and complexion they worried about but hell I was just as dirty as them if not more so. We couldn’t say much to each other but smile and stare at one another awkwardly which contented each of us. With still many lychees left over from the two kilogram supply I purchased, I began offering one a piece to the children. At first they were weary unsure of what to do with this stranger but eventually they failed to hesitate when I began offering seconds and thirds. With all the lychees gone, I said goodbye to the kids needing to complete the last ten kilometers to Mu Cang Chai and hopefully avoid the next wave of the rainstorm before it likely hit. I stopped at a couple other scenic viewpoints but when the drizzle turned into an outright downpour I chose to save the photos for another day. Wet as a dog and smelling just as bad if not worse, I entered Mu Cang Chai and found The Moon Guesthouse. After checking into my own private room, I got myself some dinner in the form of an impromptu meal of chicken (bones, skin, and fattiness), rice, and water spinach; the meal was a welcome break from the usual soup but not at 100,000d (<$5). I am really going to struggle dealing with Western costs again when I get back home. I will probably try negotiating with the cashier over a pound of apples. Back at the hotel, I took a much needed shower to wash my scorched wound that arrived, gift wrapped from the burning, scalding exhaust pipe of my motorbike. All in all I could sleep easy tonight with a space of my own in this town in the mountains.
Riding Vietnam Day 182: Rice Terraces at Long Last!