Riding Vietnam Day 183: Off the Beaten Path in Mu Cang Chai

I woke up figuring that I would check out of my hotel, ride back on the same road I took to get here for the last 15 km and see the rice terraces at a more relaxed pace, and then continue on north to Sapa. For some reason, the travel gods decided to rain upon Mu Cang Chai which derailed my plans. Sure the rain wasn’t coming down that hard but I didn’t want to ride through it and not enjoy the views; instead of striving to make it to Sapa for the night I opted to stay another night here. While the sky continued to pour, I walked through center town for a bit, including its market where live animals, fruits, veggies, breads, and non-chilled cut meats were being sold. Nearby I stopped for breakfast in the form of some sort of pho or bun, which was not only delicious with finally some meat besides the over abundance of drowned rice noodles but gloriously only set me back 25000d (<$1.25). Just next door with an open front atmosphere to view the soggy market and locals and villagers continuing to pass through, still hoping to shop at the market, I sat down for an iced coffee with condensed milk (a Vietnamese tradition and speciality that is self-dripping and chock full of robust caffeine; coffee here holds no shame and keeps nothing back, which I for some reason like despite not being a coffee drinker back home). I was astounded when my bill came to 20000d ($1); I know that this isn’t some knock-off, prepackaged 3 in 1 coffee mix but come on! Prices make no sense here; how can I enjoy a delicious filling breakfast for essentially the same price as an espresso shot of coffee? While the rain was dying down I spent some time in the market, watching people go about business as usual with ducks and chickens crammed into small cages for sale and their colorful abundance of produce scattered into random woven baskets and trays. Besides the locals who live in town and dress like any other Vietnamese I have come across, many villagers who come from the rice terraced mountain sides and way up into the hills also are very much apart of the community. The women are dressed in technicolor dream coat display with the coolest and brightly color headscarf/babushka wrapped around their heads while also wearing similarly colored yet less rainbow-esque skirt dresses. Unfortunately it is only the females that get to wear these including young girls. Honestly I was about ready to buy one if there was a marker for it even if I had no practical way of using it. Once the clouds were clearing up besides the ones that constantly rested upon the utmost peaks like a tightly bound cap, I rode out with my motorbike to explore at a slower, more relaxed pace the same 3 to 11 km stretch of roadway south of town that contained the rice terraces that I witnessed yesterday. These rice terraces were just as I had always imagined them to be. I never quite found the photo image that advertised and drew me along this route but I am glad I came here regardless because I am experiencing something so away from what most tourists and backpackers experience. The locals are confused by my presence since they rarely witness someone like myself which is just how I like it. More times than not before I could really gain some ground on the road, I had to pull over and stop to take some pictures of course but also to sit and ponder at the wonder before me. The rice terraces never seem to end as the just barely die out before the cloud coverage swallows them up as the mountains narrow out to their summits. I would wave at locals when passing by but rarely did I get a response. Either they are not the friendliest of people or they simple don’t know what a wave of hello is or they could be just that shy. It is kind of an odd concept that I would pick a spot to view not only the stunning panorama of the rice fields but also to watch locals working tirelessly over a land their family has been molding for generations. After seeing what I could I went back to town and got a couple of kem che dessert drinks loaded with sweetened beans and nuts and laced with coconut cream. As I was sitting by myself a group of local guys my age invited me over to sit with them. They knew little to know English but the gesture and willingness to welcome me made all the difference in the world. Since I had no idea what else to do with my time, I figured I could take care of his trip maintenance and keep updating the blog that tires me yet I know how worthwhile it will be ten years from now when all the memories come flooding back. With mid-afternoon coming about and having sat around doing nothing of note, I knew I had to get my lazy ass moving. After some fresh, juicy watermelon picked out at the market, I began walking along the road that I covered twice over to get an even slower approach to the rice fields and possibly interact with the locals a bit. Just on the outskirts of town I noticed two villagers, one of which was an older woman dressed in the typical colored attire and a large, probably heavy basket strapped to her back, climbing a dirt footpath off to the side of the road that began disappearing into the bush and tree line. In a larger way, it is one of those moments that define us. I came to a fork in the road where I could take the well worn asphalt roadway or join the mystery of the road less traveled and follow the locals and experience the unknown untapped potential that may transpire into a path that dead ends at their home or continues on to something more. I took that local path climbing higher and higher winding back and forth while my lungs huffed and puffed from the rare exhaustion they have experienced in some time. I passed locals including the children and waved in their direction as I continued along. It is as if they didn’t know what to do with the sight of me. Especially for the kids that have homes in the utmost parts of the mountains they probably rarely get into town and even then rarely would ever come across a white person. A couple of kids that had been staring at me for sometime within their home darted away within the confines of their wooden hut home when I acknowledged their presence. I guess I can understand it too. If I saw a man similar to myself in most features except with skin dyed to the color of a sky blue, I would probably be scared as well from this alien life form. At one viewpoint that demanded photographs to be taken, a man taking a break from his plowing approached me out of curiosity of me and my devices. Using a new party trick, I switched my iPod camera around into selfie mode so that the man could see his mirrored presence and so that I could take a photo of the shared joyful smiles spread across over our faces. He kept trying to speak Vietnamese to me or who knows maybe a tribal language but I can waving my hand in a twisting motion over my ear to show I didn’t understand. God the views kept getting better and better. I thought that I had seen the best bits roadside while crucifix along but here is where I found the paradise. My whole body was tingling in an uncontrollable sensation. It was one of those moments in which I came to terms with how much I was realizing my dreams. The impossible is possible. I looked out at all those rice terraces knowing how far I had come to see them ranging from all the worrying to enter Asia on my own to begin with to dealing with the multiple falls on the motorbike. Sapa advertises its trekking through the hill tribes quite prominently but I was now experiencing just that but on my own and without the gang of other tourists tramping along to the point that to locals it is a tireless charade they go through to bring some money to their families. There was a reason I stayed an extra night in Mu Cang Chai to experience this, one of the best days of my trip thus far. I didn’t know it nor necessarily appreciated it all the time but now I am so grateful. Mu Cang Chai needs to be put on the map; it has so much potential but then again the reason I enjoy it so much is that I have so much of this to myself. I saw of couple groups of Asian travelers around town and on the road but there sure as heck were not a single Westerner around. As an aside, rice terraces are an endless, tireless necessity of work. Everyone is involved from the kids to the elderly. Rice plants are grown in clumped bunches that need to be spread out and the only way that can be done is by mostly women bending over in the mud and water to jam each strand of rice plant into the ground. With the morning rainfall, I could see how the rice terrace system works. Rice needs a lot water to grow so each level is filled high in its basin before it overflows and runs off and down to the next layer where this process continues all the way down to the river/stream below. There is a certain artform to molding the land besides the water buffalo/cows used to churn up the mud and water. Men with hoes scrape the slowly drying mud with the back of their hoe to make such the whole system doesn’t collapse on itself. The entire spectrum and panorama of the rice terraces to be so beautiful and National Geographic-worthy seems almost planned as if this is a way to draw in tourists but this is just how it is done and it just so how happens to create such a natural meets man made wonder. I could have spent so much more time up their in the hills continuing on to the path went no more but I had to make sure I was able to outpace darkness in my attempts to reach the town by nightfall. While descending the same old woman with black teeth who said hello with a warm smile earlier, offered me some funky berries that she had picked. I soon realized where she got that color of her teeth from as I spit out the blackish purple liquid. Back into town with not much else to do, I refueled on some pho. Another bowl of pho is not noteworthy but the fact that I had it without some nuoc mam fish sauce is. While awaiting for this particular fish sauce-deprived bowl to arrive, I heard a chicken squawking before it met its end. You wont find a fresher bird than that (I had beef but the truth still holds). For a sweet treat, I bought a couple kilos of lychees on the cheap. To think how much this juice costs back in the States is incredible considering what little I need to pay for it here. The night died young in a room to myself; not much else to be done when a town dies early.

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