The Long Trail Back to Hanoi

by aengelson | December 11th, 2009

So, after a night’s sleep in Hang Kia village as part of my trip to the countryside around Mai Chau, it was time for more hiking downhill.

For more photos in my Flickr gallery, click here or on any of the photos in this post.

Trekking on trail (finally!) between Hang Kia and Cun Pheo villages.

Trekking on trail (finally!) between Hang Kia and Cun Pheo villages.

I had tried to explain to Vinh, our guide, that we wanted to hike on a trail rather than a road. But his English was not great, and of course my Vietnamese is almost non-existent. I used my phrase book, but interestingly, the word for “trail” in Vietnamese translates literally into English as “little road.”

And that’s just what we were hiking on. A road. But the mountain scenery was impressive, and it was good to walk in the cool, misty air.

Then, reaching a pass of sorts, we took a turn to the left onto a narrow stone track. Finally, a trail!

The way wound downhill through big trees and vines. The route was alternately on dirt trail and stone steps. Occasionally, I found stones incised with words–one describing what looked like elevation or mileage, another that appeared to say the trail had been built in 1930. Our imaginations ran wild, wondering if this was a supply route during the French-Indochina War or perhaps a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

We became pleasantly warm on the steep descent, peeling off layers of clothing as the sun began to sneak through the clouds. After while, we came upon a few huts and fields. The farmers here were harvesting a root vegetable of some sort (perhaps sweet potato) and drying it over a fire.

At one point, I met Rochelle’s cousin, a sturdy red Minsk motorbike. You see a lot more Minsks up here in the hill country. These bikes were attached to sleds, which presumably carried the farmers’ produce to market.

Mile marker on trail.

Mile marker on trail.

The trail wound down into a lush valley of rice fields, stilt houses and water buffalo. We soon entered the village of Cun Pheo, a Thai tribe village (like Ban Lac), but much less touristed. We made our way to a small restaurant for lunch and lounged in hammocks after the meal.

We had planned to walk all the way to Ban Lac, but our guide informed us it was 30 km by road and that we should take the bus. Tired and languid after our hammock naps, we didn’t argue. Soon we were on the public bus, which alternated between a slow crawl (when hunting for passengers) to a mad rush of speed on the winding road (when there were no houses).

Soon we were back at our guest house in Ban Lac. We found the village and guesthouse completely transformed.

The French trekkers attract a curious crowd in Cun Pheo village.

The French trekkers attract a curious crowd in Cun Pheo village.

The formerly quiet town and guesthouses were now packed with Hanoi tourists out for the weekend. Karaoke music blared, travelers packed the textile shops, and the sounds of “MOT! HAI! BA!” could be heard from drunken revelers. As evening approached, I walked out in the fading light away from all the noise, and it was still peaceful among the palm trees and rice fields. The noise and chaos of Hanoi tourists couldn’t quite sap this place of its calm charm.

That evening was a long one. I was paired with the French travelers in their large room, having been booted from my own room in favor of more paying customers. The rouo drinkers caroused loudly until 2 a.m. But in the morning we all had a laugh about their antics (including one who burst into our room thinking it was the restroom). We drank coffee, talked, and had a late breakfast in the sun.

I traded information with my French traveling companions and invited them to dinner when they arrived back in Hanoi. Then, I loaded up Rochelle the Mink and was on the road again. The sun was brilliant, and the steep ride up out of Mai Chau valley was exhilarating. Rochelle did fine, and then it was down the winding roads on the other side of the pass.

Two things I’ve learned driving the roads of Vietnam on a motorbike. First, truck and bus horns are very loud. Sometimes you can actually feel the sound destroying your eardrums. Second, if you see a bus or truck coming at you, passing another bus or truck, it’s wise to slow down and get off the road if you can. I’m not sure exactly when buses and trucks were granted ownership of Vietnam’s roads, but they clearly own them, so I give them a wide right-of-way.

Overall, though, the drive felt quite safe. It actually seemed much calmer than the bustle of Hanoi.

On the advice of some other travelers I’d met, I took a different route back toward Hanoi. I didn’t have a great map, but I was pretty sure I was on the the right road.

Saying "hello" in Cun Pheo village.

Saying "hello" in Cun Pheo village.

It was a good recommendation–the valley scenery was gorgeous. It’s hard to describe it beyond the usual “soaring limestone cliffs, rice fields, conical hats, and water buffalo.” But this area had a very lovely pastoral look to it, more rural and bucolic than other places I’d driven in. The tree-lined, narrow road made it almost feel a bit like the French countryside.

I would stop periodically to ask “Hanoi?” and followed the directions I was given.

Along the way, on the side of the road, I spotted something of a festival going on…some Vietnamese people were gathered outside a commune headquarters and having games of tug of war and other feats of strength between the men and the women. They motioned me to stop, and how could I say no? I was asked to compete against a very burly-looking woman. The game was to hold opposite ends of a bamboo pole with a scarf tied around the middle of the pole. Each person then tries to push the scarf across a line.

“Mot, hai bai,” (one, two, three) they shouted, and within five seconds the woman had pushed me across the line. Much laughter, including mine. I was not representing America very well in the pole-pushing competition.

Tug of war between men and women in the countryside between Hoa Binh and Hanoi.

Tug of war between men and women in the countryside between Hoa Binh and Hanoi.

Best two out of three, the crowd insisted. Another defeat. Three out of four! After losing four out of five, it was clear my game wasn’t going to get any better, so I said my goodbyes to the boisterous crowd and motored off.

My strategy of asking for directions to Hanoi seemed to be working, but the trouble was I had absolutely no idea where I actually was or how much farther I had to go. It was starting to get dark. The villages started to become a little farther apart. In each town, I started to ask, “khach san?” the word for hotel. No hotels here! was the reply.

And then it was dark. And then, I was stuck driving through an area where the road deteriorated badly and was filled with huge trucks. Dust filled the air. I was near some sort of mine. This was, to put it mildly, less than optimal.

Not wanting to go much farther in the dark, I kept asking anyone I could find about a hotel, pantomiming my head on a pillow. Eventually, I got some directions to another town where I would supposedly find a hotel.

I arrived at a strange place, a small roadside village of a few shops, one restaurant and a tiny bar blasting karaoke music. I asked about the hotel and was directed to some dark side streets. I asked at another business, and they pointed me to a large gateway, which was open.

Driving through the gate I approached an amazing sight.

In the darkness, I could make out a small lake, and about couple hundred meters away, an island, and on that island the lights of what I supposed was the hotel. Leading to the island was a very narrow bridge, less that two meters wide, and about a hundred meters long. On either side was a twisted metal guardrail.

I laughed. So this was my final test in a not-so-easy ride in the countryside? I briefly considered walking the motorbike, but remembered that the light only worked when the motor was on. It was like some crazy video game, and I had to pass this final test before I could sleep for the night.

I drove very slowly, my feet dragging on the concrete panels of the tiny bridge deck. My saddle bags scraped against the bent iron railings, which wouldn’t do much to stop Rochelle if she suddenly lurched to the side.

And then, I’d made it! Motoring up to the lobby, I looked inside.

There was a light on, but there was a huge chain and padlock on the inside of the glass door. I knocked, and the sounds echoed through the place. Crap. I prepared myself for the possibility of  having to cross the bridge again and head for the next town, when I heard the glorious sounds of footsteps. A young man, shirt off, obviously awoken from his 7 p.m. nap, stumbled down the stairs, putting on his shirt and rubbing his eyes. He opened the door and led me in.

It was some sort of communist party guest house or something. It was echoing and empty, and had the feel of a place that hadn’t seen much business in the past twenty years. The man at the desk led me to my room on the third floor.

My beautiful room for the night.

My beautiful room for the night.

The hotel had the institutional feel of a prison or an insane asylum. It was totally empty except for the two of us. The  room was a putrid green–not exactly dirty but not exactly clean. A cockroach scuttled across the floor. The toilet didn’t flush, and there were no windows. But there was a bed, a beautiful beautiful bed (even if the sheets weren’t freshly washed). I’ll take it! I beamed, as if it were the presidential suite at the InterContinental.

That night I ate at the one restaurant in town. Two men eating there motioned me to join them. We ate together and one of the men offered me a glass of rouo liquor, which I accepted, toasting Vietnam. I declined the offer of another, knowing the evils of those thimble-sized glasses. We didn’t say much, and I eventually looked into my phrasebook and asked what the man’s occupation was. He told me, pointing to a truck outside.

Ah, I said, truck driver, doing my best imitation of a truck horn. He smiled. I told the men I was a writer from “My-ee” (America). Then the other man flipped through the phrase book looking for his occupation. He found it, and pointed to it, smiling proudly.

The word was “communist.”

I smiled and gave him a thumbs up and said “Ho Chi Minh!” He seemed to like that. They wished me well and were off, and I headed off to my depressing but wonderful room for a very sound night of sleep.

The next day, I continued to ask directions to Hanoi, and soon found myself in increasingly busier towns and traffic. The trucks got bigger and noisier, then \gave way to more and more motorbikes and even wider streets. Soon I was back in familiar Hanoi, and stopped in at my favorite coffee shop, Cong Caphe, for an iced coffee before going home to my family and a much-needed shower.

That night, we had Stephan, Ariane, Thomas, and Mila over for dinner. The girls played together, and we all traded contacts and invited each other to come visit again in Hanoi or Seattle or France if we were ever traveling there.

And so ended my adventure to Mai Chau. It was a very good trip, and I’m thankful to Joanie and Matilda and Fiona for letting me have a few days to go exploring on my own. The weather here in Hanoi is lovely today, in the low 70s F, and the sun is out. In Puku Cafe in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where I often write, I’m sitting on their rooftop veranda working on this blog post, and I can almost feel the calm of Ban Lac village, and recall the peace of the lazy rice fields and the bamboo creaking in the wind…

3 Responses to “The Long Trail Back to Hanoi”

  1. Thanks Andrew. Loved the post and photos. Reminds me of northern Thailand.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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