The first day on this trip started very promising. My diarrhoea seemed under control, my guide showed up on time and my favourite sweethearts at my hotel bared me an overwhelming farewell…
After we managed to get out of Hanoi traffic onto the most modern motorway in the North things calmed down a little. We had about 350km to go and a Ford Everest jeep under our butts. The driver, obviously a sub-contractor running his own transport business, basically an enjoyable mid-aged man, looking like a down to earth peasant with a considerable amount of smartness in his eyes, had decided to save petrol at all cost. He relentlessly clubbed in the next higher gear the moment the rev meter reached 1.2k. So at 40km an hour we were in fifth – and that’s about where we stayed all day!
Rather soon it dawned on me that on this trip indeed the road was the goal and I suppressed my desire to take the wheel and instead surrendered myself to fate. In the end the 350 km took 10 hours. Not without killing an inexperienced puppy trying to cross the street while driving at 40kmh and a few near miss accidents when he overtook an even slower vehicle at 40kmh and shifted into fifth during the manoeuvre with oncoming traffic approaching, slowing down the car immediately! Those who know my own active driving style will understand through which agonies of mind I went. But no more of that.
My guide on the other hand, the one who speaks English is a joyful young man, successful in his career as a tour guide, guiding Vietnamese groups going abroad and foreign groups through Vietnam. He was also a bit talkative. Not with me, though, but with the driver. I had made the mistake to insist on the front passenger seat for better views, so the two of them had to communicate in a loud voice. This went on the whole day, with an only interruption of 40 minutes when the guide, exhausted by speaking so much, napped away.
Here are my two heroes. To the left is the guide Hung (as Vietnamese names often have a meaning, his is “hero”). Next to him is the driver Than (“loyalty”). An extremely compatible team.
The scenery on the road was spectacular – as far as I could make it out. Because, probably due to high humidity, it was very hazy everywhere and visibility was not good enough for photos. But the atmosphere came across very intensely. Sorry that I cannot share this with you.Here is a small example:
We moved from the fruitful plain to buffalo territory and terraced fields, architecture changed from the narrow three story Vietnamese houses to the wooden houses on stilts of the mountain people (very similar to Laos and Cambodia). A very pleasant “deja vu” for me that made me feel much at home
Here another try, a farm in the valley with its ponds:
We stopped for a smoke (my request being the only smoker) at a few places to which my Vietnamese heroes with their tiny bladders happily agreed to.
Like this little “market” at the highest point of a mountain pass (in its own way much like we have them in Bulgaria, let’s say in Yundula or on the way to Bansko in the Kyustendil district).
The only interesting thing for me they sold there were wild bananas, something they don’t eat but mix with their rice liquor…
Our first (and only) “sightseeing” stop was in Mai Chau. A place I immediately decided to name “the Bansko of Northern Vietnam”. Not only nearly every tourist coming to Hanoi makes a day excursion there, it’s also extremely popular with Vietnamese from Hanoi. They organise “adventure tours” for Hanoi students (aka drinking sprees). The village is populated by a minority they call “White Thai” (similar to Thai people), immigrated a long time ago from China. Very hospitable people. So much that the whole village is one big souvenir shop and every house offers the Vietnamese equivalent of B&B, a thin mattress on the floor in a big open room shared with many others.
Here a few impression.
A traditional house (modernised with tourist income as you can see from the concrete bases of the stilts):
A cleverly designed house, utilising space to the maximum. Under the ground floor (which serves like the living quarters in such houses with the sleeping area being upstairs) they have integrated a pond to be able to keep fish and other edible water creatures.
This is a harvested wet rice field. The farmers let the roots and stumps nearly dry, then spread buffalo manure on it and give the whole thing time to compost. Afterwards they plough the fields and plant again. In the plains they have three crops a year but, I guess, here (at about 650m altitude) they have only two.
Well, we finally arrived in Son La, the provincial capital. And driver and guide put me up in the “Trade Union Hotel”. A typical socialist masterminded institution, like you can find them close to the Chinese border also in Myanmar and Laos) mainly for “business people”. The rooms are big and there is always something that’s not working, service is a bit less heartily than in privately run places – but it has a certain charm that I cannot explain to Westerners and that only my Bulgarian friends remembering Balkantourist would appreciate. And they do have internet, obviously!
My room is a whopping 35$ a night (listed in my guide book at 20$) – and the fact that my guide and driver are staying here as well tells me that I am heavily subsidising their stay So be it!
Now I have wasted enough time publishing this and I should venture to the close by night-market to get a feel of the local action before I collapse in bed, worn out by the driving and talking experience.
Tomorrow morning I expect a serious discussion with my heroes at breakfast about replanning the route since we have one day less than planned. And, I am afraid, their ideas will be different from mine. We will see who gets the better of this