It took a few days for me to recover to a mostly functioning state of existence, but even longer to receive an extension of my Vietnam visa. The Vietnamese consulate in Kunming would not issue a 90-day multi-entry visa, which I needed for my No Barriers commitment in China. I had to settle for a 30-day multi-entry visa while Matt got a 90-day single-entry one. Oh, the bureaucracy! We would later learn that this was only the beginning of my Vietnam visa ordeal.
In the meanwhile, we stayed with Tim and Carlina, great Warm Showers hosts who had kept my bicycle and gear while I was away. They had a lovely apartment near Tay Ho and they generously cooked up yummy pasta dinners for us and showed us the best places to eat in their neighborhood. Despite being in good company, we were getting anxious to leave Hanoi and see more of Vietnam.
Once we had picked up my passport from the visa agency, we hit the road heading west into the hills. We hadn't cycled any significant distance consistently since Matt's rim cracked in Nujiang Valley six weeks before, so it was no wonder that it felt like we were starting the cycle tour from scratch yet again. I had lost my usual heat tolerance after spending too much time in air conditioning and my mental and physical energy levels were still in a delicate state of flux. Combining that with steep shadeless hills on the way to one of the hottest regions of Vietnam at the hottest time of the year made for a couple of rough days of slow progress getting to Mai Chau for me. In contrast, Matt was unusually positive and upbeat, grateful for the return of even my cranky companionship after I had abandoned him for eleven days.
By the time we were coasting down the other side of the final hill before Mai Chau, my mood had improved enough to sufficiently appreciate the verdant beauty of the valley from a scenic overlook along the road. Though it was far from wild, the attraction lay in the bright green rice paddies spanning the perfectly flat valley floor interspersed with clusters of villages. Homestays are the mainstay of Mai Chau's tourism and we chose one overlooking what else but rice paddies at the edge of Ban Poom village. Having heard that Mai Chau is "really touristy", we were expecting something a bit more obnoxious, but what we found was laid back, peaceful village bliss. Perhaps it's different on the weekends.
As we slowly rode through the neighboring village of Ban Lac, we were invited to join a group of men for a cup of coffee. They were so thrilled that we accepted that the oldest one, wearing a white wifebeater, kissed both of us on the cheeks and insisted on paying. Now that is what I call a good caffeine buzz! After coffee, we explored the network of little roads and trails leading off through the rice fields to other White Thai villages. Venturing further up a side valley, we stumbled upon a large brick production site where laborers threw bricks from a wheelbarrow onto a conveyor belt headed in to a tremendous barn-like shelter.
Later, we met up with a spirited traveler named Donna over beers with the intent of watching a sunset that never materialized. She is an English woman with a passion for cultural costumes expressed through her wittily-titled blog Haute Culture Fashion. Our homestay host cooked up, or more accurately, fried up a dinner of spring rolls, ground pork wrapped in betel leaves, chicken legs, and even a few caterpillars if we dared. We did. Matt thought his tasted like a French fry, but I got a distinctive rancid rubber flavor.
We could have easily relaxed at Mai Chau for a few days, but having just gotten on the road again, we thought it better to keep moving. And since I was truly feeling better, there was really no excuse. We said goodbye to the stilted house we had called home for a night and headed south in to Pu Luong Nature Reserve. It was brutally hot, made worse by the fact that each incline consistently blocked the gentle breeze that we could occasionally feel at the top of each rise. It was a clear choice between going as slowly as possible with lots of breaks in the shade or dealing with the risks of heat exhaustion. We tried to keep the sweat out of our eyes long enough to appreciate the beauty of the undeveloped valley we were riding through, but in the heat of the day it was honestly pretty hard to care.
As dusk was settling in, we began scoping camp spots and asking villagers along the ridge line road for leads on a place to sleep. We were consistently directed to a rough dirt road plunging to the valley bottom, so we decided to go for it, really really hoping that it would work out. The loose gravel turned to a narrow paved footpath, or what we assumed would only be a footpath. After letting some young drunk guys pass by on their motorbikes, we dismounted and walked our bikes down the steep curving path, not trusting our cantilever brakes to sufficiently control our speed. The path dropped us in to Kho Muong village on the valley floor. We were quickly directed to a homestay, but we were quickly turned off by the quantity of empty beer cans surrounding the host and his insistence that we sit down and begin drinking immediately.
Knowing that homestays have been set up throughout Pu Luong as a community-based eco-tourism initiative, we set off in search of a better option and couldn't have ended up with a nicer family, finding them completely by chance. Similar to the previous night in Mai Chau, they set up a mattress on the floor encased in a mosquito net in the middle of a huge room clearly intended for groups. The paneless windows in the stilted house overlooked a pond with fireflies twinkling above it. We joined the family in the kitchen, which soon filled with about twenty neighbors, most of them women. The reason for the gathering was unclear, as was whether it was a special or regular occurrence. Shots of ruou (Vietnamese rice wine) were poured, but the mood was neither particularly festive nor somber. We later learned from the teen daughter and her translation app that her mother was suffering from fibroids and local Muong custom dictates that people should visit often to keep the ill company and bring good luck to their recovery.
Having arrived at dark the day before, it was no question that we would stay another day to explore the secluded area. We walked through the village and out to a limestone cave with large pillars inside seemingly formed by rockfall from the cave’s ceiling. Locally known as the Bat Cave, we saw more cave crickets than bats, as well as a memorable cave cricket predator that like a centipede with extremely long legs.
For the rest of the day, we relaxed in the shade under our host family’s house, sharing a pot of coffee with the father Nom, and chatting with him in the limited way we could carry on conversation. It also happened to be my 34th birthday, so I was happy add this place to the diverse list of global locations where I have turned a year older.
We had been dreading our departure from Kho Muong village since first walking our bikes down the crazy path. We had assumed we would be pushing them up as well, but did not expect that both of us would have to push one bike together! We would push one bike for a section and park it, then walk back down for the second bike, leapfrogging our way out of the valley bottom like this for over an hour. When we returned to the gravel road, we rode down and out of Pu Luong Nature Reserve, passing some more picturesque villages and greenery-scenery on the way.
Our route for the next five days took us through “everyday rural Vietnam” filled with flat agricultural valleys, climbing forested hills in between them, and small towns where we would find a random guesthouse to spend the night. We succumbed to what I call with disdain “alarm clock cycle touring,” where a rude noise awakes one from blissful slumber as though pedal pushing were a job with a strict work schedule. We learned from the Vietnamese who voluntarily rise before the first light of day that the benefit of a few hours of cooler morning temperatures was worth it. What we didn’t succeed in adopting was the long afternoon nap that gives the Latin American siesta a run for its money. Businesses shut, nary a person on the street, everyone dead to the world in hammocks or wooden platform day beds, mid-day cycling felt like riding through a hellishly hot ghost town.
Our favored antidote to the heat was frequent stops at the ubiquitous nuoc mia stands, always with a shady seating area. Stalks of sugar cane were pressed on demand through motorized rollers, then the light green juice was poured over ice in a hefty glass mug. A pinch of salt and a squeeze of lime made the surprisingly not-too-sweet beverage perfectly refreshing and energizing. As a member of the grass family, sugarcane has a high concentration of vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, so we had no qualms about drinking a couple of glasses per day.
An ongoing fascination with water buffalos broke up the monotony of rice, rice, and more rice fields lining the road. And then there was the joyful distraction of the “hello zone”, stretching at least a quarter of a mile from either side of the road. Oftentimes, we could hear a faint hello, but not even be able to locate the source. Almost everyone greeted us, young and old, and usually repetitively. One hello would not suffice. The standard was “Hellowhat’syourname?” to which we learned responding with our name didn’t seem to matter and asking “What’s your name?” didn’t seem to register. We were always amused to get an “I love you” and even more entertained by the random “F--- you” too, always yelled by teen boys, not too surprisingly.
The few times we stopped when people greeted us, it really caught them off guard. They didn’t know what to do. However, one time we circled back to a group of women sitting on the side of the road in the shade of a karst outcrop. For some reason, I was inspired to take their photo if they agreed to it. Before I could even get that far, we were instructed to park our bikes and take a rest with them. They poured tea and pushed pomelo, mango, and starfruit on us. Many smiles were exchanged. Then one woman phoned her daughter with excellent English to come from the village nearby. We chatted with her for quite a while and learned that the women were sitting there to watch over their cattle grazing in the field on the other side of the road. As if on cue, her mother got up and ran off toward the cows, having heard the rumor that one of hers was giving birth. The spontaneous roadside fruit party was one of those simple moments that served as an invaluable reminder of why we travel by bicycle, and it came at a time when we were (re)questioning whether the self-imposed difficulty was really worth it.
We arrived to Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park at the tail end of a downpour we had been cycling in for eight miles. As soon as we dried off in a hotel room, the sun came out so we got oriented to the area while walking around Phong Nha town. Phong Nha has grown in popularity as a tourism destination in the last few years. While the main attraction is an elaborate limestone cave system boasting the largest (known) caves in the world, visitors are also attracted to the rural countryside surrounding the park. We were no different and explored both aspects.
The following day we toured Phong Nha cave, taking a motorboat from the town upstream to the mouth of the river cave. The driver cut the engine and a team of two pulled oars at the front and back of the sizeable boat into the cave. We traveled about a kilometer inside, but the cave extends much further than that. The key formations were lit up and made for an intriguing sight. Some flat areas just inside the broad entrance of the cave served as shelter and a makeshift hospital during the American-Vietnam War. We also climbed up to Tien Son, a dry cave with a meandering boardwalk through the tremendous, but delicate, formations. The unusually large caves and advanced stalactites and stalagmites have been forming for 400 million years in the oldest karst mountains in Asia, so it’s no surprise the park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before leaving Phong Nha, we whiled away an afternoon at the perfectly peaceful Wild Boar Eco Farm. The farm is self-sustaining with its namesake product, in addition to peanuts and small plots of other crops. However, the young owner Cuong saw the potential for an eco-tourism venture, perhaps inspired by a now overly-popular neighbor known as The Pub with Cold Beer. The premise of both places is to provide a spot for backpackers to day-drink in the countryside with the added excitement of butchering a local chicken for a tasty lunch. After passing by the Pub, we were so glad that we continued up the rough dirt track to seek out the immensely more charming Wild Boar Eco-Farm, tucked away on a property with an amazing view overlooking a lazy river.
Hammocks with beers were immediately in order, but soon we were hungry. We ordered chicken, priced by the kilo. Cuong drove off on his motorbike and was gone for a long time. Just as we were joking that he would return with a cooked chicken from the Pub with Cold Beer, he came back with a live one-kilo chicken tucked under his arm. We met the poor gal briefly, then watched Cuong through the entire preparation process including slitting the throat and collecting the blood, defeathering in hot water, cutting and splaying out the body for charcoal grilling. Meanwhile, his wife cooked up morning glory with garlic and a peanut dipping sauce with nuts from their farm. It was a genuine farm-to-table experience, slow food that actually lived up the concept’s hype, and was absolutely delicious to the last bite.
I rounded out the afternoon with an innertube float in the river just as a light rain shower began, then we got to talking with Cuong about his business. Understandably, he wants to grow his limited customer base, expand his menu, and build a guesthouse. We tried to emphasize that his place’s current appeal is in its simplicity and the value of its authenticity. Even with significant language barriers, we got the sense that Cuong’s genuineness will prevail over profit. We trust that he will not intentionally try to make it into something that it’s not meant to be. But places don’t always change on purpose, sometimes they just “get discovered,” a character-shifting force beyond any individual’s control. And if that happens, at least we can remember it as it was before it was gone. Despite the temptation to ask Cuong if we could camp out at his farm for a week, we readied ourselves to keep moving on from Phong Nha.