It was very sad to pack up our gear and head out from our home stay at An Phu in Ninh Binh, and take off as we had had such an amazing experience staying in the Ninh Bing area and staying in this little village with Luong and his family.
Honestly, the Ninh Binh area and our homestay exceeded our expectations a thousandfold and gave us a better understanding and appreciation of what true Vietnamese life is like. Or at least how we as Canadians perceive traditional Vietnamese life to be like.
Along that same line, at times it is funny how some of our experiences in different countries are very similar to each other. Like Marrakesh, Hanoi was a very busy big city that seemed to be in a constant state of organized chaos. However, once we got out into the country we found the people happier, more hospitable and more aligned with of our kind of way of living. However, that being said, Hanoi was way better and we had a much better experience there than we did in Marrakech.
As you can tell from a previous posts, we aren’t big city people. As such getting out of Hanoi, despite its richness in history and culture, was nice as it allowed us to slow down and simply enjoy where we are.
We jumped in the car and headed off to our taxi driver who spoke very little English, so we just had to sit back and enjoy the views. We go on a white knuckle hairpin turns drive up and over the mountain past that separated Ninh Binh from Mai Chau.
Each one of us got off our devices during the drive eventually as the switchbacks and the ups and downs everybody nauseated especially with the crazy, erratic style of driving that takes place here. We ended up stopping at a mountaintop to get a view of the valley below but with the amount of humidity in the air it was really hard to see much of anything.
We are finally arrived at Mai Chau and villas which was nestled at the end of a small road which is nestled at the end of another small road which was an asphalt at the end of a small road off of a small highway. You get the idea. In fact the road basically ended at our accommodations. We knew that we are in as remote and roll of the location as we could have been which is exactly what we wanted to be at.
Surrounding the Mai Chau villas of rice fields and mountains. Scattered in between the rice fields were small villages that dotted the landscape. Everything was incredibly lush in this area to the point that it almost felt like a dense rain forest. Without the forest.
We were lucky, especially for the kids, that Mai Chau Villa had a swimming pool and this was the first swimming pool that we had in about a week. This was something that the kids loved, even though the pool was probably 15 feet long by maybe 10 feet wide.
Unlike the other pools that we had swam in all through South Africa, this one was not freezing cold. Not that it was warm either, but it was still pretty fresh as they were headed into their winter rather than coming into their summer like most places that we had and were going to be visiting. We kept forgetting that we were back in the Northern Hemisphere. The kids were splashing around and then the guard at the villa through in a rugby ball, and then the pool excitement ramped up a bit with rocket blaster catches.
In Mai Chau, there isn’t a heck of a lot to do other than soak up what it is like to live like a rural Vietnamese person does. So, the normal speed at which the Travelling Trenholms normally travel at slowed down a lot. It was more of a “look around and soak it all in” rather than rushing to see this, that, or the other thing.
This meant that there was more kick back and relax time than usual and everybody was working on their various projects and homework. But adventurism and “I can’t sit still for very long” kicked in for me and I grabbed my camera and a bike to head out onto the trails between the rice fields to have a look around.
People were working in their fields, ducks were wandering around everywhere, kids were playing soccer in the local field of dirt, and life was rolling along at a nice village pace. There wasn’t a TV to be heard, and no one was glued to their device.
On my Tour de Mai Chau on the borrowed bike that had a chain that skipped every third revolution, I came across and went through several small villages that were scattered through the valley rather than there being one big centre. Well, I guess there was Mai Chau proper…and I guess these were the suburbs.
I took a road until the path became and dirt track which then became matted down grass from people walking on it, and voila! There was a rickety steel bridge that crossed the river! Like, rickety to the point where each of the panels bounced as I biked across it. I figured that if the locals could do it, and probably some livestock could do it, then I should be able to do it too.
What else am I supposed to do but cross it. I was not going to go back the way that I came. I had my man compass turned on and I knew exactly where our place was. I biked through the village on the other end of the bridge, found the highway was had come in on and headed back into the small streets of the village where our accommodations were.
Ok. There is something that I need to explain at this point as it is relevant and a point of conversation that men will attest to, but women will often roll theirs eyes at.
To all of the wives, girlfriends, and moms out there, let me explain the man compass to you. This is an explanatory epiphany moment for me as this valuable tool has allowed me to reach my final destination after visiting somewhere once or taken me back to where I started on an adventure like this. Like a homing pigeon.
Many times, I have used my man compass on this adventure and other trips, and have gotten us to where we are going. But other than laugh that it is just a saying, the man compass has real merit. So for my trip today, it was a round trip. This meant that I knew my starting and finishing points were the same. Through a combination of magnetic pull, microgeolocation (knowing the elements, structures, and landmarks that are around me), and macrogeolocation (knowing in general where the destination I am headed) I knew, without full on knowing with GPS or a map, where I was. For a second example, while I am explaining this phenomenon, if a man is doing a point to point trip without a map or gps, then we start off roughly knowing the direction of our final destination. Then we macrogeolocate that point and we take the road or path or trail that most closely stays close to the direct line to the final destination. It might snake around that line but it stays close to that line.
If a destination is a town or a community and you haven’t been there before then a man uses more of the macrogeolocation to get you there. However, if a man has been in a town or city before, even for a brief time, and has seen the final destination, then microgeolocation comes in. Make sense? I thought so.
Ok. Back to the travels. On our second day in Mai Chau, Wilson and I took a day trip and left the girls alone for the day. So, we rented a scooter, turned on our man compasses and headed towards a waterfall and a fishing village.
We had to rent the scooters if we were going to get anywhere since it said that it would take us 1 hour to go 20km. So it was either winding roads or the roads were dirt and in poor repair. So, we needed motorized transportation is we were going to get anywhere.
We went through Mai Chau where we stopped and wandered around the downtown which had a street side market where everyone had their produce out. And meat. And LEGO and toys. You name it, it was there.
We couldn’t really carry anything so we just window shopped.
Back on the bike and we headed off down the road and eventually found the waterfalls and the steep trail to go down to the base of them.
We made it to the waterfalls without getting lost, and had to park at a nice family’s hut where the waterfall was located…even if there was paid parking in their driveway…haha. We walked down a steep and winding path down to the base of the falls, where we had the whole place to ourselves.
We scrambled around the bottom of the falls, and we could’ve easily so I am in the crystal clear water is that a part of it, but neither of us had our bathing suits and we didn’t feel like skinny dipping as you really couldn’t tell whether somebody was going to pop out of the woods at the waterfalls or not. Shrinkage!!! Haha.
So, we scrambled back up the hill to the top where our scooter was located and we hopped back on our mean machine and drove further down the road to where the road ended at a small fishing village.
I’m sure that they were wondering what these crazy Canadians were doing showing up at their village in the middle of nowhere. We parked our scooter at the edge of a local eating spot…you can’t call it a restaurant really…and walked out to the lake and saw some traditional boat houses that had fish farms and aquaculture farms surrounding them. It was really interesting to see how they set up a fish farm around their houses and kept the fish and the natural environment.
This area was obviously rich in forestry as there were towering bamboo trees all around us, which they were harvesting while we were driving past. There was a bunch of guys up on the hill cutting down the bamboo and they let them tumble down down the steep hill they were on so that they could land on the road below. There, standing out of harms way from the tumbling trees were some other villagers who were trimming the branches and leaves off of the trees, after which they threw the long tree trunks quite handily into the back of a truck that was grossly undersized for the load they were putting into it. But they let them hang off the end hoping it wouldn’t fall off.
I tried lifting one of the bamboo trees thinking I could help like I helped out making concrete back in Ninh Binh, but these were surprisingly heavy! The local villagers were half my size, and a mix of men and women, and they were picking up 2 to 3 of them at a time and putting them in the truck with ease. Simply incredible and it reaffirmed the fact that I was grossly out of shape.
We made our way back to Mai Chau where we stopped at the “top rated” local restaurant which, as you would expect, was down a very small side street. Top rated is relative to the company of other restaurants that were in the community. Haha
We had some of our favourite Vietnamese dishes, banana flower salad and spring rolls, that were nice and spicy.
Wilson had some french fries as well so wasn’t feeling super well from a bit of an upset stomach the night before. We had to try out their local specialty of smoothies which were super thick. Wilson had a dragon fruit smoothie and I had an avocado smoothie which was fantastic.
We headed back to the villas after we tried to hunt down a chopstick “factory” (quotations as I think it was someone’s house) but we could not find it in amongst the small nondescript huts in the village.
We spent a quiet evening in the villas and packed up her stuff and got ready to head back to Hanoi the next day.
In the morning, our taxi driver picked us up and we started our way back to Hanoi through the mountain pass.
I sat in the front and Deb was in the back with the two kids. He head gotten up at 4am to get to us as he had already driven 4 hours from Hanoi. He wasn’t the most talkative person in the world, as I tried my usual attempt at making some small talk. It was fruitless to say the least.
On the way back, he drove like a complete maniac when he really didn’t have to. It is not like the streets of Hanoi our in the boonies. Lots of blind corners and casual drivers, not to mention the livestock. Deb and I exchanged I love you hand symbols from the front to the backseat as this might be the last day we are alive.
After we got back, we kissed the ground and got back into the hotel. Needless to say we didn’t give him much of a tip.
We unpacked all of our gear and took some laundry to the laundromat next door and we took off into the streets of Hanoi again. This time to do some last minute sightseeing and shopping. To get rid of the Vietnamese money before we headed out the next day.
We had our last Vietnamese meal at our favourite restaurant, Bun Cha Ta, and we couldn’t have left without trying famous Egg Coffee. I am glad that I didn’t try this the last time I was in Hanoi as I would have had many more of these ultra rich drinks that was like a coffee milkshake on steroids. Deb was grossed out by the appearance of it (it just looked like an egg nog latte) so all the more for me!
Bun cha (recipe here and here is an alternative to try out) is a multi step in dish that has a bowl of broth that I think is beef or pork broth, with some rice wine vinegar and there are spring onions, garlic, and fresh chillies are you at add to it. That he put bacon, and pork meatballs in the soup that our pan fried, not boiled. Everything is better with bacon.
As you eat it you add in what they call Vietnamese herbs which looks like a combination of mint, purple basil, and any form of time. Can you scoop rice noodles into it then you dip your freshly fried spring rolls into it using in the spring roll as a vehicle to sop up the soup. I have to find the recipe and try to perfect it as I could seriously eat this every day for the rest of my life.
We have passed November 12 now which is officially the halfway mark of the trip. It’s seems hard to believe that we are already halfway, and I’ve already mentioned to my lovely wife I can’t wait to do this again sometime.
PS: Evelynn. You were right. Vietnam has been nothing short of incredible. Thank you a much for all of the hard work you put in to helping us plan this leg of our trip. Don’t forget. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Not just sticking your foot out of it once in a while.
PPS: To my colleagues at work, thank you for helping us make it possible to go away on this family adventure. It has been nothing short of wonderful and we are grateful to have colleagues like you that helped us make this happen by covering for our absence.
PPPS: We are already planning our next round the world trip….
PPPPS: Here are some more photos!