Road Trip to Mai Chau

Trip Start Aug 04, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Stilt House

Flag of Vietnam  , (VM16),
Monday, February 21, 2011

With a short notice invite I decided to accept and join a small group of 12 others on a motorbike trip to Mai Chau and Moc Chau. These are two small and quiet villages to the south of Hanoi. I was supposed to meet my fellow riders the night before but I was too tired and so I showed up the day of, at the usual meeting place - in front of the Hanoi Opera House. I met Hannah, a young British girl who was to be my passenger. We chatted and then she climbed on and as usual with this group we went for breakfast first, Pho and coffee (the typical Vietnamese breakfast). When we left the restaurant there was a slight mist coming down that turned occasionally to a light rain and then back to a mist.
I was one of maybe 3 other people in this group that had experience with a motorbike road trip but based on the stuff i forgot to bring you'd thought i was a newbie. I did bring my camera obviously and a rain jacket but an extra pair of dry pants and a sweater would been nice so I wouldn't feel like a homeless man on my bike for the ride back. It gets pretty chilly in the mountains on a motorbike driving at about 70 kmh. Wearing all my clothes (6 shirts) barely kept the cold out. And on the way back it got colder and very foggy and rained harder - oooh I was tired and an unhappy camper by the time I got home on Sunday. Unhappy because the drive home was long, wet with lots of traffic especially once back into the city and COLD! The trip itself was great - sometimes just getting out of the city, even in the rain is a refreshing experience.
I didn't mean to get ahead of myself talking about the ride home without telling a little about the trip first - its just so fresh in my memory about being cold to the bone for 2 hours after i was home in the house and in some heat.

So it wasn't so bad of a drive to Mai Chau and once we arrived we stayed in a traditional stilt house. Stilt houses bordered both sides of the road on our drive into town. The houses are quite large with palm leaf roofs and polished bamboo-slat floors. The kitchen is generally located in the center of the house. Since we stayed in a homestay stilt house it was slightly different in that the kitchen was off in the corner of the house to make room for more space to rent out to visitors like us. Since there was 12 of us we basically took over one large room and then a smaller room in the back was used by a party of about 4-5 people.
Mai Chau is located about 165 km from Hanoi and many minorities, including the Thai ethnic group,(distant relatives of Thailand's mountain people) live in Mai Chau. Typically the living quarters are about six feet off the ground, to provide better ventilation and shelter for the family's fowl and water buffalo below. But since we were in a tourist area the latter part wasn't occurring as thus we were the cattle and we sat underneath at the table for beer and meals.
Once we fully arrived there we parked the bikes, changed clothes except me because i only brought one pair of jeans and those were soaked from the knee down from where my rain slicker dripped rain onto them. We picked a mat to sleep on and left our bags. We then walked a few kilometers to the steps that took us to a well known local cave. Walking up it felt good after having been sitting on the bike for several hours and like I usually seem to do after looking around in the cave, I find them interesting but not nearly to the degree that my friend Hazel does. So anyway on the way down I counted the steps. I knew there were quite a few of them plus I wanted to tell all the Vietnamese high school and college students that were huffing and puffing their way up the steps how much further they had to go. Most were impressed that I was counting them while others didn't seem to want to know, especially the ones that weren't even halfway up and learned they still had 925 steps to go to the top. These were the ones that acted like they were 5 pack a day smokers with their sweat soaked shirts and heavy breathing. FYI - there were 1200 steps in all give or take 10-15
Once at the bottom I attracted the attention of 3 little boys that were swashbuckling with homemade swords. I took one photo and that was it, they set about a series of poses for their soon to be released film, The Pirates of Mai Chau. I put all the photos of them in this blog because i couldn't decide which ones to leave out...they all seemed good. 

I was the first one down to the bottom and back to our lodging although within a few minutes 2 of the women in our group were back also. I passed them sitting on the steps on my way down. It seems they couldn't make it all the way to the top. I always get some weird thrill from knowing I am twice the age of many people but also twice as fit too. So achieving the top of the 1200 steps and back while others couldn't do it pleased me...not that they couldn't but that I could. Of course after the long day on the bike and the hike I was also the first one in the hot shower and onto the mat for a power nap. When everyone else got back we sat down for beers followed shortly with dinner and then locally made coconut wine. The way this very sweet tasting but highly butt kicking wine is made is they take the rice wine {also a local home brew) and fill a coconut, then let it sit a few days so the rice wine absorbs the flavors of the coconut. It was rather tasty but to me the part that was the best and apparently subtly potent is the meat of the coconut on the inside. As I feasted on the coconut meat with  mildly slight alcoholic taste I began to notice the buzz beginning. "But officer I wasn't drinking just eating some coconut". We then all made our way down the road in the dark to a place in a large open field where we had a nice sized bonfire, several guys played the guitar and many tried some local style bamboo dancing. I offered to begin the local Sincity hash brand of naked fire jumping but no one was interested. Yeah, like jumping between moving bamboo poles was safer, ha.
The fire started to die out so we returned to the stilt houses to retire. I began a round of "goodnight John Boy" but only the 2 other Americans understood the humor. The Belgians, barely understood what I was saying, the German was snoring within seconds of entering the house as was the British girl and well the Vietnamese were bewildered that I still had the energy to talk. 
The next day started with a slight drizzle followed by off and on heavier rain and colder temps. We drove to 2 other villages did some hiking, and then had one stop for hot tea. There was a small store there with many local products. It seems Moc Chau, the area we were now in was known for their dairy products especially milk candy and flavored milks. I bought a couple boxes of milk candy after sampling a piece from one of the Belgians, It wasn't long and we were warmed up and ready to continue our drive. On the way home we grabbed some lunch in a small town and then began our long, cold and wet drive home. Most of the time it was ok but going through some of the mountain passes in the cold rain with heavy fog and low visibility made for a harrowing driving experience.
Once back home it didn't take me long to shed my wet clothes and climb into my warm bed although as I said earlier it took me a good 2 hours to feel warm again.  .


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sarshao on


Warmed up yet?
The bamboo dancing jogged a memory. We did that in my elementary school in Trenton, New Jersey back in the 1960's. I don't recall having an Asian teacher at that school, but the school had dozens of sets of bamboo poles. We did the dancing in gym class, learning various steps and rhythms with the poles. Even had competitions if I remember right. I wonder how it got to the States back then?

mary baker on

sincity hashers doing the naked fire jumping? i thought that was a DECOC thing? and sincity frowned upon such behavior! :) way to go up all those steps! on on!!

kwai_chang on

Gosh-darn it, Mark, you and your food photos! It's midnight here and now I'm hungry! I'm going to have to start reading these earlier in the day. And--"in front of the Hanoi Opera House. I met Hannah, a young British girl who was to be my passenger. We chatted and then she climbed on"---well, do tell all!! I've never heard of one of those girls referred to as a "passenger" before.

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