Bich Dong Pagoda and an Unexpected Tour
Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
260Trip End Ongoing
We wandered away from the temple and the hawkers and were taking a few photos of the surrounding landscape. Then two little girls on bikes and in school uniforms appeared on the path that snaked away from the road and toward the distant cliffs. The girls looked away shyly at first and we let them pass without pointing a camera in their faces. We continued looking around and then noticed we were now being watched from a distance. They smiled and giggled, then the oldest girl gestured for us to follow them. We walked a little further, definitely more than we would have done if we were on our own because it seemed to be heading into private paddies and homes. Through nothing more than smiles and gesturing, we became friends with the two girls, aged 10 and 8 in a matter of minutes. We were walking on an elevated dirt path with ponds in all directions and a few scattered homes on plots of land that popped up out of the water and sat in front of towering cliffs. The homes were each simple but quaint and beautiful. Chickens jostled around the dry land and ducks swam languidly through the water. Mai disappeared for a moment and returned with a gorgeous red flower and presented it to Lindsey. We looked around in amazement and wondered how she could have gone anywhere when we were surrounded by water. But the girls were obviously well acquainted with their homes and continued to prove themselves knowledgeable and capable.
After 20 minutes, we thought about turning back and heading to the boat trip we had planned, but the girls urged us on and the scenery became increasingly beautiful and distinctly unlike the pavement and city and hawkers that often imprison tourists in Ninh Binh. Tam Coc's boat ride is beautiful, but it also seems fabricated, like so much that is frequented by tour buses and day trips and those with foreign currency. We felt like we were really in Vietnam, not a sanitized version of it. So we wandered with the kids to a home where two boys emerged - an older boy, Gheng, holding his two-year-old brother. More children appeared and we all exchanged a handful of greetings in English and Vietnamese, not discomforted by the language barrier but laughing at it.
For the next couple of hours we walked deeper into their world, over hilltops and down winding paths. We saw their homes, ate sugarcane that they cut with a machette, and discovered a world that these young kids were incredibly adpet at navigating and managing. I've met plenty of 8-year-old Western kids who can't cross streets or make their own sandwiches or handle a skinned knee. I was one of them. But these kids were all little MacGyvers. They were survival experts, bouncing from precipice to precipice, agilely scaling up and down the rock, and pulling up roots and explaining their medicinal properties. They were very much at home in this world, and they were happy to show us around. Before we left, we had them all write down their names, and we wrote them a thank-you note with our names. We weren't sure they would want it, but when we returned two days later to drop off a few thank-you goodies, the girls' mother emerged from their simple home waving the letter and saying, "Lindsey, Dane, America!"
A single moment like this makes you forget the dozens of people in the cities who scramble for your money and still display and obvious distaste at your presence, no matter how cordial you are. These people, so far from modernity and so meager in their lifestyles, were just happy to meet us and smile and welcome us into their homes. And it reminds us as travelers that we don't go so far from home to see temples or ruins or to buy trinkets or drink on the beach. We go down thousands of paths for thousands of miles in the hope that people this incredible will accompany us for even a few of those steps and let us experience their incredible world.