Sarah, motorcycle babe...on a Vespa

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
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Trip End Jul 23, 2004


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, November 16, 2003

Hanoi is such a calm, quiet, clean city...at 4:30 in the morning. People of all ages line the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake to do Tai Chi or calisthenics or, uniquely, an exercise that combined Jazzercise with chanting like a drill sargeant. At 6 or so, the fruit vendors and women selling fresh baguettes from woven baskets are replaced on the city streets by cyclo drivers and motos and cars and, less often, a bus, all constantly honking and spewing exhaust and weaving through impossibly small spaces, like the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to fend for themselves. There is less traffic in the Old Quarter, the touristy area lined with small shops and guesthouses and "traveller cafes", if only because fewer vehicles can cram onto the quaintly narrow streets, but it's not for lack of trying. For all it's daytime noise, Hanoi is (with a few exceptions) early to bed; a walk around the lake at 11 pm and you may get an offer for a xe om (motorcycle taxi) and possibly the passing interest of a street dog, but not much else. Like the rest of Viet Nam (with the exception being Ho Chi Minh City; ok, it's a cliche to hate it, but I do. Sorry.), I loved Hanoi. Phil and I walked around for three days, never seeing what we were going to (like Ho Chi Minh's body; it's on display, like a coin collection or something), but just absorbing the energy of the people and culture of the city and filtering about 460 pounds of car exhaust through our lungs. It is a great city, but we realized that if we wanted to live our 30's outside of an iron lung, we had to escape to the hills. Kind of like Julie Andrews, without so many show tunes.
12 hours north and a little west of Hanoi is the town of Sapa, in the range that includes Viet Nam's highest peak, Mt Fansipan, which I enjoy puerilely referring to as "Mount Fancy Pants". The weather is Michigan in October; for those of you who haven't had the experience of brisk, clear, sunny-but-need-a-sweater days, and nights where you really really don't want to have to get up to the bathroom because the tile floor is too cold, it was a high of 60 and a low of 36. There are 54 recognized groups in Viet Nam. The majority are the Viet, who live in the lowlands of the country, and the rest are different hill tribes, like Muang and Red Dao and H'Mong, who mainly live in northern Viet Nam. Phil and I rented a motorbike to explore the villages around Sapa; the road to Tam Duong, where we spent the night, took us through two high mountain passes (with our 110cc engine complaining loudly) along an impossibly twisting road. To say traffic is light is a huge understatement. We encountered two or three buses, one car, and even only a handful of motorbikes during our first day. This was a good thing as the road was only really wide enough for a car, with a shoulder to pull onto if you found yourself the probable loser in a head-to-head competition. I'm not sure what happens if two buses meet; we didn't see any flaming wreckage on the mountainside, but we only rode 100 km.
We parked our Juilong Vespa-knockoff in the front courtyard of our guesthouse. It may not earn us much respect from the Harley crowd, but what it lacked in street cred it made up in...ok, let me think for a little on that. I'll come up with something. Tam Duong is a quiet village, far enough off the beaten track to make us (temporary) minor celebrities; our duties consist of waving to all the little kids who jump up and down yelling, "Hellogoodbyehellogoodbye!" and the occasional shy, "Good morning, madame." Our popularity was short-lived; we weren't THAT interesting. That night we ate in a roadside noodle shop and then walked out past the town's few lights. We were lucky: there weren't any clouds and no moon so we had a completely star-filled sky. Well, lucky is relative; some light is good in order to see road hazards, like rabid dogs and wok-sized water buffalo poop. No harm done, but Phil may foam a little at the mouth the next time you see him. It's nothing serious, really. And if he's wearing his hiking boots, you may want to put down some newspapers before he rides in your car. Water buffalo poop is like tar. Or so I've heard.
Although the town was small and seemed very safe, we discussed locking the bike to something, or even bringing it into our room for the night. Eventually, we decided it was okay out in front; it was parked, in gear, and we had the key. In the morning, when I woke up, I asked Phil jokingly, "You think the bike's still there?" He shrugged and said,"Well, if it's gone, there's not much we can do about it now." So, when I opened the door and said, stunned, "It's gone. Oh my God, it's really gone," he thought I was joking. That would have been a pretty funny joke, wouldn't it? The subtle set-up by asking if he thought it had been stolen, his casual attitude, me faking him out about it being gone...Except it WAS gone. Gone, as in missing. As in we were now the proud owners of a disappeared motorbike. Wild visions of maxing out the credit cards for a crappy stolen Vespa, cutting the trip short to pay for a vanished hamster-powered peice of plastic, explaining to the rental place that we'd THOUGHT about locking it up but we were really too tired to get out of bed...Phil ran to the reception desk, gasping, "Bike! Motor Bike! Vroom Vroom! Gone!" while miming handlebars and gesturing at the bike's former parking spot, where I was lying in the fetal position, moaning, "...gone...gone..." The three guesthouse employees, their faces completely impassive, silently led Phil behind the office to a covered area where our little bike was now housed. The man pointed to the bike and said, simply, "Moved." It'll be funny soon. Right about when I stop this facial twitch.
After that little morning wake-up, the ride back was effortless. We stopped for a zillion photos of misty mountains and vibrant green rice paddies, although I missedt the Far Side-ish picture of a 20 ton water buffalo jogging. They have these funny dinosaur feet and big round bellies and huge ridged horns...I was laughing too hard to get the camera out, which is too bad. It would have put Ansel Adams to shame. As would a picture of Phil and the H'Mong musician in the legendary Sapa Fife Off 2003, but I was too caught up in the moment. Please see Phil's travelogue for further details; I'm still too starstruck.
We spent the next day walking around outside Sapa, and met a 12 year old Hmong girl named Chang who came from her village near Lau Chai to sell handicrafts to tourists for the weekend. She had a great smile and when she laughed she'd almost fall over from laughing so hard. She was a terrible salesman; didn't even ask us to buy the blanket or pillowcases she had. She just wanted to walk with us and practice her English and tell me about her 6 siblings and her family's 3 pigs. We saw her before we left for the train to Hanoi, and she gave Phil and I cloth bracelets, and said we should bring "all five" of our babies back to Sapa to visit her. Five...hmm...do cats count?
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