Ha Giang, Kilometer 50
After renting motorbikes to checkout some waterfalls in Sa Pa, it stared to rain. Wait, let me clarify, more like a torrential downpour. We had walked back to our cozy guesthouse thinking how much we disliked Sa Pa and where should we be instead.
We had met a few people mentioning a really awesome bike route but we never really clued in – even while we were in Bangkok, I’ve scribbled some words on my phone from a guy that mentioned a memorable drive which he’d do again in a heartbeat. That evening Betty, our awesome American friend, had shared her hostelmate’s experience in Ha Giang. “Wait, that sounds familiar!” We searched madly online (to find very little information) and quickly started figuring out how we can get to this last piece of Vietnam, unspoilt by heavy tourism. We booked our bus tickets for one hellish local bus we’ve ever taken.
10 minutes into our bus ride out of Sa Pa, a woman quickly grabbed a clear plastic bag from the seat in front then… *barf* I thought in my mind, “ugh, why does the bag have to be clear!?” Few winding kilometres later, a man sweating profusely walks up to the front of the bus and also grabs a bag. *barf*. The medley of gags from the kids behind were also hard to drown out with music. Imagine that while on a 6 hr bus ride of nonstop stopping, going, barfing. Repeat. Did I forget to mention that there was a live pig in the trunk of the bus? Well if I haven’t, there was a live pig in the back of our minibus. It took me a while to understand why the driver didn’t let us store our bags in the trunk. Sitting uncomfortably with them in our seats, I only understood at a rest stop when i saw a pigs leg dangling from the trunk. I thought it was dead but when I called Vicki, it disappeared! She didn’t believe me until she saw the pig being carried out at one of the delivery stops en route.
Once all the passengers were let off at Ha giang bus station, Vicki and I scrambled to see how far our intended hostel was from the bus station: 4km. Great. Dreading to leave the bus to face a swarm of hungry taxi drivers, our bus driver asked us where we were going and told us to wait inside the bus. They kindly dropped us off at our intended hostel which was super nice of them to do. We relaxed that evening with a simple dinner of Bun Cha and sorted out everything we’ll need for the next day’s journey.
Off to a late start, a fellow hostelmate gave us some advice and tips about the loop during breakfast – all great stuff except the fact that we needed to cover 70km to our first intended town, Yen Ming and we haven’t even rented the bikes yet!
Within 10 kilometres from the town, we found ourselves already stopping often marvelling at the environment. High limestone karsts against a picturesque farmland. I thought that at our rate, we’re never going to make it to Yen Ming that night. Still, we powered through and just left it to fate where will be staying for the night. Good thing too as it started pouring rain. We were given some plastic rain covers which we never thought we’d use but to be honest, it was much more useful that our $180 Patagonia “rain” jacket. Why in quotes? Well, let me tell you that these rain jackets can only protect you from drizzle and light rain for no more than 15minutes. My whole body was soaked after wearing my jacket. Its name “torrent shell” is misleading and unworthy. That aside, we adorned the rain covers at a snack shop while waiting out the rain. As the rain started dying down, we decided to continue on since we were only 20km in. Less than a few kilometres driving, buckets of rain came down. It was in full force, leaving us no choice but to pull over to the side at some barn.
I was mentally panicking because its not uncommon to rain for days in Southeast Asia especially during rainy season. I didn’t want to stay in a barn! Well not yet at least, we just started the trip and not fully warmed up yet. I convinced Vicki that we push through even in the rain. No barn for me tonight! Luckily the rain cleared up as soon as crossed one of the mountain passes and it was smooth sailing from there. Driving through our first real set of zigzags and switchbacks, we stopped at the top to shake it off and marvel at the lush green rice terraces with the farmers that tended them. Speechless.
We were pulled off to the side of the road, taking pictures as minibuses and cars are careening past each other on a one lane road. While the roads may be busy with drivers, looking at the day-to-day life, the pace slows down almost immediately. Farming was a communal effort, unassisted by heavy machinery. It was hard work but smiles can still be spotted because even though the work was laborious, there was a sense of community. As the day draws to a close, we weren’t too far from the nearest town. It wasn’t our intended town but it will have to do.
We had found a nice little guesthouse which covered all the basics: hot water, wifi, and toilet. Bonus was the fact that the room was clean and bright. The guesthouse owner only spoke Vietnamese but throughout our travels, miming never fails. We managed to communicate and offered us some tea. We wanted to have an early start the next day so we set off to have an early dinner. We wandered aimlessly until we decided to just head into this local restaurant. There was a group of Vietnamese men drinking, when the saw us dilly-dallying outside of the restaurant, they flagged us to come in and, I could only assume, that they said that the food is good. They had a price-less, basic translated English menu which was a surprise. We ordered what we thought was good and received just that. It was uninspiring but got the job done. As we ate, we noticed that they were talking about us – it wasn’t new to us since every single local we’ve met throughout SE Asia had thought we were locals. One fellow, with bruised knuckles and scars on the left eye, knew English and asked us where we were from. “Canada” we replied. I added that my parents were from Philippines and Vicki’s were from Hong Kong.
He reported back to his pals and then back to us asking where we were going next.
us: “We were going to Dong Van in the next few days”
He smiled and returned back to his seat. Vicki and I continued eating and as we did, we kept hearing the words, “Canada” and “Cambodia.” The man that knew English walked past us, towards the kitchen and grabbed two shot glasses. He brought it our table, along with a water bottle filled with rice wine and his shot glass. Poured us drinks and said “thank you!” As his cheers. We drank and shook our hands. It was odd that they shake hands but maybe it was just him. He said bye to us and his friends and off he went. We continued our meal and another fellow started saying something to us in Vietnamese. We awkwardly smiled and responded “sorry!” How Canadian of us. He came to our table with a spoon of beef from their bowl of food and nodded to us to try.
It was so good and flavourful that I urged Vicki to try it as well. Definitely beats our sad plates of rice and tofu! I I grabbed the waitress and brought her over to their table and pointed to ask what it was. She showed us on the menu “beef stew” on the translated menu.
Beef stew? I wouldn’t know what it really was just by loooking at the menu. We ended up getting a bowl for ourselves and with the help of the locals, they gave us a hefty portion of food. The man gave us a thumbs up and yelled, “number 1!!” It was damn good. Stuffed from our meal and the extra bowl of beef stew, we paid and was on our way.
“Hey hey!!” They shouted.
The group urged us to stay. One man grabbed our shot glasses and set aside seats for us on their table – There’s no way we could say no! We started “talking” to a point it was getting difficult, I realized that there’s voice translation on the google translate app. We held it up for them to speak into and we managed to talk that way. It was perfect! There was 6 guys and for each person, we had to take a shot. Each shot also ended with some laughs and a handshake. I guess it’s a thing? 8pm, everyone was pretty much done so we headed to another table for some strong tea. The conversations we had were funny and always ended with the words, ” Vietnam, number 1!!” It was definitely time to say goodnight.
To be continued.