We can sleep here if we have to, my girlfriend and I decided as we stood on the side of a dirt road in Vietnam's remote border region with China. We were stranded: Her motorcycle was coughing instead of starting, and we hadn't seen anyone in hours. Dark storm clouds had begun to crowd the low, round peaks overhead, and the locals had warned us that rain would make driving impossible. In Vietnam, a road can be anything; in this instance, it was a rough dirt and rock trail that had been carved out of the side of a range of deserted hills. We had been bouncing along it for more than three hours. Our bodies were exhausted and our bones were achy.
On road - Northwest Vietnam
In truth, neither of us actually believed we were stuck for the night. We had been contemplating worst-case scenarios in the week since we had left Hanoi, transforming ourselves into pessimists when there was never any real need to be. In Vietnam, salvation always arrives.
This time, it was announced by the high-pitched roar of a struggling two-stroke engine, a sound that eventually materialized into three people from the Hmong tribe, one of the largest of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minority groups, squeezed onto a motorcycle. We waved them down and pointed to our stalled bike. I passed out cigarettes while Naomi distributed peanuts and dried fruit. Although we spoke no Hmong and they knew only a few words of Vietnamese, the driver, his dark indigo tribal garb concealed under glossy rain gear, quickly comprehended the problem. He crouched down and dutifully went to work, scarcely acknowledging us. Twenty minutes and a new spark plug later, we were off again. Our Hmong saviors didn't even give us a chance to offer payment.
Such is life for an independent foreign traveler in Vietnam, a developing country where the abundance of snags and inconveniences is outnumbered only by a population of willing and uncannily omnipresent Samaritans. The locals are always quick to help out a Tay (Westerner), if for no other reason that they think we're incapable of helping ourselves. Considering the level of success foreigners have had in Vietnam in the last 50 years, it's no wonder this view is so widely held.
Forget wars, though, because those are history.
Vietnam is one of the most beautiful and inviting places in the world to visit, especially its northern provinces. You could argue that the best way to see them is by motorcycle, for easy access to grand peaks -- some of the highest in Southeast Asia -- and ethnic minority villages. Other than the former French mountain retreat of Sapa, an entrenched and well-equipped stop on the tourist trail, most of the north is off the sightseeing circuit. Even the Vietnamese consider it too dangerous and remote to travel there. Many of the region's residents have seen only a handful of Westerners.
If you're willing to live with the occasional hardship, though, a drive through the north is the best way to appreciate the profound transformation this Communist country -- one of the few left in the world -- is undergoing.
Escape From Hanoi
Naomi and I had been working in the capital of Hanoi as editors on state-controlled English-language newspapers for a little more than a year when we decided to cap off our stint in Vietnam with a two-week tour on Belarus-made Minsk motorcycles. (We owned one and rented another from a local mechanic.) Minsks are sturdy, uncomplicated machines, so we weren't worried about riding them nearly 1,500 miles along the vague route we had sketched out in our tattered road atlas. In any case, nearly every Vietnamese male above the age of 30 knows how to repair one, the legacy of Cold War trade arrangements that ensured the Minsk would dominate Vietnam's roads for decades. If anything was going to break down, we thought, it would be us -- we weren't sure how we would deal with spending eight to 10 hours a day on the road.
Leaving behind the traffic-clogged, European-scale streets of Hanoi's central districts, we dodged pedestrians and trucks to emerge into the booming exurbs, ground zero for Vietnam's recent economic explosion. Industrial parks, where local workers stitch and assemble the goods that fuel the global consumer economy, lined the road on vast plots that had been scratched out of the dust. The stench of vehicle exhaust gave way to a mixture of burnt brush, overheated metal and soggy rice paddy -- the unmistakable odor of progress in Vietnam.
The city behind us, we stopped for a break and watched tourists wander around a rice field packed with farmers wearing conical hats. Sights like this are common in Hanoi, but we were surprised to see such a scene in the countryside, where few package tours venture. Crouching down on elevated paths that crisscrossed the paddy, the tourists aimed their telephoto lenses at the doubled-over farmers, who didn't look up from their backbreaking, repetitive work. Naomi tried to chat in Vietnamese with some nearby kids, who only stared back.
Rebuffs like this are rare in Vietnam, but as Naomi noted, the farmers can't be very happy to be tourist attractions. We snapped some photos of the tourists snapping photos of the farmers.
At the end of the day, we faced our first major decision. We had been on a mostly flat road for five hours. Naomi, who had learned to drive the motorcycle only a week before we left Hanoi, had frayed nerves from the traffic. Ahead of us, the road climbed steeply through a pass before descending into Mai Chau, our destination for the night. We had been cautioned about rock slides on this particular stretch of road, and half the sky had been smothered by a blanket of black, swirling clouds. The few motorbikes coming at us carried drivers with rain-soaked ponchos, and the only guy going our way abruptly executed a U-turn. We wondered if we should turn around, too.
We didn't. Up and over the incline we went, oil-soaked exhaust pouring out of our tailpipes, then down into the valley containing Mai Chau. We took the descent slowly, weaving our way between boulders the size of kitchen appliances and dents in the road left by their impact.
We arrived soaked but relieved in Mai Chau, a clump of Tai-minority stilt houses surrounded by a sprawling checkerboard of rice paddies. We stayed on the floor of a stilt house, where a Tai grandmother cooked us a dinner of sauteed pork and vegetables, followed by stiff rice wine called ruou to wash it all down. As we drifted off to sleep, we heard muffled applause and the sharp crack of sticks hitting a wooden floor -- the sound of small troupes performing ethnic dances for the handful of tourists in the area.
As we headed west toward the Lao border, the people became friendlier and the terrain more treacherous. Outside of Son La, our destination for the second night, a trucker called us over for tea at a shack on the side of the road. His name was Than and he'd been stranded for a week because of a broken axle. He asked us how much money we made, how much we paid in rent, whether we were married -- standard opening queries among strangers in Vietnam.
"How long until your truck is fixed?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week. Who knows?" he said with a smile. As we stood up to leave, he told us to be careful.
Nearing Son La, about 250 miles from Hanoi by our circuitous route, the narrow blacktop road widened into an eight-lane highway. We zipped by empty storefronts and deserted front lawns -- rare sights in a country where life usually unfolds out in the open, on the streets. Perhaps the residents were driven indoors by the superhuman scale of the highway, we thought. Later, a tour guide told us that the road had been widened to accommodate vehicles for the construction of a nearby power plant, but the only traffic we saw that day were some cattle grazing listlessly on the shoulder.
We had had a similar experience earlier in the day, at a war monument halfway between Mai Chau and Son La. After clearing a small peak, we saw poised on a bluff three granite soldiers looking heroically into the distance. Surrounding them were a vast, empty parking lot and some tattered wooden houses. We parked and rested, watching as some locals buzzed by on their motorbikes, not one of them looking up to acknowledge the white behemoth dominating the landscape. In the coming days, we would see many monuments like this one, plopped down in the midst of poverty.
The next day, during lunch at a com pho -- one of the dark roadside shacks where customers crouch over greasy wok food and pints of beer on tiny plastic tables -- we met a Vietnamese guy in his thirties who said he had worked for an oil company in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "I stayed until the Americans came," he said. "Boom! Boom!" he shouted, frowning as he wiped his hands, the universal gesture for having had enough of something. It was poignant to hear a Vietnamese man talk about American bombs falling halfway around the world three decades after his own country had felt their impact.
1,500 Miles Traveled
Twenty-four hours later, on a dizzyingly high mountain pass, the sky began dumping sheets of rain on us, and we took shelter under a makeshift roof with a pair of Vietnamese teenagers headed home to Dien Bien Phu. We talked with them as a family of Nung people looked on suspiciously from across the road. Like most Vietnamese, the two 19-year-old boys didn't share our interest in the minorities on the other side of the highway. During the wars against the French and Americans, many people from the hill tribes fought against the Communists, opening up a vast and persistent gulf of mistrust between ethnic Vietnamese (called Kinh) and the minorities.
We spent a couple of days recuperating in Dien Bien Phu, a provincial capital that was the site of the French army's defeat in 1954 at the hands of Viet Minh guerrillas led by Vo Nguyen Giap. Considering its historical importance, present-day Dien Bien Phu is a bit sleepy, although we did see some French tourists wandering the town's streets and the halls of the shabby museum commemorating the battle. There, visitors can view old weapons, letters and maps, along with a plastic diorama of Ho Chi Minh discussing strategy with Giap. Tellingly, every French soldier depicted in the many photos lining the walls is frowning, while every Vietnamese guerrilla is beaming.
Rested, we set out north along the Laotian border. Dropping from the cool mountain air into the Da River valley's scorched fields felt like throwing open the doors of a flaming kiln. We stopped for gas on the outskirts of what, according to our atlas, should have been the town of Lai Chau. "No, Lai Chau is 100 kilometers up the road," said the gas station attendant. At lunch, we heard otherwise. "You're already in Lai Chau," said a plump woman manning the wok in a com pho. "No, no," interjected a young guy from the shadows. "Lai Chau is 80 kilometers from here."
They were all partially right. In 2010, a reservoir is scheduled to submerge Lai Chau. Depending on whom you talk to, the name of the town has either been reassigned to one of two other towns or it will be swept away under the coming floodwaters. Sometimes, change occurs so rapidly in Vietnam that the maps can't keep up.
Sapa field, Vietnam
At the uppermost tip of the map is Ha Giang province, one of the strangest places in the north. In one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, it is inhabited only sparsely; coats are worn year-round; and the money and optimism that permeate the rest of Vietnam are scarce here. In Ha Giang city, we secured the necessary guide and permit, which the government requires of foreigners because of the province's proximity to China and past unrest among ethnic minorities. After meeting our guide, we headed out into the fog-draped moonscape on narrow mountain roads that looked like ribbons tacked to a felt board.
Along the way, we bumped into a Dutch couple who were plying the same route in an old Russian military jeep. Their guide, an outgoing 28-year-old named Thanh, advised us to visit a weekly outdoor market near a town called Lung Phin. "Most people don't know about it because the ethnic minorities are trying to keep it secret from the tourists," he said.
The next day, we drove the short distance to Lung Phin, where we found ourselves in a sea of colors -- thousands of Hmong, Dao and Tai people hauling their goods up a hill. Here you could buy anything from a mound of tobacco to a water buffalo. As the crowd began to take notice of the two Tays wandering the grounds, some people spotted our camera and wondered what it was, while a group of girls insisted on posing for photos. One of the girls checked our work and, disapproving of the image on the camera's display, insisted that we take another.
Our hearts sped up; we felt like rock stars, or aliens. Living in Vietnam for a year and a half had conditioned us to accept -- sometimes even dismiss -- culture shock, but this time it felt different, more total. We strained, with no success, to find something familiar in the blur of colors and unfamiliar languages engulfing us. This was what we had been searching for when we'd set out on our motorcycles two weeks and 1,500 miles ago -- an experience we could never hope to duplicate. Nor would Vietnam be capable of duplicating it for much longer, we knew.
Picking our way through the stalls, we began to feel dizzy from it all. Collapsing in a heap, we found ourselves once again exhausted and helpless on the side of the road. Before long, Thanh appeared, rescuing us with a joke and a smile.
By Dustin Roasa
Special to The Washington Post
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