People you meet

The best travel experiences combine the journey, the destination, and, most importantly, the people you chance upon.

By JOE A. on May 09,2018 03:11 PM

People you meet

photos: LE BICH

Nearing the end of my journey (and the bottom of my fuel tank), I pulled my Honda into an empty petrol station just inside Thanh Hoa province. I had spent the day winding through sleepy rice fields on an empty road cut between ancient limestone cliffs in karst mountains.

Among the places marked was a 14th century citadel built by the Ho Dynasty, still in great condition but protecting nothing more than rice fields now; the best protected rice fields in Vietnam 

Though most local people couldn’t understand me, the look I gave the petrol station attendants was all I needed to describe the discomfort of six hours on a motorbike. I wasn’t expecting them to hurry to pump the petrol, but they didn’t seem to care in the least about my lack of fuel.

They did, however, rush to get me a chair to sit with them, a third cup to share their tea, and a bamboo tobacco pipe to offer me, and before I had even sat down they filled my hand with sunflower seeds. This behaviour may seem strange for petrol station attendants, but that kind of generosity is exactly what characterised every person I met on this trip out of Hanoi.

I made the decision to take my motorbike to Nghe An province instead of the train or bus because I like the freedom of stopping at my discretion, but on the way to meet my friend’s family I began to have second thoughts due to the weather, the discomfort, and the lack of interesting sites along National Highway No 1, the main north-south route.

Upon reaching my destination, any misgivings I had about the experience completely evaporated. Of course, the time spent with the family of my friend was wonderful. They were eager to host the first Westerner they had ever met and teach an unaccustomed person their traditions, mostly food related, which I could never refuse. I was honoured to be introduced not only to the neighbours and family members but was truly humbled to be introduced to deceased family members at the house altars. Hospitality like this is not entirely unknown where I’m from, in the southern parts of the US, but the real shock would come when the father at the farm house convinced me to take an alternate route home. I love adventure, but trying to be safe I wanted to stick to National Highway No 1. It wasn’t scenic, but it was predictable in terms of where to stay and get petrol so I expected to return to Hanoi via the way I came.

‘No’ he said. ‘You should take the Ho Chi Minh Highway,’ a road entirely unknown to me. He took out my phone and labelled five or six stops along the way where I could see something off the beaten path. And so my adventure began.

At one of the stops I sat bleary-eyed at a table of people I didn’t know, across from an old woman handing me something to eat and insisting it was ‘delicious’. I took it, just as I had the previous items she gave me and ate it with delight.

‘Delicious?’

‘Delicious,’ I reassured her, because it certainly was, mimicking myself after all the food she gave me.

I’m not entirely sure how I found myself surrounded by strangers eating an old woman’s homemade treats, but I think it had something to do with accepting a drink of rice wine with a man at a cafe I stopped at. I clearly remember wanting a break from the ride at midday and finding a quaint cafe with a hammock. I less clearly remember toasting the owner of the cafe and drinking his moonshine, and I would be lying if I said I remember his friend joining in with offers of countless more shots and then trotting me off to the family home behind the cafe for snacks and dinner.

A large plate was laid before me with an assortment of sweets I didn’t recognise. I knew the sunflower seeds, as they are a staple around the country and a reliable point of familiarity even in the most unfamiliar parts of the Orient, but the rest were new to me. I didn’t have to ask to partake in the assorted tray, because I was immediately beckoned to sit near the old woman, who instantly began offering me her delights.

‘Delicious?’

Ginger candy. ‘Delicious,’ I say.

Another. ‘Delicious?’

Dried ginger. ‘Yes, delicious.’

This continued until I had tried everything on the tray. She had already endeared herself to me by giving me so much tasty food and making an effort to communicate with me, and it was at this point she procured a small fruit from beneath the table, took out a leaf, smeared it with a white paste, put them all together and handed it to me with bright eyes.

The room went silent. A scan of their faces told me they were all very curious to see if I would eat it. It was me who asked this time: ‘Delicious?’

‘Delicious,’ she replied.

But others in the room began shaking their heads in a resounding ‘No’. ‘Not delicious,’ one man said.

She gave him a sour look, as if he’d ruined her fun, and popped the concoction in her mouth. After a few seconds she began to spit a dark red saliva into a bucket and gave me a smile to show me the colour of her teeth; the same red as her spit. They explained that it was betel nut, a plant local ethnic minorities eat that turns their teeth black; not very attractive to Westerners but attractive to some of the ethnic minorities and a great way of keeping good dental hygiene, as it strengthens the teeth. It also comes with a ‘high’ that I can’t describe, since I was apprehensive to try it after finishing multiple shots of rice wine with the men and not sure if the buzz would push me over the edge into sickness, so we ate what was left of the treats and made our way to bed. They were generous enough to let me sleep in their hammock; the same hammock I had stopped at the cafe for.

The next morning found me back on the road, weaving through rice paddies and roaming herds of buffalo. The next night found me in similar company as the night before. Many people were happy to share their home with a wandering foreigner.

Over the course of the trip home I was able to stop at some of the locations marked on my map, so I made the most of my days and evenings on the road. Among the places marked was a 14th century citadel built by the Ho Dynasty, still in great condition but protecting nothing more than rice fields now; the best protected rice fields in Vietnam. There was also a town with hill after hill of sunflowers, the likely source of the seeds in everyone’s homes, and a tea plantation separated into islands by canals accessible only by boat. All beautiful places and easy to find on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, but the parts of the highway I can’t mark on a map are the parts you’ll enjoy and remember most of all - with the people you meet and the times you share. ^

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