Motorcycle Adventures – The India Edition

We decided to hop on motos again, this time in India. Sons of binary, hitting the pavement for round deux! Kevin got a badass Bullet. I stuck with a trusty Honda. A Hero to be precise. My carriage of choice.

Riding motorcycles around India can be insane at times, but also really, really rewarding. Just like we’d heard that travelling this fine land involves frequent ping-ponging from highs to lows and back again, riding motorcycles too came in bouts of excitement and frustration.

Kevin and his Bullet, Hampi, India

There are moments when you borderline question why you took bikes anyways. When you’re stuck amidst hundreds of trucks with no end in sight (no joke, hundreds – some of them absolutely massive too) on a bumpy, dusty road, breathing in exhaust, getting hit by rocks, trying not to lose your shit when truckers blare their gargantuan horns right in your eardrum or when you cross through a hectic city and have to dodge water buffaloes with meter-long horns, rickshaws, busses, trucks, and the obligatory crowds or when you almost get taken out by a dog, a pig, or in Kevin’s case, a monkey or (and this is the last one, but there’s plenty more where this came from) when the gates rise again at a train crossing, and everyone mutates into a moto rally driver, trying to get a leg up on the one in front of them, through the dust, and the bumps, and the honks, and the overall sea of fucking crazy – you’ll question your decision, trust me. (Actually that last part was kinda fun, I think I’d make an okay rally driver.)

It’s totally nuts. But the joys of it all ultimately win out, by a landslide. Soon enough, you find yourself out of the cities and into the countryside, with the roads (mostly) to yourself, finally able to hit the gas, crossing smiling and waving faces all along the way. It’s priceless to come across a group of sari-clad gorgeous women carrying water, mounds of grass, and other impossible loads on their heads, smiling and waving, lighting up entirely, giggling, and blowing kisses at the dreamy bearded man on the Bullet. Those scenes brighten up your day in an instant.

Taking the Bullet for a cruise

One morning, on what turned out to be a journey of monstrous proportions (14 hours on a moto will give you mad ass rash, p.s.), we pulled over on the side of the road to stretch our legs, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We quickly heard a man yelling at us. He was sitting in a field of green chilis, surrounded by his extended family in a big circle, eating lunch. He motioned for us to come over, making gestures of shoving food in his mouth.

Is he inviting us over for lunch?! We only planned to pull over for a few minutes considering we had a long day of driving ahead, but as we looked back over at the beautiful family sitting in their field, Kevin immediately said, “Screw it, we have to go over there.” I can’t convey the feeling I felt as we made our way over to the circle. With a massive grin across my face, I wondered… are we really going to chill out with these ten farmers and share their lunch in the middle of this freaking green chili field we randomly stopped next to on the side of the road? Yes. Yes, we absolutely are. Awesome.

We took a seat in the circle. They didn’t speak much English beyond the basics, but they fed us all this amazing food. I felt so humbled, their generosity was touching. We exchanged smiles and nods of approvals. I repeatedly tapped my belly to express that my tummy was happy and that I was happy being there with them. They laughed when I got teary eyed from one of their dishes. Because… just so you know, food offered to you by a family of green chili pepper growers in India is going to be spicy as balls. I could feel the fire in my belly hours after we parted ways. The whole experience really warmed my heart. That family was amazing.

Kev and some of the chili pepper farmers

Another part of the adventure that I loved was pulling over at little shacks on the side of the road for some food or a chai. Everyone was surprised to see us walk in, but the food was always excellent and incredibly cheap. Whenever we got ready to head back on the road, people lined up to see us depart, women poked their heads out of the kitchen, parents held up their kids to show them the wild creatures, and everyone smiled and waved as we drove away.

Totally crazy, amazing, and so surreal. I suppose we got a glimpse of what being a celebrity feels like. The gawks and stares and feelings of being a Martian I can handle. But the heavy, at times unbearable, pressure to kickstart my bike on the first attempt to avoid looking like a complete pussy – that almost put me over the edge. I nearly tipped over a few times trying to get the Hero going. That bastard. Embarrassing me in front of my fans.

Roadside Eateries, India

So where did we go on this journey?

We left from beautiful Mandrem in North Goa, drove 100km to Agonda Beach in South Goa, drove another 100km to Gokarna in Karnataka, embarked on a 360km journey to Hampi, before finally making our way back to Mandrem in what turned into a 420km odyssey from Hampi. These distances may look like chicken shit on paper, but trust me, they can take a long while to conquer on some of these roads, especially without maps or GPS.

Hampi was absolutely magical. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

Hampi Sunset

A man and his bike, Hampi

Kevin in a Hampi temple

This beautiful family requested a family portrait

Women in front of the Queen's Bath, Hampi

School children in the Hampi sunset

Another family portrait, another happy kid

Kevin taking in the Hampi sunset

A happy G in Hampi

I heart India

India is beautiful. I don’t think there’s anywhere else quite like it. The people are incredibly lovely, always willing to help and greet you with warmness. It’s a huge land, and with only a month to explore, we’ll only be scratching the edge of the surface. I already know I want to come back.

Ah, this ole’ travel bug thing. There’s always more to see and feel…

The Varanasi Experience: Ice Cream, Death, and Lots of Cow Shit

After a 26-hour journey from Kathmandu involving three busses, a jeep, a rickshaw, a night train sans bed, a tuk tuk, the most hectic border crossing I’ve ever seen, and lots of stiff body parts – we arrived in Varanasi, one of the oldest and holiest cities in India. We were quickly surrounded by a pack of 17 men outside the train station at 5am, peddling rides and promises of “very nice, cheap price” hotel rooms.

We eventually made our way to the maze of alleys that line the ghats (steps) leading down to the Ganges with hopes of finding a decent guest house. This is where I was first exposed to the alleys of Varanasi, full of cows, derelict dogs, shit, spit, piss, people, and anything else – living or dead – that you could possibly imagine. Let’s just say Varanasi is a place you should spend time in if you’re in the market for a “quit biting your nails in just minutes!” solution. It’s filthy. But it’s also really holy to Hindus, and an incredible place to explore for a few days as an outsider.

Boats and ghats, Varanasi, India


Death aplenty…

Varanasi is one of the most important and sacred pilgrimage destinations for a Hindu. Allegedly, it’s the place where every Hindu hopes to be when he or she dies. The belief is that death in Varanasi and cremation in the Ganges brings about freedom from the cycle of reincarnation.

As you can imagine, the city not only draws hordes of pilgrims seeking to purify their souls, but also a geriatric conglomerate looking to wind things down – permanently, and a fair share of domestic and foreign tourists there to watch the rituals unfold.

Dashashwamedh Ghat

On our first day, we got lost wondering through the alleys around the ghats. At one point, we walked by a wood factory. Coining it a factory would be generous. Mainly, it was a bunch of dudes hacking at tree trunks on the street, topping off the massive piles of wood that towered behind them. “How random,” I thought. “All this wood in the middle of the city. In a seemingly residential area, even. Weird.”

Boat man, Varanasi, IndiaIt all made much more sense a few meters down, when the alley we were strolling on opened onto the banks of the Ganges. We had stumbled upon one of the cremation ghats, where bodies are burned in public before their ashes and remains are dropped into the holy river. This was not the main one, and non-Hindus are allowed to be cremated there.

In front of us, a body covered in a sari lay on a funeral pyre as men began to light the pile of wood that would soon engulf the corpse in flames. Around it, a half dozen other pyres dotted the banks of the river, with remains of bodies still smoldering away. Men stood around chatting, city dwellers casually strolled by, goats milled about too, sniffing the fires in search of a few nutritional bites.

We took a seat on a staircase at a distance, observing the scene. It all seemed quite transactional. No one was visibly upset, some bodies didn’t seem to have family present – surely due to the facts, respectively, that Hindus don’t mourn the dead the way many others do (the belief is that once a person is born, he/she never dies – as such, funerals are more a matter of showing respect rather than sadness) and that bodies must be cremated a few hours after death (many family members probably can’t make it to the ceremony in time).

We did see one woman crying, but she was the only that I noticed in visible grief. From what I’ve read, women aren’t traditionally allowed to participate in a cremation. Why, you may ask? The fear is that they’ll cry. Touché.

After a while, I sensed my clothes soaking up the smoke stench and concurrently developed an unpleasant taste in my mouth, and not of the proverbial kind either. It was time to get out of there. We continued our stroll along the river, but had to walk past the area again on our way home.

Another body lay on a pyre awaiting cremation, except this time, the cloth over the body’s head was lifted and a man’s pale cold face was in clear view. I had to look away, I couldn’t take it in. Every time we walked by a cremation ghat after that, I never looked for details, which is for the better given that Kevin saw a half-burned body simmering Terminator-style, with only the ribs, skull, and bones remaining, wrapped in a thin layer of tarred flesh.

Water buffaloes, Varanasi, India

Humans are not the only ones that come to die in Varanasi. Animals want in on the action too! As we were walking away from one of the ghats, a kid came out of nowhere and yelled, “Mam! Look!”

I looked down, only to see a dead baby mouse sprawled out across a massive pile of water buffalo shit. “Uhh…?” I looked back at him, confused. “Finished!” He said with a smile, as he swiped his hand across his neck to indicate death, with a good click of the tongue for emphasis.

Gee kid, yeah, it sure looks that way. I’m really glad that you shared that with me. But in actuality, I remained silent, dumbfounded, staring back at him, my eyes squinting in confusion. With a beaming smile and no further exchange of words, he proudly walked away.

Laundry by the Ganges, Varanasi

The next day, as we were cruising down the Ganges on a rowboat, a dead cow floated by. Just your standard big ole’ dead COW. Behind it, the head of a goat, oh sorry… a dead goat, was poking its head out of the water. And behind that enthralling sight, throngs of Indians bathed in the water, washing themselves, brushing their teeth, doing laundry, praying.

I later saw a dead puppy, spread out on all fours, head to the side, with its tongue on the pavement. There seems to be a complete detachment from the filth in the river, and the city in general, amongst the locals and the pilgrims.

Bathing in the Varanasi ghats

The sheer madness

Rare were the times where we could sit down for more than a minute before someone approached us to sell saris, silk, hash, tours, whatever. The worst is that most of these touts pretended to be friendly at first, as if they were genuinely trying to get to know us. Some of their advances were quite elaborate too, holding up conversations for minutes until we eased up, at which point, they would instantly shift gears to make their pitch, plea, or both.

We grew skeptical of anyone who approached us, which is a sucky attitude to have, but unfortunately necessary in a place like Varanasi.  You’d like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but we got shown time and time again that no one (amongst those that approached us on the street, at least) was in for a non-commercial, friendly chat. No one. Except for an older man, but he may have been a little crazy.

Varanasi encounters

At one point, a man shook Kevin’s hand to say hello, began massaging his arms, and refused to let him go (like, really wouldn’t let him go – it took about 5 minutes to wrangle him free). A short while later, a bloodshot-eyed man seemingly afflicted with Tourette’s walked by looking insane. He was carrying a filthy, banged up styrofoam cooler and incongruently blurting out names of Indian cities.

“MUMBAI! DELHI! VARANASI!” He cocked his head towards me, his fiery eyes staring up into mine, and asked, through stained teeth that formed quite the disturbing smile: “Ice creammmm, Madameeeee? PUNE! AMRITSAR! AGRA! BANGALORE!”

Oh hell no. Odds that the man used Ganges water to make his popsicles? 124%. Kevin, oddly, was impressed.

K: “That guy had a lot of ice cream!”

Me: “Um, okay. But there’s no fucking way I’m touching any of it with a ten foot ninja stick.”

K: “No, but I mean he must really have his act together… access to a freezer and everything!”

WHAT? Access to a freezer? Pleaseee, that does nothing to legitimize someone in my eyes around here. Do you know how many times those things have melted and been refrozen? Also, is there any doubt in your mind as to where the man gets the water for his product? And, did you miss the fact that he was visibly clinically insane? Dude was borderline frothing from the side of his mouth.

Did I mention the whole death thing?

Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat in Varanasi

We later got lost in another maze of alleys (clearly, a recurrent theme in our Varanasi adventures). We suddenly heard a group chanting, the voices getting louder as we neared a corner. It was a very repetitive, dark kind of chanting. Soon, a procession of men carrying a dead body covered in cloth on a stretcher over their heads swooshed by.

They looked possessed, chanting in a trance, their eyes open wide, with the white surrounding their pupils excessively exposed. We plastered ourselves against the wall, not knowing how to behave. I tried making eye contact or giving a somber head nod, anything to try to express my respect, but no matter what I did, I felt eery chills going down my spine when I made eye contact with any of the men.

I resorted to looking down at my feet in shame, like a kid who just spilled water, nay kool-aid, on the dinner table. While trying to deal with this rather unexpected situation, an old man with a wooden cart ran over my foot, yelling at me to move out of the way. I tried, but another procession of men with a dead body over their heads swooped in.

It was hectic. There were people everywhere, cows blocking the way, dead bodies flying by, men ramming their carts over my feet and yelling. We eventually spilled out of the alleys onto a major road, which didn’t help matters. We were suddenly hit with a tidal wave of honking, rickshaws nearly running us over, people trying to sell us something (anything!), beggars tapping our arms for change, cars, more cows, more honking. I could feel my blood boiling. Gotta keep the cool, G. Gotta keep the cool.

Dealing with it all

You see, walking around Varanasi is a true test to your patience. It’s is one of those places where you get back to your room, shut the door, let out a deep sigh, lay on the bed, breathe, and think to yourself… I did it! I really did it! I made it through the day! And I kept my cool the whole time! Someone give this big girl a cookie.

The trick is to not let the external wrenches affect you. We’ve gotten really good at completely, and I mean completely, ignoring people now. It’s a bit of a video game, walking along, having people pop up inches from your face every step of the way. The move is to keep your head up, your gaze long, your pace constant, and ignore, ignore, ignore (unless you’re up for some fun).

A rickshaw driver followed us for a solid 5 minutes one afternoon, well after we told him about 20 times that we wanted to walk and were completely uninterested in riding in his bike carriage. Like anyone trying to make a dime, this good sir did not take no for an answer. His tactic was to ring his bell incessantly as he slowly creeped a few feet behind us. While we ignored him gloriously, making absolutely no eye contact nor reacting to his advances, he kept ringing his bell with vigorous clamor. Hey… Hey guys… drrrrrrring dringgggg dringgggg… dring? dringgggg, dring? dringggg drizzle to the dring dring with a diarrhea cherry on top?

Dude. Seriously?

His persistence was uncanny. It got to be hilarious. At one point, we turned around to retrace our steps. He, unsurprisingly, turned around too. We contemplated turning around once more, waiting until he followed us, and immediately turning around again, just to see how long he’d hang out before he got sick of pedaling in circles. Thankfully, we didn’t have to take it this far, only because other tourists walked by and he got to work on them.

Rickshaw on the streets of Varanasi

The verdict? I digged it.

The thing is, if you can get past the utter madness and filth of the place, Varanasi is rewarding. It’s mystical. It’s colorful. It obviously holds a very special place in the lives of millions of Hindus. I’ve painted a grim picture of it in this post, but for as much as death hangs around, every nook and corner of the city is pulsing even harder with life and energy.

I didn’t mention the time we walked by a temple where dozens of bells and gongs were ringing in cacophony, while a big bellied man in the shadows, wearing a robe and covered in beautiful religious body paint, wildly waved a cobra-shaped bowl in flames as candles flickered all around. The temple was packed to the brim full of Hindus enthralled in the ceremony. I was in a trance just watching from a distance.

Varanasi Boat Ride

The streets are dotted with bustling chai stands, food stalls, markets, hindu temples, roadside businesses of limitless variety, holy men (sadhus), children flying kites, women conducting offerings, you name it. The place always seems to be lit by those mighty golden hour lamps of the earth, you know the ones that make everything look pretty right before the sun goes away? Except in Varanasi, it seems to be that way all day. It’s hard to explain. I’m not sure if it’s because the city is dusty, tinted in orange brownish tones, or constantly shrouded in haze, but I found this to be the case.

I loved my Varanasi experience, or at least, appreciated it greatly and found it fascinating. Kevin, not so much, but that’s okay. It often felt like we were in a movie, albeit one set some hundred years ago, but a movie nonetheless, where we never knew what to expect next, which of course, is fun.

But to be perfectly honest, I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t experience a sense of relief as our train rolled out of town. I could finally let my guard down. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to live in Varanasi for an extended period time. A lot. But I’m glad I spent some time there. It’s memorable. And it’s worth seeing.

A Bump In The Road

So last week in Laos, I badly hurt my back. I have a compression fracture of one of my vertebrae and need to wear a back brace for the next 2-3 months (and lay down as much as possible in the next few weeks.) Good news is this is considered a mild fracture, spine should heal fine and the injury shouldn’t cause long term problems. Of course, you never know with these things but given the situation, the outlook is positive.

No, it wasn’t from motorbiking! We had to sell our hogs at a border town in Vietnam a few weeks back.

how it happened

We were in Vang Vieng, a stupid backpacker place where the big attraction is to tube down a river dotted with bars, swings, and jumps. I guarantee that anyone reading who has heard of or been to VV is, without fail, doing a face palm right this instant, thinking: idiot. To which I bow my head in shame and wholeheartedly reply: I know. I’m pretty sure that 94.2% of injured travelers in SE Asia can trace the root of their problem(s) straight back to Vang Vieng.

I was well aware of the dangers of the place. Large groups of barely legals drinking on a river that can be very shallow at times, tubing, swinging off ropes and jumping off slides, is a recipe for disaster. Walking around town during our first night and seeing about a third of the foreigners limping around due to mystery injuries made me judgmentally chuckle. Man, these kids really don’t know how to handle themselves (famous last thoughts.)

The problem is that no matter how confident you are in your ability to, well, handle yourself and be in control, accidents are just that — accidents. Monkey wrenches perpetually float through space seeking to meddle with the affairs of anyone or anything at anytime. While the universe is very good and usually deflects these wrenches safely out of harm’s way, one will occasionally strike you straight in the dome. Or in my case, the back.

There was an inflatable blob on the river, designed to have one person (let’s call her Bertha) sit on one end of it while another person (let’s call him Willis) jumps on the other end, thereby playfully launching Bertha into the river. Naturally, I watched other people going through the motions before me. It all seemed fine. Kevin even tried to launch me the day before and I barely made it off the thing. But we all know that this day was no ordinary day. When my turn came, not one, but two guys heavily deposited their bodies onto the blob to launch me. This proved to be too much for vertebrae T-12.

Let me tell you a thing about blobs. You see, a blob seems inviting on the surface, a benign oversized inflatable cushion, with a clear path to the promised land of a refreshing dip in the river on a hot summer day. But blobs are vicious creatures, born with the uncanny ability to metamorphose, in less than in instant, from their natural state of gentle giants into maniacally vile, four-headed, bloody-eyed, frenzied demons with mouthfuls of freshly sharpened fangs that are nothing short of utterly parched for plasma and bones.

Couple a blob in its possessed state with two pudgy English kids presumably on their gap year and a mere few days away from exhibiting early warning signs of the disease typically reserved for sailors and pirates known as scurvy — and the universe quickly becomes a scary place.

An illustration:

Vang Vieng The Blob

If there’s one tip I can share with the kids in my old age, it’s this: don’t. do. blobs.

Tell your friends.

Am I mad that I hurt myself that way? Oh hell yeah. It was incredibly stupid, especially after knowing very well that accidents happen all the time on that river. You just never imagine that it could happen to you. I kid about the blob and the English boys, but this was no one’s fault but my own. I should’ve been more careful and known better, but it’s done — hindsight is 20/20.

the good news

As I mentioned, my fracture is considered mild. Since my bone got compressed, my vertebrae won’t return to normal height but the spine should heal fine and the injury shouldn’t impact me in the long-term.

We’re in Bangkok now, which is awesome and a great place to be stuck in. The medical care is top notch. And cheap. Total cost of my hospital visit the other day, where I saw a spine specialist, got x-rays, a back brace and medication? A whopping $165. And this, in the nicest 5-star hotel…err… hospital in Bangkok. I understand why medical tourism is a thing now. By far the nicest hospital I’ve ever seen.

While I’m in good hands medically, I’m in even better hands mentally/emotionally thanks to Kevin. The boy is an amazing person and has been a bonafide savior these past few days. I’m so thankful for having him in my life. It’s a well known fact that I would be missing a kidney and/or covered in mice, vultures even, gnawing away at my rotting carcass in a 3rd world hospital if it wasn’t for him.

Lastly, I’m seeing the lesson in all of this. We all know I can be a bit of a daredevil/monkey. If there’s something to climb, jump off of, twirl on, whatever — I’m usually the first one there. Thankfully, I’ve never been seriously hurt until now. In some sense, this injury serves as a good warning to watch the fuck out. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. I’m just extremely thankful that I didn’t get hurt any worst.

what’s next

We were scheduled to fly to Myanmar (Burma) on August 4th for a visit. Obviously, we’re canceling that. We’re still planning on flying to Nepal at the end of August to meet up with my brother, and later, our friends Brett and Hilary. There will of course be no aggressive activities in store for me, but I should be feeling much better by then and able to enjoy myself while taking it easy.

In the meantime, we’ll stay in Thailand. It’s a great place to be given the situation and has everything we could ever need. We’ll have to do a border run back to Vientiane, Laos in a few days to pick up an extended Thai visa, but with a posh night train where I can lay down in a bed the whole way, it should be all good.

Importantly, we’ll need to bedazzle my back brace. A friend we ran into a few days ago thought it was a “pregnancy thing,” while Kevin is more of the opinion (and I quote) that it looks like “a Pacman about to eat [my] titties.” Something needs to be done. Pimp-a-back-brace (PABB) session coming right up. I’m getting too many stares already; I might as well confuse people. Perhaps even serve as fodder for a new hit Tumblr? Hipster or medically unfit?

—–

So there you have it. A bump in the road. But we’re taking the lessons that arise from this to heart and will make the most of it. Incidents like these make you thankful for the people in your life, your life itself, and all the little things that accompany it.

Our spirits are high. It’ll all work out. My back is already feeling better. Although of course, I’m still going to spend my days laying down as much as possible in the next month.

Soooo… who’s got my heady movie/show/book recommendation?!

♥,
g

Early Days of our Vietnamese Motorcycle Adventure

About 10 days ago in Hanoi, we bought two motorcycles. My brother calls them toy bikes, but those puppies are hogs, man. JK, they’re pieces of shit. Pieces of shit that we love. Our max speed clocks in at a breezy 70km/h, which is not a downside on these windy north vietnamese roads.

We thought we bought two 110cc Honda Wins, but quickly realized both of them are fakes. Mine is a Xinha and Kev picked up a Luxary. You haven’t heard of these fine brands? That’s curious. They’re famous, well known for their reliabiltiy and good looks.

Based on the snarky glances Vietnamese men exchange amongst themselves after taking the obligatory peek at our engines, we were bound to quickly find out that these were no Hondas. Those water people bought fakes. Idiots.

Buy a motorcycle in Vietnam

Whatever, they’ve been good hogs to us. We’ve never ridden fully manual motorcycles before, but got a taste for the freedom and excitement that riding on two wheels provides in Bali and other parts of Vietnam on scooters. After putting in a solid 6 weeks of work, we were ready to hit the road again. Doing it on motorcycles, with our packs jerryrigged to the back with bungee cords, seemed like the perfect way to go. What an epic adventure it’s been so far.

Motorcycles in Vietnam

Getting Out of Hanoi

Our first day on the road was fairly hairy. Getting out of Hanoi felt a bit like a video game. I had just learned to ride my bike the day before, so I was not exactly comfortable yet.

There was no way to predict the next vessel that would pop out of a side alley and end up .32 feet in front of me in the blink of an eye. Would it be the balloon man? The pineapple lady? The man driving around with a cage full of chicks? (Birds, not humans, you sick fool.) Another family of 5 on a scooter? The dude with a fridge on the back of his moped? (Not a mini fridge mind you, but a mothereffin’ nouveau riche mega fridge with a freezer, thank you very much.) Bamboo guy? Ladder man? Dude with a live pig flung across his moto seat? (I exagerate, we didn’t see that guy in Hanoi, but we did cross his path in the countryside, cruising with a big ole’ sedated pig on the back of his moped.)

Balloon sellers in Hanoi

The streets of Hanoi are unbelievable. The chaos is fascinating though, and all very much part of the charm of this very cool city. I had to enter a mindframe where I was completely focused but relaxed, keeping my eyes on the road ahead and zoning in on the overarching goal of moving forward steadily, not getting distracted by the short term obstacles that constantly showed their face. As long as I maintained a forward gaze, committed to my route and stayed predictable, I’d be alright.

Rural homestay in Mai Chau, chance encounter with a bird

Clearing Hanoi, we eventually reached Mai Chau, where a man on a moped found us in town and took us back to his house for what proved to be an amazing homestay. His family laid out a bed for us in their wooden stilt house, amidst endless rice paddies. It was very public, but incredibly peaceful. There was no concept of privacy, which is quite the standard for Vietnamese families.

Mai Chau Village

A stomach ache had been paining me for some time, so after my shower, I laid down on the bed, lifted my shirt and awkwardly applied tiger balm all over my stomach. Weird? You betcha. That was a first for me, but it felt delectable. The weirder part? Sensing that someone accidently walked in on me performing this rather personal act. Granted, there are much more personal acts to be walked in on, but it was… uncomfortable. So it goes.

Homestay in Mai Chau

While reading in bed after dinner, I heard ruffling above us. There was a bird in the room. Not much we could do about it. I just proclaimed, “damn, that bird better not take a dump on me.” Within seconds, shazaam. Bird dropped a fat deuce on the bed, inches from my kindle.

Homestay in Mai Chau

One of the family members walked into the room shortly after, as we were trying to chase the bird out. The man barely flinched. Oh, that little guy? I wouldn’t worry about that little guy. Rather than join in on the bird evacuation, he put up a mosquito net over our bed. I suppose that could help. At the very least, it would break up the bird bombs into smaller particles before it reached our open mouthes in our sleep, making the rather unpleasant consequences negligible.

House in Mai Chau village

Vietnamese people petting beards and arms

The Vietnamese are fascinated by Kevin’s facial hair. I take it for granted, but Asians just don’t grow beards like white people do. As we pulled over for water or directions in rural villages, grown men came up to Kevin, staring at his beard and petting it occassionally. His arm hairs too.

The beard also made a child cry. At a break on the side of the road, every time the infant hiding behind the woman we were sharing tea with poked his head out to look at Kevin, he burst into tears, providing a good laugh for all involved beyond the kid. Bonding over situations like these when complete language barriers exist is always a treat.

Driving through villages in Vietnam

I got my arms petted on numerous occasions as well. I’m special too, guys. Once when I bought a poncho from a shop in Son La, a city with no tourists in sight. The women were amazed to see me there. They looked at me in awe, petting my arm and touching me, smiling and giggling. At a lunch break outside of Sapa, a few women petted me some more, to warm me up after riding in the rain for so long.

You hear people say that Vietnamese people are unfriendly. I couldn’t disagree more. Coming from a frenchie who’s often heard that “French people are rude,” I say… eff that noise! It’s all about the attitude of the traveller. Treat people with respect and kindess, and you’ll get treated the same in return. Most times. Of course, there are outliers and assholes do exist in Vietnam, as they do anywhere, but sweeping generalizations aren’t of service to anyone. And sure, I’ll agree that people aren’t as friendly in big cities here, but name one big city in the States or Europe where every resident unconditionally goes out of their way to help you or make you feel good just because you’re a tourist. These people have shit to do and places to be just like anywhere else.</minor rant>

Motorcycling in Vietnam

Offroad riding and naked children

We haven’t done much research or “route planning” for this trip. We usually pick our next stop based on distances on a map and/or itineraries we see advertised on offroad motorcycle tours online. We’re never quite sure of the terrain we’re going to hit, but most roads have been fairly gnarly. Manageable, but mostly unpaved and muddy. I was constantly impressed by the locals cruising through with much ghettoer bikes and heavier loads, often riding 3 to a moto.

Northern Vietnam

The rides that we’ve done have been amazing. Over the past few days, we’ve driven through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. It all felt so untouched. We passed villages full of ethnic minorities where everyone waved and smiled, warming my heart all along the way. I would make it a point to make eye contact with everyone I could, nod, smile and wait for them to smile back, then part with a wave.

My favorite were the women who were hard at work. Kevin would pass by, they would look up, surprised, then look at me. When they realized I was already staring at them armed with a smile, waiting to connect eyeballs, their faces would shift from serious work stare to a beaming, loving, completely disarming smile. These women are beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous and full of life and love, you can tell. All of this despite leading extremely strenuous lives. I wish I had more pictures of them, but hard to manage while driving by…

Overlooking mountains in Vietnam

The world these people live in couldn’t be more different than mine. They spend their day in remote areas, surrounded by family and neighbors, working from dusk till dawn just to be able to eat and stay warm. Everyone is focused on their respective small jobs, which collectively, amount to their survival and livelihood. Women drying seeds and herbs, kids riding water buffalos or dragging pieces of wood, men fixing up the house, groups harvesting rice. It was incredible driving through daily life of these rural families.

View of Northern Vietnam

It all felt so real. But at the time, incredibly surreal, almost like we were in a painting, coming across a flat stretch, crossing through rice fields nestled among limestone cliffs. On the horizon laid a sea of rice hats, water buffalos, kids running around, and everyone going about their business amongst an amazingly misty and picturesque setting. And here we were, cruising through, hair in the wind, with huge smiles on our face.

I would quickly snap back to reality when these figures became real, pointing and waving at me, smiling the biggest smiles. I always like to smile back even bigger, wave, do anything to make their brief encounter with me a positive and memorable one. A kid on the side of the road was particularly shocked by us. I made a point to keep on looking back at him and waving as we drove away. Every time I looked back, he was still staring and smiling until we turned a corner. I hope that kid remembers the crazy white broad who creeped on him hard as she drove away.

Directions for motorcycle

Speaking of kids. Oh jeebus, the kids we saw along the way were some of the most precious around. Naked kids everywhere! If there’s someone that loves naked kids, it’s this girl. Taking baths on the side of the road, running around, playing with tires, splashing water on water buffalos… One kid was even peacefully taking a dump right on the side of the road, pants dropped around his ankle. He was deep in the relaxed pooping zone; when we waved, he casually maintained his pooping stance and goofily smiled back, putting up his hand for a quick wave.

On a quick stop for directions, I walked up towards a truck driver that was immersed in a pack of kids. Still wearing my helmet and glasses, I could tell all the kids were scared of me. What… is… this… thing… coming… for… us!!! Every time I took a step forward, they inched back slightly. Quickly realizing this, I took off my helmet, then my glasses, and walked much slower, so they knew what was coming their way. They all stared and ogled as I spoke with the truck driver for directions. When I walked back to our moto, they all followed along, maintaining a safe distance.

Settling in Sapa for the next few days

After 4 days of riding, we finally made our way to Sapa. Not before coming across a massive, and ridiculously fresh, landslide.

Landslide in Vietnam

We met some great people on our first night out at a bar; most of them are volunteers at Sapa O’Chau, a school for ethnic minority children from the villages surrounding Sapa. Over the next few days, we plan on day tripping in the region, trek around, cruise up to the China border for a quick peek, and hopefully get in a few days of volunteering at the school.

Until next time, friends.