We have often found that decelerating on a trip proves the best way to know a country, and not just its sites. When we planned our SE Asia trip, we built in slowdown time…river trips, beach time and so on.
Yes, you could always see more pagodas and landmarks, churches and museums, but the more easygoing time lets us meet people, engage them, take a breather, or soak in natural beauty. In particular, if you spend time out in the countryside, you get the added benefit of feeling the slow rhythms of the land, whether the measured pace of the farm or the daily tempo of the forest.
That’s been the benefit of the three wonderful days spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that we just spent southwest of Hanoi. One night we stayed at the guesthouse of a Tai tribal village family and the next night we enjoyed the lodge at one of Vietnam’s most important national parks. We learned a lot about the life of the local people, the life of small towns, and so on, but the deeper value was in feeling what the country was like, beyond its sights and cities.
After a long drive snaking through Hanoi, then testing out the new highway outside and bumping along lesser roads, we dropped down around mid-day into the eye-catching Mai Chao valley, home to several farming villages.
Tourism has hit this valley but, here in the off-season especially, things were quiet and unhurried. We spent the rest of that day relaxing in our simple, but elegant wood house, up on stilts in the traditional style. We also wandered the lanes that criss-cross the rice fields, greeted amiably by those we passed. We ambled through the easy-going local market on quiet streets, then idled over two bowls of pho at the central town’s restaurant. There they were delighted to see some foreigners that were willing to head back to the kitchen and point to what they wanted, knew a few words in Vietnamese, and were daring enough to use the hot chiles they offer for the pho.
Once night descends here, you have to relax, for there is little else you can do in the meager light, but drink and talk. We had the good fortune to share the modest dinner provided by our host’s family with a French group consistiing of a couple from Bretagne plus two other women from Normandie, a combination we never quite understood. But their good cheer and willingness to suffer our halting French let us discourse broadly over dinner about religion, politics in both our countries, travel and more. The wine flowed in good Christmas cheer, culminating in a tribal dance performance in which we all participated, and a somewhat recognizable version of some Christmas carols. The evening closed in unanticipated hilarity as one of the four missed a step in the dark and fell, unharmed but soaked, into the canal beside the house, sending his wife into fits of laughter and making the evening even more memorable.
The next day we walked through local villages and more of the fields, spending two hours in a glorious landscape enclosed in limestone hills, while observing the daily chores of the farmers. On one plot, a villager caught or rather tried to catch crabs: over here, a couple plowed its muddy plots to prepare for planting a month hence. In the village itself, we observed how tourism has brought greater prosperity and commercialism as well. The pace was leisurely, the day grand and the open air warming to our spirits.
Another long bumpy drive brought us to the Cuc Phuong National Park. In the middle of 70,000 acres of lush rain forest, your mind and spirit open up to the quiet green spaces.
We did tour, in a sense, for this park houses a primate rescue center sponsored for nearly 20 years by the Frankfurt Zoo, as well as several others including the San Diego and Cincinnati zoos. Here 150 monkeys indigenous to Vietnam are nursed back to health and breeding potential, all saved from poachers and hunters. When ready, they are returned in stages to the wild, first to a huge fenced natural area (think Jurassic Park) and then back to their natural habitats.
You immediately relax and recover in a place like this, with few distractions under the starlit dark. It was fitting that we slept more soundly than usual, at least until our morning wake-up call, the howling of all those monkeys just after dawn.
The rest of the morning we walked through the cool air of the deep forest, deliberately and delightfully. Over three hours, we looked only at birds and stony outcroppings, banana plants and forest greenery, quietly finding the kind of peace that only lingering in the countryside can bring.
(For more pictures from Vietnam, CLICK HERE to see the slideshow at the end of the Vietnam itinerary page.)