Sunday, 7 November 2010

The many faces of Vietnam

A couple little boys and some Vietnamese kids.
Middle schoolers at Catdang.
The director of the Catdang school and Ms. Lien, from TCI.

Catdang middle schoolers

The number of people we encounter every day is truly mind-blowing. It’s hard to even predict a number – certainly somewhere in the thousands. Every run-in is a bit different and no two ever quite identical.

“Hello” is perpetual. Most common is kids geeking out, running toward the road, shouting and waving, “Hello! HELLO! HELLLLLLOOOO!” Sometimes you hear a “hello” and between your iPod and speed it’s tough to place. Frequently a motorbike pulls up next to you, says “hello” and occasionally tries to make small chat. Then there are the motorbikes who encourage you to speed up and show them what you’re made of.

Besides the “hellos” there are plenty of other greetings. Common is what I like to call the “mutual understanding” which is typically followed by a nod. This takes place when you lock eyes with someone either riding a vehicle toward you or someone on the side of the road. You make eye contact – and although the glance lasts but a brief second in time – you can tell a lot about someone. I wish I had the time and language to unearth the stories of these “mutual understandings.”

Lastly are the nods. These are normally from older men too serious to wave or shout “hello” but still curious at our presence. A “mutual understanding” must first take place and friendly nods are exchanged.

All of this undoubtedly sounds like over-analysis of greetings, but between the thousands of daily greetings and plenty of time to burn pedaling, these are the conclusions I’ve reached.

A couple stories stand out from the first five days of riding. Yesterday I was riding alone after lunch. We’d turned off Highway 1 onto Highway 7 cruising inland toward the Ho Chi Minh Highway and our evening destination of Do Luong. As I cycled through a small village, I saw a few dilapidated homes. After passing them I turned around and decided to take a photo, telling myself, “You’ll never be back here.” (Of course this is what I told myself last year but this time it’s really true!) I took a couple pics and heard what I thought was a radio blaring. I walked closer to the sound’s origin and saw a couple dozen motorbikes parked. Hmmm, some kind of event. I turned the corner and realized I’d just walked into a wedding. Everyone waved at me and beckoned me to join in, ostensibly to drink copious amounts of beer. As tempting as it was, I had no plans to interrupt the happy couple and steal their show.

As I returned to my bike to hit the road, a mob of children from about 5 to 18 circled me, peppering me with the usual questions. After some Q & A and some more pictures, I was finally back on the road. And to think I was that close to not stopping at all!!!

Another unforgettable incident took place yesterday morning, but this time the entire group were my witnesses and we weren’t even on our bikes. As we went through our morning stretching routine led by Sasha, we were joined by the Tinh Gia hotel proprietor a.k.a. “Hef,” a.k.a. Mr. Business-on-top, Party-on-the-bottom (see previous blog post for explanation of name). Initially he was a casual observer but before long couldn’t help himself. He jived and wriggled to our music and then sleazily convulsed his hips in a perverse, but absolutely hilarious manner. He was basically an eight-year-old trapped in a grown man’s body and loved the attention.

The people are incredible. All the frustrations of Ho Chi Minh City and all the misers and schemers in Hanoi already seem like a distant memory. The ride makes you feel good about Vietnam.


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