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Fascinating way from Mai Chau to Son La

Fascinating way from Mai Chau to Son La
I awoke feeling very refreshed, and thankfully free of bugbites. It took me while to realize what was different. It was the silence. It was wonderful, and such a change from Hanoi. Outside I was able to finally appreciate the reason for coming to Mai Chau. I could see the valley in all its glory now, with the steep sides rising up shrounded in mist. A shaft of sunlight pierced the scene in front of me. Outside my door, women worked bent over in the rice paddies and water buffalos wandered about.

I decided to have a look at the headlight, hoping that it was something easy to fix. The bulb turned out to be ok, and after taking it apart and putting it back together it worked. Must have just been a loose connection. Swelling with pride at my megre achievement, I took off to explore the valley. All along the way people were busy working in the paddies, and I was greeted as usual by smiles and hellos. The bike seemed to be running fine, and I was eager to set off nice and early. After a fortifying breakfast of bread and eggs, I straped on my gear (one of my favorite things to do because I love the free feeling that putting the bike and the backpack together gives) and took off.

I decided to get some petrol, and after having to struggle to get the cap off (and having to rely as I frequently would do on an incredibly strong Vietnamese bloke) I started off. After a few yards the engine stopped. Damn! After many futile attempts to start, I was directed to a mechanic. He seemed to immediately know what to do, and set about the bike. He striped out the carbarettor, and in a great botch job cut out a seal for the engine out of a cardboard box lying around. He soon had it spluttering away as usual. I mimed the gear problem I was having, and he set to again. This time he stripped out the gearbox, replaced something important looking, and handed me the bike. I had lost time, but had a good laugh with the guys at the shop, and the old buffalo seemed much healthier.

I set off for Son La, the road following the valleys, twisting and turning. At one point I followed a river as it meandered through the hills. I also turned the corner and had my first (but not last) jaw-dropping view. A valley stretched out before me, truly truly awe-inspiring and seemingly all for me. It got better and better as I wound my way up the mountains.

As I travelled, I was constantly greeted by kids and adults on the side of the road. At one point as I roared up a hill, a lorry headed towards me. Something bounced across the road behind it, spinning arond until it crashed into the ditch. As I passed it I looked to see what it was. It was a gas cylinder. As I passed a cheerful looking bloke hopped out of his lorry and ran towards it. I yelled out a warning, but he just picked it up and chucked it on the back. I suppose it COULD have been empty!

The road was fascinating, cut through the hilsides. It must has been a mammoth job. The rock colors varied, with deep red and bright yellows. I felt free, and exhilarated to be on this perfect road.

At one point I passed a series of rope bridges spanning the valley. Realizing that this was the first real-life ones I had ever seen (as opposed to Ramboland), I had to stop. I gingerly crossed, the drop to the water about twenty meters. In the middle the handropes stopped, with a gap of about 10 meters or so. Just as I was wondering where the people stored their bikes when they crossed over, I heard a beeping, and there at the other side was a guy on a motorbike. As I neared him, it became clear that he had had a liquid lunch. He began talking at me in Vietnamese, miming eating and drinking, pointing over his shoulder, and beckoning me to go. Then he wobbled boozily over the bridge. I could bearly look.

I walked up a bit, and was beckoned into a house on stilts which had lots of talking coming from it. A bunch of guys, and an old lady with betel nut stained teeth were inside, having some sort of party or gatjhering. With lots of smiles, I was usured in and tea was poured. They were also drinking rice wine, and apparently I wasn't going to leave without some toasts! After trying to say no a few times and failing, I managed to escape before I would have had to stay the night. I also made a bit of a faux pas. My usual "Vietnam, Number 1" (a sure fire way to sound friendly, I thought) resulted in a chorus of "Vietnam, Number 10. Laos, Number 1". Whoops. An easy mistake, I guess (after all this is Vietnam) but I couldn't help feeling that I'd done the equivalent of telling a bunch of Scots that "England is the best". After many, many handshakes, I was over the bridge again and away. Feeling slightly.. merry.

It made me very happy to have began to see that the minority peoples of Northwest Vietnam were real, and not just cliches to be gawked at by tourists such as myself. I made me feel much better about this journey.

I was sad to finally arrive at Song La, but the road had one more pleasure for me. I passed loads of people playing a great game. It involved spinning a beanbag thing on the end of a rope festooned with ribbons, and throwing it up to try to get it through a hoop set at the top of a ten meter pole. They chucked a couple of the beanbag things for me, and I chucked them back. Then, I had a shot at the hoop. It looked very difficult, but I guess beginners luck. First time! I figured I'd leave it at that. Adam Smith - perfect score on the hoop game!

As I drew into Song-La, looking for a hotel, the Old Buffelo started to play up. By the way, that's the Vietnamese nickname for the Minsk. I've decided that cities are not the natural environment for it. I think the bike's performance suits it's background. It's been described as less of a motorbike and more a piece of farm machinery. A hearty communist bike, it's not made for the decadent city and it's bourguios traffic lights and stop signs. It's happiest roaring up a 10% incline in first gear, or cruising along the worker's countryside. Like it's namesake, it requires a firm but knowledgable hand to get it working, and as I begin to figure out it's idiocincracies we start to work much better.

Thank god for the internet. I've now worked out a system for arriving in a strange town. Find an internet cafe (there are plenty around, even here. Full of noisy kids playing games or chatting online), and look up a travel website for hotels. Great! I found one at last, and after a delicious meal of rice, beef and vegatables, washed down with a couple of beers, I slept fantastically. What a wonderful day I had had, better even than I had hoped. Next stop, Dien Bien Phu.

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