I’m convinced that children in Vietnam must learn to say “Hello” as one of their first words. I can picture it now… moms with small tots on their knees, perhaps they just learned to say “ma-ma.” Everyone is so proud, parents beaming with joy–he’s talking now! What does that mean? Time to teach this kid to say “Hello!”
In the past two weeks, we’ve ridden almost 1,000 kilometers from the northern border down to and along the coast of Vietnam. And one thing remains the same wherever we go. People see us coming, drop whatever they’re doing, and wave vigorously while shouting “HELLO!” They yell it from the rice fields, they peek out of stores to say it before we pass… they’re toddlers, they’re elderly, they’re on motorcycles, they’re on bikes, they’re in the middle of something or they’re not doing anything. Doesn’t matter–someone taught them to say hello. I have yet to figure out how they can even see us coming from so far away, but they do.
And while this passing friendliness seems only skin-deep, when you stop long enough to chat or eat or camp, the warmth goes deeper as the locals come to greet the random foreigners. Some speak English, particularly the young folk who are either learning or who have just learned it in school. If nothing else, they can offer a “How are you?” and sometimes a little more.
Perhaps the most extreme instance of this friendliness was the day we rode into Hanoi. We were about 50 kilometers from the city, and stopped in a small village en route to find a restaurant. As we roamed the streets, we were striking out on finding the typical “Pho” (noodles) or “Com” (rice) signs that indicate a local eatery. But as we were looking around, we saw a huge group of people eating around tables outside of a house, so we paused to check it out. They quickly spotted us and started eagerly waving us in. We thought it was a restaurant, so we pulled out our picture of an English/Vietnamese menu to try and place an order. But as we were in the process, the one girl who spoke English (in the whole crowd of about 25) was telling us, “no how much!” and gleefully saying “free!” as she pointed us to a table where a fresh platter of food was being set out.
What followed was incredible. We spent two hours feasting with this crowd. Come to find out, this was a type of family wedding celebration. The English-speaking girl had just gotten married on Saturday, and she and her husband were now celebrating with their extended families. And somehow, two foreigners–two dirty, tired and sweaty foreigners–who rolled up on their bikes as the meal was commencing, became the guests of honor. People crowded around to take pictures with us. They offered us drinks (some unidentified and POTENT alcoholic beverage) and toasted us non-stop throughout the meal. This was actually a bit challenging, as we didn’t really want to drink that much of it (mind you, we had 50 kilometers left to cycle), but we also didn’t want to appear rude. But every time someone wanted to toast, they would top up our tiny little cups, tap them together with theirs, and then drink… and we would drink. Well, we would sip, anyway. But they would always drink.
I will say this: if there’s ever been a country where I felt a bit of remorse when answering the standard “where are you from?” question, it was at the start of Vietnam. I mean, there have been places where being an American isn’t exactly ideal, but I’m generally proud to say I’m from the USA. But Vietnam is a bit different. Especially here in the north. I really had no idea coming in if there was any type of bitterness left from the war years. But the Vietnamese people have put us at ease. At this wedding feast to which we were haphazardly invited, one of the older men present shared (via the English-speaking bride) that he had fought in the war. I had figured with all the generations present there, that many of them had seen the war, if not been a part of it. But this guy wants us to know that… then follows his statement up by grabbing Dave’s hand, shaking it vigorously and basically saying, “no more war!” What a forgiving culture, really… so unwilling to harbor a grudge from the past. All I could think about was my dear grandfather who fought as a pilot during World War II. Now, he was not an angry or bitter man, but know this–he was NOT going to buy a Japanese-made car. No way. And yet, here we were in Vietnam, among the people and on the turf of the war, being warmly greeted by the locals and somehow even making our way to being honored guests at a wedding reception. Amazing really.
We spent two days in Hanoi with yet another wonderful warmshowers host, visited the Temple of Literature, enjoyed a Western coffee shop and made a run to the huge import grocery store. This has become a regular occurrence in Asia–find the biggest grocery store, fight your way through the throngs of people inside, and come out with a stockpile of peanut butter. Yes, that’s right. Peanut butter has always been an important staple in our diet, but back in the day (in the U.S.) we were eating it on sandwiches with jelly. True Americans for you. Here, however, eating out for lunch is generally the cheaper option, with a plate piled high with chicken fried rice usually costing about $1.50-2.00. So how do we use our PB? We put huge scoops of it in our oatmeal each morning. It’s a win/win, really. Your oatmeal (or porridge, according to the Brits) loses its blandness, all while adding protein and bulk to an otherwise all-carb breakfast. Delicious and wonderful, peanut butter in our oatmeal has become our daily routine.
Fueled by this concoction, and helped along by the flat roads of coastal Vietnam, this past week we finally hit a record-breaking distance: the century. It has taunted us throughout our journey, really. The 100-mile day was a regular occurrence for Dave and his brother John when they rode their bikes across the northern U.S. on the trip that inspired this World Tour. But alas, our bikes have more gear, and I am a girl, so the 100-mile day has eluded us for three continents and nearly 18 months of cycling.
In between Hanoi and the record day, we rode out to Halong Bay, where nearly 3,000 small karst islands off the coast of Vietnam bring the tourists in droves. It’s kind of nice to get mixed in with the gringo crowd time and again. This is a beautiful area of Vietnam, and it’s certainly understandable that it’s on every traveler’s itinerary. Here are some highlight photos from our overnight boat trip out in the islands which included kayaking, a walk through an enormous cave, and generally chilling on the upstairs sundeck of our small boat.
Now we’re southward bound… making our way to more tourist hot spots and getting ready for the real heat to begin. We hear it’ll be hot, not just warm, south of Hue in Vietnam. Within the next 10 days we’ll make our way to Laos. But for now, we’re enjoying the people, the smiles and the hellos of Vietnam.