Saturday, May 2nd. Saigon Hotel. Ninh Bihn, Vietnam.
Jen and I emerge from the elevator and stand before an overwhelming colossal spread of Vietnamese food on the fifth floor of the Saigon Hotel in the city of Ninh Bihn, Northern Vietnam. A well dressed Vietnamese woman, the owner of the hotel, proudly shows us to the balcony, where beneath us unfolds a spectacular view. The Red River snakes through the bustling city alive with the horns of thousands of small motor bikes zipping like bees through its friendly streets. Beyond the hotels and apartment buildings to the east, huge limestone towers pierce through a sea of green rice paddies skyward into the hazy pink azure of a setting sun. I can't help but imagine them as the fangs of an ancient dragon sleeping shallowly for thousands of years casting his sweltering, humid breath toward to heavens as a reminder that he may someday wake from his slumber and wreak havoc among the people of this land. I feel a slight tug on my shoulder and our matriarch host motions us to the table. We are soon joined by a cadre of her close friends and family and the feasting begins. I look over at Jen, who is blissfully lost in culinary delight. I smile and think to myself,
How the hell did we end up here?
Wednesday April 30th. Somewhere between Sapa and Hanoi.
How I went from contentedly reading my book and preparing for a good night sleep to sitting shirtless, pounding beers with a Vietnamese banker in the lower birth of our sleeper car en route to Hanoi from the mountains of Sapa is still not entirely clear even to me. More important at this moment however, is that I had made a new best friend, and after getting over the disappointment of learning that we were from Washington State, and not sharing BBQ's with the Obama family, Thuy and I embraced like newlyweds, linked arms and tipped back another can of cold Han'oi Bia'.
Empties were tossed to the floor and my new crony pointed first at me, then at Jen, next his trusty sober side-kick Thine and lastly himself, made the gesture of driving a car and authoritatively exclaimed Ninh Bihn! Although Thuy and Thine's English was nearly as poor as our Vietnamese, I clearly understood that upon arrival at our destination in Hanoi, Thuy wished the four of us to travel in his car one hundred kilometers south to his city of Ninh Bihn. What would happen when we arrived was far beyond the scope or our limited ability to draw pictures and hand gesture, but I assumed it would involve more beer.
Early in our year-long adventure Jenny and I made the decision to never turn down and invitation for hospitality from any reasonably sane-looking local, as these engagements have borne some of the richest experiences of our journey. Sadly, in this case we had booked a trip north to Halong Bay the following day and would be unable to accept my new drinking buddy's enthusiastic invitation. Thuy's disappointment was spread across his visage with a scowl, but soon another beer was cracked open and our east-meets-west party kicked back into full swing. Over the next hour an elaborate game of international charades unfolded as more empty beer cans littered the stuffy and increasing loud sleeping cabin of the train. Several times, Thuy repeated his earlier gestures of driving us all to Ninh Bihn, going as so far to produce a drivers license as if to legitimize his offer. In the end, we agreed that upon our return to Hanoi from our tour in the north, we would travel by train to Ninh Bihn, where Thuy and I would be happily reunited and recommence our one-for-one beer drinking escapade. Email and phone numbers were exchanged before Jen sensibly crawled up to the top bunk and announced she was going to sleep. Out of beer, Thuy simply laid back on the bed and drifted off to a deep contented sleep. Although morning dawned with sobriety, a small headache, and a little less enthusiasm, Thuy again pointed at at his phone number, Jen and me, and repeated Nihn Binh! By all accounts, we took it as an invitation.
Back in Hanoi, Jenny and I exchanged our train tickets to Hue for a shorter ride to Nihn Binh, and with the help of Google Translate, shot off an email to my Vietnamese compadre informing him we would arrive at the train station in Nihn Binh shortly after nine pm in a few days time. Strangely, no response came that day, nor the next. Armed with a phone number, I asked our hotel concierge to ring our dear friend Thuy to confirm our visit. Jen and I stood by as our polite host phoned and a short cordial conversation ensued. Our concierge hung up the phone and through broken English and a big smile, informed us that Thuy's invitation was extended only as a means to persuade us to visit his beloved city, not to stay with his family. Awkward moment... hmmm?
While things may have gotten a bit lost in translation, I think it more likely Thuy got home and relayed the story of his drunken escapade with a shirtless and bearded American to his wife; he may have even shown her the selfies he so enthusiastically snapped as we pounded beer arm-in-arm. I can only imagine what her reaction might have been when he informed her he had invited us to come stay in Nihn Binh, but my guess is that the whole plan got the kibosh in a rather short order. Like Mark Twain said, Doing sober what we said we would drunk just might make us quit drinking. In any case Jen and I were proud owners of a pair of train tickets and were on our way to Nihn Binh.
Saturday May 2nd. Nihn Binh, Vietnam
Good bike, good bike, the hotel owner repeated through smiling teeth stained yellow from a lifetime of chain smoking cheap cigarettes. I mount the Chinese made single-speed and check both front and rear brakes; neither are functional. I point this small shortcoming out to our rental agent and he quickly mounts the bike, assures me no problem, no problem and disappears down the street. He returns ten minutes later riding one bike and causally steering another that rolls beside him. He dismounts, happily presents our new and improved transportation and asks for a passport as collateral on the bikes. I check the other bike over and its brakes are not operable either, but I am anxious to get going so I don't point out the small mechanical deficiency of my two dollar rental.
Off through the back roads of town Jenny and depart, weaving though narrow city streets crowded with vendors selling everything from live ducks to buckets of snails to counterfeit Rolex watches. Soon we clear the teeming roads, cross the muddy brown waters of the Red River and are cruising through lush fields of rice. Goats, cows and water buffalo roam free apparently unattended and school children pass us on bikes, smile and yell out Hello, hello!. Jen and I return an exuberant Xin chao, which always seems to elicit smiles or giggles.
We pass the day exploring the county side and dive into the cover of a restaurant to enjoy cold Han'oi bia' and Vietnamese spring rolls when the skies darken and then open up with a violent downpour. We sit watching the rain bounce off the pavement and Jen remarks, People just seem friendlier here, don't they? I don't know if it's because I'm seeing this place through the rose colored glasses that seem to paint my world when I view it from the saddle of a bike, but I must agree that the people of Ninh Bihn seem a bit more affable than their urban neighbors of Hanoi just a couple hours north.
The rain subsides; Jen and I mount our suspect steeds with sore bums and retrace our path through the country, navigate the maze of narrow urban paths and drop our bikes off late in the late afternoon. We walk through neighborhoods filled with young families enjoying the coolness the rains have brought to the evening. A father plays soccer with his child who can barely walk, young children race by on bicycles, say a few phrases in english, giggle and and ride off again. Elderly men and women sit on short stools contentedly watching the world go by from the curb and stare at Jenny and me with stoic curiosity. A shallow bow of my head and an a quite Xin Chao seems to surprise them and elicits a warm smile in return.
Soon we find ourselves being followed by a gaggle of curious school children eager to practice their english skills on a couple of nguoi phuong tay (westerners). One girl boldly runs to my side and touches my arm and then quickly retreats to the security of her snickering friends near the front door of a house. Remembering that I am ambassador for my country, Jen and I stop and make small talk with the kids, entertaining their questions until language skills limit the extent of their inquiry. As we continue to our hotel I smile thinking about how these kids' first encounter with an American is likely much different than that of their grandparents.
Jen and I arrive back at the Siagon Hotel and are greeted warmly by the receptionist and the handsome woman who we come to understand owns the hotel. Although we have just come to retrieve our bags and pay our bill, the owner of the hotel insists we sit and and enjoy a complimentary coffee. As we relax enjoying dark Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk, the invitation is extended further to dinner at the hotel's 5th floor restaurant. I give Jenny a quick wink and we soon find ourselves riding the elevator up to an unexpected feast.
Saturday May 2nd. Ninh Bihn Rail Station.
After doing our best to express gratitude to our host, Jen and I shoulder our packs and walk thirty minutes in the dark to the railway station at the heart of town. The ever-present smell of cigarette smoke permeates the night air as a couple dozen Vietnamese, a few western tourists and a handful of cab drivers wait in the sultry dark for the Reunification Express night train to arrive from Hanoi. I think about the funny set of circumstances that brought Jenny and I to this out of the way town a bit off the beaten tourist track of Vietnam, and how everything fell into place over the past couple of days. Although I never reunited with my beer-swiggin' buddy Thuy, and our trip to Ninh Bihn went nothing like we had "planned", I can honestly say that it turned out better and I am still thankful that we took ole' Thuy up on his drunken invitation.