I’m sitting in a cafe in a small town in the northern mountains, sketching out the draft for this blog. There are fake flower garlands strung everywhere, blinking electric Christmas lights, and a guitar rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon playing quietly when I enter. The music has since been changed to a louder station of Vietnamese pop sung half in English (they know my taste).
I am in Mu Cang Chai town, the capital of Mu Cang Chai district, in Yen Bai province. It is known best for its extraordinary terraced rice fields. Unfortunately, I have chosen to visit in the “ugly” season, where there is no rice harvest. It also happens to rain my whole visit, which makes the countryside brown and damp. It may not be a photographer’s dream, but the area is still exceptionally beautiful to me.
This town, which I heard of based on a new friend’s recommendation, is definitely off the tourist trail. I see only one foreigner in my few days here, and I am communicating through a combination of Google translate, exaggerated body language, my few Vietnamese phrases, and the grace of the people here. Still, I find that food and drink bring me a bit of company- eating lunch alone, I soon find myself surrounded by a noisy family. After realizing that I only know a little Vietnamese, they stick around anyway, eating loudly and writing down new words for me in my notebook. Walking down the street during the only sunny afternoon, some motorcycle mechanics invite me over to drink tea and watch them play some sort of chess. Even the rain conspired to bring me company- on a long walk out of town, it unexpectedly began to downpour, and I ended up being invited into a karaoke bar for refuge. I am not entirely alone here.
I don’t know what makes these people want to include the outsider- some innate kindness or sympathy for someone traveling alone, or perhaps just boredom with the people that they see every day. Whatever it is, I remain grateful for the kindness extended to me, and I look for ways for pass it on in the future.
But for now, I’m heading toward the big tourist town of the north, Sa Pa. I can’t wait to take a bus through these mountains again- even through a dirty bus window, these views are breathtaking!