I could barely decipher the road warning sign about 10 feet away. Through the thick fog, I think I saw a graphic representation of a small car plunging off a cliff into crocodile infested waters and certain death – something of a reoccurring nightmare for me. “Well, that’s reassuring,” I sarcastically comment to Seb, who is in the front seat of our taxi. We’re bumping along at a slow pace up over the mountain pass to Mai Chau, a small village community of ethnic hill tribes and picturesque rice paddies located a few hours outside of Hanoi. I’m sure it will be a beautiful afternoon, but my main concern right now is controlling my heart rate in this death cab.
It wasn’t our idea to take a taxi from Hanoi. We had organized a day trip via one of the hundreds of ‘tour operators’ in the motorbike-buzzing Old Quarter of Hanoi. The brochure make it sound appealing and easy: a bus would pick us up at the hotel, drive the 2.5 hours to Mai Chau where we’d have lunch with a local family, followed by a relaxing bike ride around surrounding communities and a return trip to Hanoi in the evening. What actually happened was unclear, but after waiting two hours and being shuffled around to several different meeting locations, they put us in a small cab with two other Vietnamese women. I couldn’t imagine they would take us all the way through the mountains in a taxi, and yet here we are almost 4 hours later, crawling through a thick cloud of yellow fog.
After a sharp decent into a valley, the cloud is finally behind us and we are able to take in the green watery vistas of the rice paddies and the bamboo huts framed by craggy limestone mountains. “We’ve made it alive!” I am just sighing to myself as we rumble over the debris of a large truck that had smashed straight into a limestone cliff only hours before. Yikes.
The rest of the day is totally enjoyable. The lunch consists of various plates of tasty vegetables and meats cooked with fresh herbs and spices – yet another delicious meal in Vietnam. The bamboo stilt huts in the villages are intriguing to visit on our rusty one-speeds. It is perfectly temperate weather with a bit of sunshine – one of the first nice days since we’ve been traveling. The villagers are hunched over planting the bright green sprigs of rice into the muddy paddies by hand. Most of them wear rubber waders and the traditional woven conical hats. Some pause to look up or wave at us as we pedal by. It is peaceful to see after several days in the noisy capital – and something of a reoccurring dream for me when visualizing about our trip.
We spend another 4 hours cabbing it back to Hanoi. For one brief moment, I panic when I see the money meter climbing into the hundreds of thousands before remembering to convert it to dong. The whole taxi fare cost less than a trip to the airport from Paris, though the trip was more equivalent to a trip from Paris to the Alps and back. Quite a good deal for such an beautiful afternoon.