a perfect form of meditation

This entry was written early one morning in the hotel at Bao Lac. I’ve transcribed it from my notebook pretty much verbatim, sans spelling errors.

“Friday Nov 11 2009, 6am

Hotel balcony at Bao Lac overlooking the river. A heavy mist has set in overnight and I can’t make out the tops of the cliffs on the opposite bank. Have made a coffee and water from the thermos was good and hot for a change. Dogs barking out on the road woke me about 5.15 so got up to write and took a hot shower first.

There are days when you are riding that you never want to end, and yesterday was one of those days. PERFECT. We had set off early in the morning heading south from Meo Vac intending to go back to Ha Giang town, but after 15 klms we came across Lung Phin village and it was market day. Thousands of ethnic people were crowded into one dirt road running up the hill. Terry sat and drank tea at a stall on the main road while I pushed my way through the throngs up the hill to a Y intersection that formed the centre of the marketplace. Food, local produce and Chinese made utensils and other items were for sale, but no ethnic fabric or clothing.

On the way to Lung Phin we stopped and watched a large group of children exercising in the quadrangle of their school through dance. There were 3 adults up on the balcony leading and the children were following the steps to the beat of a large drum. It was quite beautiful.

We met a Vietnamese driver/guide who was taking two Dutch people around the north by car and he advised us that the road to Cao Bang from Meo Vac was very good so we decided to turn around and head east toward Bao Lac, approx 87 klms from Meo Vac. (Note: we relied on local knowledge to determine which roads we would take so it was opportune that we met up with this guy).

From Meo Vac we headed south-east to Ly Bon, (also known as Na Phong). Almost immediately the country started to change from the barren rocky slopes of Dong Van – Meo Vac back into trees and water. Not as much as in the west of Ha Giang, but gradually the country softened, and it felt as though the people did also. The frontier territory is HARD country and the people up there match it. But travelling east it seemed as if we were leaving Tolkien’s misty mountains behind and moving into the warmer more welcoming territory of Hobbiton.

The ride was TOO GOOD. The weather in the am to Lung Phin was chilly but the sky was clear and as the day warmed up it became almost perfect. Warm, clear blue sky, patches of colder micro-climate in the shadows of cliffs. The smell of grass, thousands of butterflies romancing across the road. Didn’t they realise it is autumn, not spring? The road winds up and down and apart from a couple of patches where road-work is being carried out, was in perfect condition. A pleasure to drive on and better still, very little to no traffic. I think we encountered only 5 or 6 cars all day.

More stunning scenery, yet another beautiful mountain stream on our left with thick jungle on the opposite bank moving up to hills with some trees, and of course dotted with the houses and cultivated areas of ethnic people. Children walking and riding their bicycles to and from school, all happy and waving at the two Tay invading their space.

Around lunch we arrived at Ly Bon, but not by the route we had imagined. As it turned out we were on a different road from the one we thought we were following on the map, but it mattered not. We stopped in the dusty, dirty main street of tiny Ly Bon when I noticed a lady making rice pancakes and hanging them up on poles under her ceiling to use for pho. She made us two steaming bowls of pho without any meat and it was so good that Terry ate a second helping.

Within seconds of sitting down many children gathered around us staring interestedly at our bikes and gear and at how we were eating. I showed them how to use a compass and orient it with a map. Terry showed them his wounds and regaled them with a story of great heroism involving the slaying of many tigers. I warned them against believing this fairy tale. By the time we left the pho house every child in the village must have been standing to see us off. One of the better pit-stops we have had.

Arrived at Bao Lac to find two Austrians drinking Bia Ha Noi’s in the hotel foyer. One, a young trainee with the Austrian embassy, the other older, retired and living in Ha Noi. They were heading in the opposite direction to us and said that the road to Cao Bang was gravel for a long way and not very good as it was under so much repair. (Note: the road to Cao Bang was not as good as the road into Bao Lac it is true, but it wasn’t as bad as they made out. We figured they were still used to European autobahns).

Four ladies were also staying that night. They were on a guided road trip by car right across the top of Viet Nam from Dien Bien Phu to Cao Bang. One, from the UK, has worked in Ha Noi for an NGO for 3.5 years. Their guide, Dung, tells us that we are lucky because there will be an ethnic market in Bao Lac this morning. The ethnic markets are held regularly but in accordance with the Lunar calendar, so striking as many as we did was very fortunate.

Last night we ate in the hotel. There were a couple of large groups of locals holding parties and making plenty of noise. The house dogs were busy eating any scraps from the floor under the tables and the kitchen floor had become so slippery the staff were wearing brightly coloured rubber boots. Steamed rice, green beans in garlic, roast pork with plenty of crackling (cooked in one of those convection ovens) and spring rolls, all very delicious.

I purchased a bottle of Japanese or Korean rice wine which on closer inspection was made in Hue. I should have known when the purchase price was only 70,000 VND. It tasted strongly of kerosene and I think I could use it to fuel the bike. We each had 3 small nips and left the open bottle on the table. Not worth taking it with us. I’m getting tired of drinking Bia Ha Noi and would love a dark beer or a rum and coke.

Yesterday’s ride once again brought on euphoric feelings and I became so relaxed in the warm sunshine and the rhythm of the bike going into endless left and right hairpins as we wound our way up and down mountain passes. It has been said that meditation is the art of focussing your attention on one thing. That being the case I declare that riding a motorbike in these conditions is the ultimate form of meditation. Focussing only on the moment, the now, and casting all extraneous thoughts aside. Very mellowing indeed”.