A guilty conscience in delightful Dalat.

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Asia » Vietnam
November 26th 2011
Published: November 25th 2011
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I know nothing about motorbikes but for two years I have dreamt of buying one in one Asian country in order to tour throughout the whole of South East Asia on it. Three weeks ago my brother had a horrific bike accident back home in England and he is lucky to still have his legs let alone still be alive. My mother, my brother and my boyfriend have all asked that I not ride a bike for obvious reasons. I myself fight the desire to ride one and feel guilt when I have around Phnom Penh but have avoided them completely in Vietnam, particularly when there are other options available. Yet I still desperately want to tour on a bike around SE Asia. So here I am, in Vietnam, enjoying the scenery by bus. There is so much to see out there and it doesn’t feel right. I feel disconnected from the world around me when sitting behind smeared glass windows.

So, this is a story about my daring motorbike ride...

I arrived in Dallat after a terrifying bus ride up the mountains over precariously placed roads teetering on the edge of steep slopes. I spent my journey chatting with two New Zealanders who had been living in the UK for the last ten years and had finally had enough; their ranting took my mind off the bus swerving in and out of traffic dodging many a near death experience. I arrived in Dallat early morning and met with friends who I had spent so much time with in Muine. We stayed at the Villa Pink House who conveniently operates a tour out of its premises with their adopted son as the tour guide. It is important to reference the son as being adopted because his tour includes staying with his birth parents outside of Dalat in the hill tribe regions. There are many hundreds of tours in Dalat, mainly ‘low rider’ tours which are tours on the back of a low-rider motorbike, complete with English speaking guide, also the driver. The opportunity of staying with a hill-tribe family seemed too good to miss, so we agreed to go with Rot at the hotel.

We set off at 7am, Sarah driving the motorbike and myself balanced on the back with camera swinging around my neck. Sarah said she had ten years of motorbike driving experience, so I trusted her and cautiously let her take control. I spent the whole day heavy with dread over the possibilities which seemed so real after my little brother’s accident, and guilty that I had not told anyone at home that I had deliberately clambered on to the back of two wheels. I knew how terrified my mother would be, worried my brother and Carl would be if I had told them before. It was a risk I took. I see other westerners drive pass on hired motorbikes with their backpacks strapped to the back of their bikes and I envy their freedom, the breeze in their path and the ability to pause when they see something beautiful.

So, the bike ride is going well. I am enjoying the freedom and it reminds me of the time Carl and I toured around the islands of eastern Thailand two years ago, where the dream began; the wind in my hair, the world whizzing by at a speed we chose, the ability to stop when you pleased. I realised how careless Carl and I were, we only ever wore shorts, t-shirts and a helmet. This time I took better precautions: trousers and a jumper. It made sense in my head, but deep down I knew that if I was flung off, cotton sleeves would make very little difference when skidding across tarmac.

First we stopped at a cricket farm, apparently a delicacy here in Vietnam. Fresh faces, new to the ways of S.E Asia’s alternative cuisine, clambered over each other to get the sample. I watched them screw their faces up as they bravely plucked up the courage to take their first bite. My experiences in Cambodia had rendered me numb towards this type of ‘shocking’ delicacy. The Vietnamese are wimps in comparison to their Khmer counterparts; at least they know how to do it properly.

After the shock factor we headed towards a silk farm and watched the women (always women who work here in Vietnam) make silk from the worms. It was fascinating to watch ancient machines grind against the cogs and churn out long threads of silk. The ladies were unperturbed by the sudden show of visitors capturing their every movement, ignoring our stares they continued. Amongst our trip was a visit to a market, where we were as much of an attraction as the workers were to us; a short stop at a waterfall which was very slippery and wet but beautiful, mainly because it was surrounded by so many delicate butterflies and then we pulled over at a coffee bean farm. Over the years coffee beans have become huge in Vietnam, even becoming one of the world’s biggest exporters of coffee beans to the west. This entire region was dedicated to coffee bean trees like it was a matter of life and death. I guess in a way it is; life and death. The coffee bean earns a farmer a hell of a lot of money; it would be silly not to use any spare land and plant a few trees. The problem with this lucrative business is that it has got out of control, many businessman have jumped on to the band wagon a little too late, realised there is no land left and have started to cut down the jungle to make space for more coffee bean trees in order to fill their bank accounts.

Whilst Rot was talking to us about these issues he also told us of his childhood and how he used to go home to his real parents, who are coffee bean farmers, and work their farm. He explained to us that many people die each year farming the beans from falling off trees when they have climbed to the top to get the beans reaching up to the sky or from a venomous green snake, the same shade of green as the leaves. He turned and showed us one of the green leaves, screamed, wrestled with something in his hands and then ran towards us with this fricking green snake in his hands. Fifteen foreigners split; we ran in every which direction. Sarah was pushed in to the path of the snake by a Peruvian lady, I heard grown men scream and I myself, who is terrified of the slippery buggers, ended up running in circles like a headless chicken trapped between two trees. Blind panic.

Rot started laughing. I wasn’t. He put the fake snake back in to his pocket and laughed all the way back to the bikes.

Shaken, still pale and afraid of what I might do to Rot if he pulled another horrifying trick like it, we drove off towards our last stop: his family.

Here we were greeted by a child, maybe two years old repeating the only word he knew “hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello”.“How cute” we thought and we chirped “hello, hello, hello” back. We wandered around this deathly quiet little place, only a few houses all very mixed in size, material and of course wealth. Coffee beans were laid out on big blankets in front of the nicer houses to dry off in the sun ready to be sold on. These were the families with money. We walked along the sandy path, through a little coffee bean farm and towards an area even more dilapidated. Here we met our family, who we would spend the next hour or so talking with. Clearly this is a matriarchal society; from the word go it was the women who were central to the meeting, the greetings, the conversations. We were welcomed to a little hut and were seated inside, squashed, side by side with three little hill tribe women peering out at us from their age-lined faces. They were small, their heads a little too big for their bodies (a clear sign of malnourishment) yet their bodies, their fingers and their bones were strong. They laughed when Stu and Siobhan were introduced; Stuart means ‘ladies bits’ and Siobhan means ‘eat’, so of course the two of them together as a couple means ‘eating ladies bits’. They told us about their lives, how they bore 9-10 children each but most had died in childhood of dengue fever or malaria. They explained the ways of the hill tribe, the matriarchal society, and how women own men through marriage. In this society, the families buy a man for their daughters, the price is set by how fit, healthy, intelligent, and strong a man is. If he smokes, drinks or is lazy, then he is only worth one or two water buffaloes. If a family is poor but has two daughters then they might only be able to afford one husband, so, they buy one husband for two daughters. One might initially see this as an exciting prospect, particularly through the eyes of a man, but I am pretty sure when you consider what it is like having one wife on her period, try putting up with two! Not so appetizing is it? I’m pretty sure Carl doubts whether I am marriage material during those monthly outbursts at the best of times, but two of us? Hell, he’d top himself and I wouldn’t blame him; my sisters and I are difficult women.

This entire way of life intrigues me. We westerners live in such extremely alternative environments. It is incredible that we can still fall upon cultures which are so differing and where people are still owned through the institution of marriage. Not only that, but where marriage is not a commitment of love but a convenience; a man is an extra pair of hands in the fields or on the farm. Marriage is a necessity. Yet, here I sit, twenty-seven years old, soon to be twenty-eight and I am unmarried, although happily partnered to Carl, but a choice I am allowed to make. They told me I was too old. If I lived in their society, I would be married off at the age of ten, maybe thirteen, maybe sixteen if I was lucky. I realise this choice is a luxury, and one that many millions of people don’t have. Even more shocking, five minutes down the road there are other tribes where it is the complete opposite; a patriarchal society and it is the women who are bought and owned. This has become such a huge issue within Vietnam that the government have had to educate young people about waiting to get married until they are older, in order to prevent pregnancy amongst the very young. Appallingly, many of these young women (girls) give birth at home, alone. I say appallingly only because I am horrified by pregnancy and the whole giving birth sickens me. Even though I know it’s natural.

In all honesty, it has been enlightening. I sat opposite this woman, who is also twenty-seven years old, who had eight children, three of whom had died in their childhood, all of whom were born at home or in the field whilst working and here I sit with nothing. I know nothing of the pleasure and excitement of growing a child inside of my tummy, or the pain when I give birth to it, or the attachment we make. I know nothing of this woman’s pleasure at her family, or her despair when losing them. I am an educated white girl, now educating others but I sit here and realise I know very little. The world is big, I am small and I am ignorant: there is still so much to learn.

Throughout lunch I couldn’t shake off my experience. I ate my rice noodles made by Rot’s sister who is a nun and again, I am thrown by the lives of others and the choices we make. Those of you who know me personally or who have been following my blog understand that I have an obsession with religion and faith. I am perplexed by the issue of blind faith but feel serene in the company of those who are not blind and who have found their faith. There is something about a man or a woman who has chosen to devote their life to their faith, and I truly believe it is a sense of completeness they feel on their part. Rot’s sister smiled at us throughout lunch. She fed us more when our plates emptied and topped up our water. She quietly watched us and smiled at me when I caught her eye. In her presence I felt small, I was a nothing in comparison to the fullness she clearly felt. Her pride oozed from her every being and although soothing and unaffected, I found it intimidating. Like a reminder that I am agnostic and have not the ability to choose a faith. Again, I find myself reflecting upon those luxurious choices we have in the UK and how spoilt I have become.

The way back to Dalat felt gloomy. I found myself reflecting upon those issues of spirituality which linger over me. Sometimes I feel everyone else has it all figured out, and I am the last one to cotton on to the answers. I recognise this is not true, for five years I have taught young secondary school students like me; perplexed and unresolved. Yet I have always envied those pupils who have been able to tell me about their faith, or their lack of faith. I admire their truth, their reasoning and their strength of belief. I listen to them but feel like a fraud, I am still in doubt.

The roads wind through beautiful fields which glisten in the sun set, the locals make their way home and I watch them from my speedy perch. We climb the mountains and as the sun sets I start to feel the cold seep in to my bones. For the first time in months I am shivering and wish I had my Hockey Hoody – which I threw away in Siem Reap.

We start our trip with seven bikes, but finish with six. On our way home one of the bikes get a puncture and a couple are left stranded, luckily they were not alone and the wheel was fixable. Rot speeds back to help them with other riders and three of us continue back with the lead car. The mountains are high, the sky is dark and the sun is gone. I am tired, hungry and still anxious on the back of the bike. The heady mix of freedom and nerves got the adrenaline pumping all day, and now I am ready for quiet and bed.

The world is beautiful, there is so much to learn and this is why I have left my teaching job in England. Every day I taught wonderful young people, who I learnt vast amounts from. Everyone you meet has a story to tell, a choice they made or an event which changed them in some way. But I still know so little, and all the books in the world are unable to enlighten me. It is experiences such as these which feed me, teach me and help me appreciate the world and the people within it that little bit more.

Additional photos below
Photos: 104, Displayed: 32


25th November 2011

Hi, from Argentina
All your pictures tell a story. Excellent. Hugs from Argentina. Graciela.
26th November 2011

Fantastic experience
Just by looking at your excellent portraits, one can discern that you have connected with the people you've met on more than a superficial level. The privilege of entering, observing and withdrawing from cultures of other countries is the most remarkable aspect of travel. I say withdrawing rather than leaving as a part of you never truly leaves. "The world is beautiful, there is so much to learn..." shows that you have made the transition not only from a tourist to a traveller but from a traveller to an explorer. Keep dreaming, exploring and learning - the world is an amazing place.
26th November 2011

Great blog once again.
Love it, love it, love it.
27th November 2011

Reflections of one experiencing life's disparate journey...the lives of cultures far different from our own...enjoyed your reflective perspective...and the portraits...glad I have discovered you.
29th November 2011

With the greatest respect for your other blogs - this is your best yet - it is so marvellously honest, and full of life and colour.......makes me feel very humble to learn from you x x x
29th November 2011

It felt very humbling to read about your experiences, specially your comments about issues of faith. I felt great empathy and yes we have a lot to learn and I think that it is never ending...Great photos and so personal . Anabela xx
20th September 2012
Photo 103

Oooh. I think DancingDave might have a major competitor! You do amazing portrait photos!
21st December 2013
Photo 103

Great shot!
What can she possibly be thinking of while smoking?

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