Nam greeted us early Tuesday morning; his brother, Viet, was busy that day (his joke, not mine…and I’ll sadly admit that it literally took me until the end of the day to get it). We jumped into a van and headed towards the Van Long Nature area. The day promised to be a busy one.
Our first stop, after a two-hour drive, was a small village. An older gentleman met the three of us with…bikes. Now, if you know me, you also know that I am not a particular fan of bikes. I have tried to get over my small, irrational fear, but with no success. Bikes = potential death to me. But, I promised Sunia I would at least try the death machine since she doesn’t have the same thoughts on biking as I do. So, with reservation (on my part), off the four of us rode through the dirt and gravel pathways of this small village. Kids looked at us, motorbikes passed us, and I held on for dear life to my rackety bike. I stayed in the back and prayed for the hour or so we were on those death traps. Along the way, though, I will have to admit, that I could understand the appeal of riding the bike through the vibrant green rice fields. It was peaceful…well, except for the few choice words I muttered under my breath when I saw my life flash before my eyes…because I was on the death trap.
Along the way, we saw a Buddhist pagoda. The nun allowed us to enter and pray. I always have enjoyed the tranquility of Buddhist architecture; I always feel a sense of calmness when I enter one. Only after about 10 minutes, though, we had to get back on the bikes and continue our ride.
Soon, we found ourselves entering a gate of a home within the village. The older gentleman lived there with his wife and daughter. They invited us into their home. Sunia and I were outfitted with baskets around our waist and we followed the daughter and gentleman to a muddy pond. As Sunia and I watched the man roll up his pants and step into the slush with a net, a water buffalo watched us with a look one can only describe as humor. I could almost read his mind: “What do these two idiots think they’re doing?” The man shook the net, but unfortunately no fish had been caught. He then lifted some submerged baskets up to check them for any creatures. This time, snails and crabs filled them. He gave the “goodies” to us to place in our baskets. I noticed you had to be quick to put the lids back onto the baskets because those crabs were quick little buggers! We were offered the chance to climb into the mud slush to try our hand at fishing, but we both declined.
After arriving back to the house, we washed our hands and the daughter instructed us to sit down near a camp stove (well, that’s the best I can describe it). She had some cut up sweet potatoes and batter. With chopsticks, she showed us how to take the slices of potatoes and dip them into the batter. Next, we placed them in hot oil until they puffed up into a nice golden brown. Now, I generally am against all things sweet potato, but this snack was tasty and enjoyable. In fact, if I could remember the exact recipe for the batter, I would attempt to make this snack on my own. Next, we were taken into the open kitchen. We were given knives and cutting boards. Together, the three of us chopped up the ingredients for spring rolls. Once the filling was combined with the mushrooms, pork, egg, cucumbers, and carrots, the daughter showed us how to filled the round delicate pieces of rice paper. I mastered the process pretty quickly. And again, this is something I could totally make myself! Who knew? Once they were all fried up, we enjoyed eating them. But before I could eat all of them, we were shown to the family’s dining area. We were served about five different dishes. By the time we were done, we were stuffed! Both of us had no idea the tour would include so much food! Soon Nam told us it was time to go, but instead of riding bikes back to the meeting point, he arranged for our driver to pick us up (yay!).
We drove about a half hour and then stopped at a little area where we could see limestone mountains jutting up from water. This was the Van Long Nature Reserve…the inland HaLong Bay. Nam arranged a boat for us, a sampan boat steered by a beast of a small, old lady. Sunia and I climbed down into the boat, and we sailed through the mountains. The ride was peaceful…we saw birds soar around us, heard the pitter patter of drips inside a cave, and admired the limestone formations. We only passed one other boat during our time. But like most things, our ride ended. We met Nam and the driver, and then drove back to Hanoi.
Here’s the thing about Hanoi…it’s a busy city. A city that is colorful and full of life, so it was nice to be able to get out of the noise and chaos of it for the day, and to learn about another way of life.