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Mai Chau

Editors Note: if you work for the DC Dept of Child Protective Services, please stop reading here.  The parenting described herein is, at times, dangerous, illegal, and ill-advised.

Earlier this evening, we went for a ride around the hills surrounding Ban Buoc, Vietnam.  With our guide, Ngoc, leading the pack,  we cruised among rice paddies that glowed bright green even in dusk, the odd patch of sugar cane, and the even odder cornfield. The paddies are just a few weeks from harvest, and look so soft and lush that they dare you to jump in and test whether you’d ever hit the ground.

Ngoc was on a big-kid bike, a real motorcycle, while Alex and I rode much smaller Yamaha motorbikes. Alex had William as her passenger. My crew was Phoebe in front of me, Coco in back.  The growl of Ngoc’s bike gave each village advance notice of our approach, so that by the time we rolled in there was reliably a group of kids ready to give Phoebe the blonde-kid-in-Asia greeting that she has come to expect.  It would be an overstatement to say we were keeping a leisurely pace; Alex and I seemed to be competing to see who could ride slower. This was the first legitimately cool air we had felt since the middle of March, and we were going to make the most of it.  The night, as they say, was just humming.

Things felt very different a couple of days prior.  We had arrived in Hanoi and were using points to stay at the massive Sheraton.  The sterility of the Sheraton, coupled with a stomach bug making its way through our ranks, threatened our group with a solid case of the blahs. I had booked a guided trek to the mountains of Mai Chau, but Alex did some research and found that it was to be a car tour, with lots of car time, and it was clear that would be a tough sell. I am proud to report that our people wanted more adventure, stomach bug be damned.  We soon met a motorbike guide named Thuy who mentioned that her family would be riding out to her sister’s homestay in Mai Chau for the May Day holiday weekend, and invited us along. Just like that, we had an adventure. And a posse:  50% Hanoi, 50% Chevy Chase. 100% Outlaw Biker.*

We first got a taste for motorbikes in Hoi An.  The small city was the perfect place for me and Alex to get a feel for the bikes and for navigating the anarchic flow of Vietnamese traffic.  The kids were stoked for the buzz of riding with the wind in their hair, freed from the tour bus or taxi. The bikes allowed us to take command of our own transportation for the first time in several weeks.  We quickly decided to be OK with putting the kids on the bikes with us at the helm, willfully overcompensating for all that helicopter parenting we had left behind in DC.  I had googled “motorbike” “Vietnam” and “safety” together, learning about concepts like “nullified travel insurance” and other signicant risks, mostly involving bodily harm.  Something told me to keep those results to myself.

Our rendezvous point with Thuy’s family was deep in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a tangle of narrow and insanely busy streets. Wisely, Thuy forbade us from taking the reins until we made it out to the suburbs. We would take command of our bikes on a wide road, about the size of I-66, where two- and four-wheelers share the pavement in a polite version of Survival of the Fittest.  We hit speeds of 35-40 mph, which felt twice as fast on a little motorbike.  Both Alex and I rode with our eyes glued to the pavement, in search of oncoming potholes that could nullify one’s insurance in a heartbeat. As the KMs went by, the roads narrowed and we gradually ascended the base of the mountains that separate Mai Chau from the rest if the world. Eventually, we crested the range and were treated to a spectacular view down into Mai Chau.

The descent was genuine white-knuckle time, as we found ourselves on slick pavement and stuck behind a petrol tanker that was taking it’s sweet time rolling down the mountain.  We passed the truck eventually and were then treated to smooth riding to the homestay.

Alex dodges a buffalo calf

The village of Ban Buoc provided an idyllic contrast to the action of Hanoi.  Villagers greeted us with smiles, and many of the kids seemed eager to practice their English with us.  The locals are members of the White Thai tribe, and seemed to have adapted, I’m not sure how eagerly, to the perfect grid of cement streets that some central planner had laid down in recent years. Thuy’s family welcomed us as well, with a feast and after-dinner dance that ended with Coco downing a few gulps of homemade rice wine.

Situations like negotiating for elbow room with the tanker truck, plus the difficulty of carrying on conversation on the bike, give the amateur rider both lots to think about and plenty of time to think it.  I thought often about the risk factors of our little road trip.  As parents we want our kids to be exposed to risk, learn about responsibility and consequences, and to develop a sense of independence under adverse conditions.  Are we willing to put our own kids in a dangerous position to drive those lessons home?  Today, Alex and I were.  On a more mundane level, we were also motivated by the need to entertain our kids after serving as their camp counselors for the past nine months. Motorbiking around the Vietnamese countryside checked both boxes, but not without an element of real danger.

Another topic I found myself chewing on: June 4th.  Our return to DC is no longer tiptoeing far off on the horizon.  It is now coming straight at us like Clubber Lang approaching the ring in Rocky III. For the kids, I think this means the excitement of returning to friends and the comforts of home, but also the challenges of  new and unconventional school situations.  For their parents, well, I think a big part of us could keep on going.  The trip has featured some very tough moments, but both Alex and I expect to feel the itch to travel more soon after returning home. We skipped South America entirely this time.

Moments like our ride around Ban Buoc this evening certainly don’t help cool that itch.  Night fell and we had to turn for the homestay and dinner, but neither Alex nor I wanted to stop riding.


* It is our understanding that Vietnamese law prohibits foreigners from riding motorbikes.  While this law seems not to be enforced at all, it nevertheless grants us the title of Outlaw Bikers and we are cool with that.

P.S. We made it back safely to Hanoi in what may have been the biggest challenge of the entire trip: motorbiking ourselves deep into the city with only a tiny bit of guidance from Thuy’s crew.

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