Bike trip to Phat Diem Cathedral

by Ben Bangs, Oct 26, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

It was a simple enough idea, if a little offbeat: A good friend who plied the "Xo Om" (motorcycle taxi) trade in downtown Ha Noi would take me to the church at which his family worshipped, and then home for a bit of home cooking, R&R and down-home Vietnamese family life. But first, we'd do Ha Long Bay by motorbike!

We were two kids high on spunk, but near empty on basic geography, so we headed not for Quanh Ninh province, but through Hai Duong toward Hai Phong on the kind of "road" which can only be called that because every type of vehicle ever created plied it - at speeds meant to usher in the afterlife without further ado! With no protective gear of any kind, we drove like this for two days straight. Wherever we stayed, it wasn't even memorable enough to recount here. When we finally got to Hai Phong we billeted at one of the dorm-type places Lonely Planet warns foreigners against as being too grotty even for backpackers - cold showers and roach-infested mattresses only, in rooms occasionally rented out by the hour. Hai Phong actually has a rather nice downtown, but don't see it like this!

But first we had to get there. Our first stop was in Hai Duong province, at a place selling the nationwide favorite called Banh Dau Xanh Hai Duong (Hai Duong Green Bean Treats), a delectable pick-me-up which melts in your mouth more reliably than M&Ms, though for the less adventurous, these have (like all other junk food) inevitably crept into the local market - at least in Viet Nam's cities. Our second stop was along the road in the middle of nowhere - to oblidge a local thug.

"Can you help us? We're out of gas", my friend implored over my protests to wait for a car or truck to come by.

"Sure", the kid said.

Only ten miles later did it become evident reciprocity was both expected and demanded: We would suffer bodily harm if we didn't fork over! In a futile gesture of defiance, I handed a 50,000 dong note (about $3.50US) to my friend saying with as much bravado as I could muster: "Do what you think is best". We escaped with only our pride the worse for wear.

In Hai Phong I had an interview with an outfit which said it needed English teachers to train local doctors. It wasn't exactly a power breakfast, though. The interview went swimmingly until the man across from me asked me which state I had my teaching credential from.

"Well, I don't teach in public school".

"How can you teach if you're not a teacher"?

With my career in English for special purposes scuttled before it began, my friend and I found a tour headed for Ha Long. We did both the standard tour and a trip to Cat Ba Island, making sure to do nothing the whole time but swim, eat and sleep. Cat Ba is OK, but not nearly the tourist haven you'd be forgiven for thinking it was by reading Vietnamese tourist literature. Like most places whose visitor attraction is nothing more than the "We Want Your Money" hard sell, there are too many touts, too much development and too little secluded island beauty here - as indeed almost anywhere it's safe to go in this area (some of it is doubtless used for smuggling, still other areas for fleeing the country by boat years after the last refugee program in the West closed its doors. Two days later, we were back in Ha Noi.

Some time afterwords, my friend renewed his pitch for a sojourn south. He lived "near Nam Dinh", which in Vietnamese really means "somewhere within two hundred miles". We started late in the morning; as sunset approached, we were just cresting the last rise before our destination: Phat Diem Cathedral, seat of the Catholic church in what used to be called North Viet Nam.

I had a hardcore case of Bicycle Bottom at this point, so I didn't notice how truly fabulous and well conceived this place was until we started looking around, and out came a man I took to be a caretaker. Like most Vietnamese, he was first shocked, then pleased I could speak his language, and he started giving me the tour of a lifetime - the One on One special of one of Viet Nam's architectural highlights - with my friend interjecting little tidbits about me for our host's benefit ("Been here five times, spoke Vietnamese since 1991, not yet marred). At the end of the tour, my new friend autographed a copy of the little booklet the church usually sells to tourists (though he wouldn't hear of my paying a dong for it). These are great little gems of multilingual hit-and-miss, usually with nice pictures. You won't find them on sale at bookstores; grap one, and pay gladly. They're worth it.

After we left my friend confided in me. The man we had met had been no ordinary caretaker. Being a Protestant, don't trust me to get his title right, but suffice it to say had I written from abroad asking for an interview, it might not have been granted! The book still enjoys pride of place in my Asian collection at home. I still don't remember my tour guide's name, though!

After this, the sun really had set, and we had just minutes before the only light on the road would come from stars, cooking fires and the very occasional headlight - just before the truck it was attached to slammed into you. If you remember nothing else about long distance motorbike transport in Viet Nam, remember this: DON'T DO IT AT NIGHT! Luckily, my friend lived just around the corner - which was of course why this was his parish church.

That evening we were warmly welcomed by my friend's family, and served the kind of meal only foreign currency will buy in the capital, all the ingredients (from backyard produce to home raised mussels and homemade rice noodles) as fresh as that afternoon's impromptu harvest in honor of our arrival (xe om boys usually only get to go home for Tet). Next day my friend's father introduced me to Nam Dinh's version of "che dau xanh", a HOT version of the ubiquitous mung bean desert which really does cool you down. Another bit of advice about staying cool I learned that day: No matter how hot it is out, find some shade to stand in. "Your blood will retreat away from your skin, so you'll stay cooler", I was assured by a peasant who with no education beyond primary school clearly knew more than an American college graduate about basic science and anatomy. In the afternoon, we started back for Ha Noi. I would have stayed a week, but most Vietnamese sleep on bamboo mats without cushions underneath, have no air-con and sometimes pass down torn mosquito nets from generation to generation. As sad as I was to go, my friend could just about have killed me! Some vacation!

Having started as late as we did, driving in the dark was inevitable. Stopping along the way for gas and directions (and for me to ask a woman shepherding a water buffalo what she was doing in her own language) usually got grunts and shrugs. Out here people are wary of foreigners, and I was advised to go "home" (to Ha Noi) and join a tour group, the one time to date somebody had not jumped out of their seat at my faltering Vietnamese abilities.

The thunderstorm came on us with as much warning as monsoon downpours usually do: none. Before we knew it, we had skidded out of control and been thrown from the bike. Incredibly, the worst injury either of us sustained was to my slacks, which quickly became shorts upon my return to the big city. I still think it was a miracle the Russian-built truck coming straight toward us swerved in time.

Still more miraculously, its inhabitants (a couple of twenty-something freight carriers) gave my siphoned off some gas for my friend, and took me back to my Ha Noi guesthouse. We laughed away the ninety minute return trip to Ha Noi like old chums, and they didn't remark on my Vietnamese skills either, though we spoke not a word of English.

If this story has a moral, it is to not rush anything in Viet Nam. Especially when you are invited by a regular person to their home in the countryside, the gods do not look favorably upon attempts to trade up in accommodation facilities. Push the pace at your own risk. Or relax, unwind and let yourself be treated to one of Asia's most spectacular experiences: a trip back home with a local. Give this outing the respect it deserves: It's the trip of a lifetime!

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