This blog post is dedicated to sharing a handful of positive and uplifting stories from the two weeks I spent cycling in Vietnam. Unlike the news which seems to bombard us with negativity, I'm here to tell you what an awesome world we live in. So sit back, sip a cup of tea, and have your faith in humanity restored.
Not your normal Cafe lunch
What would you do if a strange, creepy guy stormed into your house and demanded food? Well... I was that strange, creepy guy.
A Vietnamese sign hung outside a building which I thought indicated it was a cafe. I walked in, plugged my laptop and powerbank in to charge, gestured that I wanted food, and a huge portion because I was very hungry, and sat down to write my diary. I must have looked like I was moving in.
I didn't have to wait long. Many dishes of food were spread across the floor and a dozen people appeared from a back room. It was at this moment that I realised my mistake; I wasn't in a cafe but actually a family home. I braved an embarrassed glance around the room, but the family seemed to be acting as if a white foreigner strolling into their house for Thursday lunch was completely normal.
Perhaps surprisingly, lunch with the family was a pleasant affair, especially considering no-one spoke a word of English or understood why there was a strange white guy sitting in their living room, eating their food. The mother continued piling food onto my plate. When I tried to leave after lunch, both thankful and apologetic, I was (easily) persuaded to stay until 3pm because it was too hot. Instead, we went swimming in a nearby river, took an afternoon nap in hammocks, and I was given a much-needed haircut.
Finally they invited me to stay for the night. They still hadn't questioned why I was there so I used the Google Translate app to explain the confusion. They erupted into laughter as if they had been wondering why I was there all day.
I ended up sharing a bed with the eldest son. I left the next morning after a hearty breakfast, and a new strategy whenever I was hungry; to stroll into a random house, demanding food, with all the conviction that I belonged there.
A Night with the Police
On one side of the road the land fell away to a river, and on the other, giant cliffs rose up. There was nowhere to camp so I forced aching legs to pedal harder, beginning to panic as night gathered.
On a small area of flat land, I spotted an isolated police station, a bizarre distance from any civilisation or potential crime. I approached the two officers drinking tea outside (obviously not much crime this evening), and gestured that I wanted to sleep there. There was a perfect, inviting, tent-sized patch of grass which I had my eye on.
One policeman frowned, and explained that the guesthouse was only 15 kilometres away. “No. No. Tent. Tent.” I stuttered, exasperated, flicking rapidly through my phone to reveal pictures of my tent, and pointing at the grass. I put my hands together under my head, the universal gesture for sleep which transcends all language barriers, and added noisy snoring for comic effect. I rubbed weary legs and scrunched my face up to emphasise my tiredness. The thought of cycling further appalled me, so out of desperation I was launching every strategy I had at them.
I was just preparing to collapse at his feet in a most theatrical manner, when he consented that I may sleep there. Even better, he led me to the station and proposed that I might prefer a bed. With a childish grin of excitement, he added that I would be in the bed beside his; he seemed delighted to have me there, an exciting break from routine, I guess.
I was directed to a nearby river, soap and shampoo was thrust into my hand, while they prepared dinner for the three of us. A tree blocked the line of sight from the police station so I got naked and let my body sink into the river's coolness and wash away the day's sweat. It is surprising how fast a situation can change when travelling by bike; just 20 minutes before, it was the cusp of dusk and I had nowhere to sleep, and now I was soaking in a river, a bed, a meal and company for the night all guaranteed. That was something to celebrate!
This was Vietnam, so dinner naturally meant heavy drinking as well as eating. Every few mouthfuls of food the chinking of glasses interrupted the meal, and I unwillingly slurped the potent liquid, before shovelling as much food into my mouth as possible until I was called upon to drink again. For their smaller stature, the Vietnamese it turns out, can drink. And thus, the night ended with full bellies, swirling heads, and much laughter. It was my first night sleeping in a police station, and I would recommend it to all; I received better hospitality from the police than you would expect from a fine hotel.
Ahead I saw the colourful canvas of a marquee and heard the terrible, drunken karaoke only found at weddings. Jackpot! I slowed my pace, partly from curiosity to observe the festivities, but equally to give them time to see me, and hopefully call me over. A warm smile and a flirty wave for good measure, and sure enough, several guests beckoned me over.
I sat at a table beside the bride's sister who happened to be an English teacher. Travelling in a country where you don't speak the language can be simultaneously mysterious and frustrating, as you witness bizarre ceremonies and sights you may never understand. Having an English speaker answer all my questions about the wedding and Vietnam, while encouraging me to eat more, is my favourite kind of travelling.
I became something of a celebrity, as the bride and groom rushed over to take a selfie with me, while a man from a neighbouring table presented a duck leg to me as a sign of respect. A cheer went up for me to entertain the 200+ revellers on the karaoke, and two queues formed at my table; one of women who wanted to take a selfie with me (wahey!), and one of men who wanted to shake my hand, and chug a beer with me (oh dear!). Seeing the sequence of selfies, each with a beer reluctantly downed in between, might be rather amusing.
Countless photos (and countless beers) later, I pedalled away, slightly wobbly, my bags overflowing with enough food to feed a small family for 3 weeks, or a touring cyclist for two days.
I am convinced my superhero power is getting invited to weddings – this was my 6th in 6 months, spread across 4 countries. Feasting on food and dancing... hey, that's not a bad superpower!
He with less, gives more
With only two days left on my visa I had had no option but to cycle through the downpour to reach the border on time. Now I was soaked. The rain lashed my squinting eyes and saturated clothes showing no sign of stopping. Camping was not attractive.
'Hello, where do you go?' a voice called out. An interaction, a glimmer of hope! 'I look... for somewhere... to sleep,' I spoke slowly so I would be understood, my words accompanied by exaggerated motions of scanning the horizon and sleeping. 'Hotel?' he observed, pointing back down the road. It was a sensible suggestion. I had seen the hotel half a kilometre back, but even in my uncomfortable state I wouldn't allow myself to resort to the comfort of a hotel. I rubbed invisible money between my thumb and forefinger, explaining that a hotel was too expensive, and I would rather camp.
I hadn't even finished my sentence when he broke into a smile, and commanded me 'Okay, you sleep at my house tonight.' Though I have slept in the house of hundreds of strangers, my appreciation has never diminished. It takes massive trust to invite someone into your personal space, and with little benefit except helping out.
The house was basic; the kind where a single outdoor toilet was shared with several other houses, and was locked from inside using a spare chopstick; and the house had only two small rooms, a bedroom, in which my host shared the only bed with his wife and two children, and a kitchen/shower. On the mud floor of the kitchen sat a big metal bucket which had clothes soaking in soapy water, while another besides it had cutlery and pots waiting to be washed up. I went for a shower, which meant filling a bucket with water, cold of course, and using a smaller container to pour water over my head. I highlight all this not to complain at all, but to emphasise how extraordinary the hospitality I received was.
I insisted on sleeping on the floor with my sleeping mat – that was still better than camping – but they would hear none of that. A guest sleeping on their floor was unthinkable. A spare bed was located and carried in from a neighbour's house for me. I began to hand wash my clothes, but they took them and put them in the washing machine, ignoring my protestations. Remember, they didn't even use the washing machine for their own clothes, presumably it was more expensive than hand-washing. Dinner was a feast, with 5 dishes laid out for me.
I always say I learn a lesson from everyone I meet. As we had breakfast the next morning, we were having a conversation using Google Translate. He had said how happy everyone must be in England with so much money, and I told him that although that seems logical, people in Asia seemed far happier, with more time with their family and friends, better work-social balances, simpler lives, and less stress. His reply, his perception of happiness, is profound, and challenged some of the ideas as to what I need to be happy.
'A happy person is having a wife cook dinner after work. After work, spend time with children. I come home, hug my wife, kiss my children and go to sleep. No money, no problem.'
In some ways, the hospitality I received in Vietnam made me uncomfortable. I have only shared 4 stories with you when I could have shared many, many more. And Vietnam is just one country in a long line of many. It is clear I owe an overwhelming debt to the World that I can never fully repay, and to be in that position I am thankful; I will do my best to pass on what has come my way. While the headlines are gripped by the huge negative stories, it is these tiny, unnoticed acts of kindness, happening all the time, that make the world the good place it is.