A story written by Mariana Pateraki. Photographer: Odysseas Mourtzouchos
Mariana is a traveller from Greece who enjoys exploring, observing and writing and her goal is to keep her youthful spirit and always search for more. Last Easter she was travelling in Vietnam where she experienced the simplicity of the Vietnamese lifestyle at a slow pace as well as the magnificent scenery of the Southeastern Asian nature. So this is her story…
I felt like I was in a hidden little utopia, surrounded with butterflies the size of my fist, turquoise feathered birds and people living like children, bestowing us with a yellow-teethed goodbye smile. This travel gave me a serene sense of continuity and eternity and in the role of an active observer, breathing slowly without further expectations or plans, I absorbed with all my senses and hope I can make you travel with me…
THE VIETNAMESE PEOPLE: The image of peasant women collecting rice, wearing conical hats are vividly imprinted in my memories. The women’s beautiful black uncut hair, their polite gestures, the patterned clothing and heavy jewelry hanging from their stretched ears, their innocent kind eyes and childish laughs all made me feel welcomed. People in the streets were looking at us full of curiosity, girls approached us timidly with strapped babies on their backs and touched my blondish hair, kids ran after our bikes waving their little hands, locals took us to their houses offering tea. A country that has survived three wars, colonialism and communism seemed to me to be very optimistic, open minded and conscious about the times ahead.
HANOI: The capital and second largest city, Hanoi, navigated our first morning through the traffic-congested fast lanes of motorbikes and streets with no names. As Hans Kemp claimed in his collection of photographs ‘the bikes of burden’, the motorbikes stand still as the backbone of their economy. They are used as the fastest transportation, carrying animals, goods, five member families, bamboo trees and the like always surprising the passer by with the balance acquired. Their obsession for the use of fresh ingredients for each meal is secured by the continuous transportation from the fields to the kitchens.
However, experimenting with Vietnamese cuisine with plates like cobra snake, deer blood, cats and dogs can seem harsh for a western stomach and food poisoning should be hardly avoided. Apart from that, the direct relation of the fresh product to the consumer, where most animals are killed in back yards and later served with rice noodles and vegetables picked from the fields made the meals feel like a whole ritual.
The North West loop bike ride: Renting bikes and a local tour guide made this part of the trip more smoothly to blend in and offered a more insightful approach to the culture, from our guide’s explanations and stories. Felt at times like I am in a documentary and I could stop, rewind and zoom in when I chose. The ethnic mosaic of the population I witnessed from Vietnamese and ethnic minorities, was a portrait of wild raw beauty. The little villages and the simplicity of their way of living in contrast with the richness of their land made cities far less intriguing in my mesmerized eyes. The route started from Hanoi to Mai Chau, to Son La, to Dien Bien to Lai Chau and last at Sa Pa. Including overnight stays in traditional Thai stilt houses where they cooked for us, danced and drank with us. I strongly advise a visit to a salon in Sa Pa for an aggressive traditional style massage, which will leave you refreshed and completely relaxed.
HUE: Bananas and coffee for breakfast, noodle soups and shrimp for dinner, sugar cane juices and endless shots of ‘happy water’ (rice wine). Hue, is a small picturesque imperial capital with explicit tombs and ruins to visit, where you see how the monks practise their beliefs. It is probable to be woken up six o’clock in the morning, with classical music playing through the town’s general sound system, followed by regional news and announcements.
HALONG BAY: After sleeping in trains, riding through unpaved roads and taking a small boat we reached a hidden utopia, Halong Bay, which according to the myth means ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’.The gulf of Tonkin contains caves and lagoons and around 3000 small islands rising from the waters. It is a World Heritage site and is the most mystical and pictographic place I have ever been to. Although you can choose a relaxed boat cruise through the bay, you could instead rent a kayak, which permits you to explore the caves and rocks at your own rhythm. We also did mountain bike in Cat Ba, stayed in a bamboo hut with no electricity, watched the monkeys chase around, swam among jelly fish, hiked in the jungle -mud on our hands and knees, falling down trying to avoid bees, collected rare corals and seashells, got stung by mosquitoes with the size of my fist, saw eagles making circles over our heads, put tropical flowers in my hair.
What did you learn from this trip? After this trip, returning to the gray Babylon was hard. No colors or smiles , no sunshine nor the feeling that the people near you are co-pilots through your journey. I immediately thought of the Vietnamese people and somehow my problems were irrelevant to life. They led a simple and poor life and yet they did not seem sad or deprived, they were there, cultivating their land, bringing up their children, holding their traditions. I keep their smiles with me,as a memory in my pocket…