So I set off the next morning, just me, a motorbike, a driver and, of course, my backpack wrapped in layers of waterproof tarp and strapped on the back of the bike. We left at 8 am, and in just a few minutes we were out on the open road.
The first leg of the trip was on a local highway that wound through villages and rice paddies that were framed by mountains. The sun beat down on me, but the breeze was enough to keep me cool. Already, after about 10 minutes, there wasn't a sign of tourists or tourism, or English, for that matter, unless you count the occasional shouted commentary coming from my guide/driver, Mr. H.
An hour outside the city, we stopped at a village Mr. H. introduced as the Chicken Village. It has a giant (and I mean giant) statue of a chicken in the middle of what would normally be another small, rural minority village. Now, it's in the tour books and part of some package day tours. And the reason has less to do with chickens than one would think.
The story goes something like this. Years ago, a young woman and a young man fell in love. They wanted to get married, and their parents agreed, but the man's father had one condition. He was a cock fighter, and he told the woman to go up into the hills to catch him a rooster to fight with. She did as he asked, but after weeks of searching, she couldn't find anything. Instead of coming back to admit defeat, she killed herself. Her lover went up into the hills to find her, found her, and died of a broken heart. So, in an obviously relevant move, the government gave the village a statue of a giant chicken in commemoration.
My guide showed me around the village, and told me about how the people lived and farmed. Some of the villagers greeted us, shouting "hello!" out of doorways. I met one woman who was undergoing the traditional treatment for the flu, which was blood-letting from little pinches in the neck. Leaving her neck spotted with purple welts. She told me "If I did not do this, I would die." Well. Next time I have the flu, I'll take that under advisement.
Then we started what I like to call "Vietnamese Cottage Industries 101." In other words, when my guide stopped at random houses where he happened to know that people produce some kind of homemade goods. The alternate title for this course is "Microeconomics of Developing Asian Countries," but that's a little pretentious. I obviously had a lot of time of think on the back of that bike.
Anyway, the first stop of whatever you want to call it was a temple where I learned how they make incense. Which is pretty cool. They make this dough-like substance out of sandlewood, sawdust and other aromatic substances, then roll it onto thin bamboo sticks, then lay them all out into the sun to dry.
Let's see, what else did I learn how to make/grow that day? Mushrooms (which is a pretty cool process involving complex marshmallow-looking bags of stuff hung under a tent from which mushrooms grow like deformed ears), separating the good rice from the bad rice when you pick it (pour it onto a tarp in front of a fan- the good stuff falls down, the bad stuff blows off the tarp) and smashing up leaves from the forest for dinner with a seriously gigantic mortar and pestle.
At the last minority village of the day, after crossing an awfully sketchy bridge, we were invited into a communal longhouse for a drink. The sun was setting, and most of the village was gathering for a party- a celebration of a good rice harvest, with, of course, homemade rice wine.
The host was an ancient man, a former interpreter for the Americans during The War, who seemed to not have spoken English since. Which made him all the more enthusiastic to speak English, but not any more comprehensible. So, I drank the rice wine, and learned a few things about partying, villager style.
1) Everyone drinks the same amount of wine, so as to promote equality, but
2) The men and women sit on different sides of the room.
3) A direct quote from my host-- "When we have a party, we don't eat. We drink. Because when everybody drinks, we can all know each other more." I like his thinking.
4) There's no chance of anyone drunk driving, but drunk walking over sketchy bridges is only slightly safer.
That night, I slept in a longhouse in another village on the side of a lake. I sat on the porch and watched it rain in the twilight, as all kinds of free-range farm animals sought cover under the houses and kids ran around under umbrellas. Then, I slept soundly under a mosquito net.