Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown…
Up shit’s creek with a paddle
We woke the next morning at a homestay to the splendor of the natural park. We’d driven in after dark so we had no idea how beautiful the place was until that morning.
Bac Hop (Uncle Hop, Mr. Hop, or, as I like to remember him, Ol’ Hop) and his wife (We called her Mama Hop, or Ba, even though we probably should have called her Bac, were laying out banana pancakes and coffee for us on the giant raised porch that overlooked the last of Pac Ngoi, a Tay village, before the vast green wilds of the park.
The village is at the beginning of a long valley mostly taken up by Ba Be Lake. On the edges of the lake are a few villages, Pac Ngoi being the luckiest because it has about a dozen acres of rice paddies in the swamp below the mountains before the lake begins.
But on all sides are mountains and from all sides a gorgeous fog appears to be perpetually about to roll in over the peaks. The rice paddies are also beautiful, not unlike cubist Picasso, like Tetris pieces or legos interspersed here and there with some trees, a single plot of corn or hemp…
We’d stayed up the night before drinking beers on the same veranda, promising each other we’d get up for the sunrise and I now wished we’d done that instead of getting drunk and sleeping in.
Either way, we did get up in time for the banana pancakes, which at Ol’ Hop’s house in Pac Ngoi are more like banana crepe-donuts, and they were delicious with the coffee and a cigarette and a little thuoc lao mixed with a little medicine and Bob Marley/Peter Tosh...
We split our three days in Ba Be into different modes of transportation. The first day, with asses sore from all the driving, was the walk day (“my feet is my only carriage, my feet is my only courage”). The second day we decided to paddle and the third day we planned to drive.
On walking day, we rambled out the door onto the village road that goes about a quarter of the way around the giant lake. We were above the lake in the foothills and above us were more mountains.
We passed a few vistas and small villages with tiny wharfs onto the lake. At one point kids swimming naked in a creek invited us to join but we declined for no particular reason and followed a footpath into an expanse of cornfields instead.
On the other side of the fields was a giant grassy meadow where buffaloes were grazing. The tiny path led us to a tiny hut at the foot of the grazing fields with two bicycles parked out front and two girls inside, 9 and 7 years old.
Two girls play a rock game called “peh” between a corn field and buffalo grazing grounds near Pac Ngoi Village in Ba Be National Park in the northern province of Bac Kan. Photo: Olof
When I say hut, it’s not really a hut but a lean-to about 4 feet tall with a leaf roof over it, no walls. It’s like a rest/play hut. The girls were playing peh, an incredible game where from the sitting position a set of rocks are thrown into the air, and another set picked up from the ground before catching the falling rocks, all with only one hand.
The young girls sat on flattened cardboard boxes on the grass and were silent with friendly non-smiles. They looked as though they may have been some mythical child-goddesses playing there quietly for eternity.
When I invited myself to play, they both beat the shit out of me. Again, it had looked so easy, but wasn't at all. All you have to do is throw rocks in the air and catch them while sitting, but I couldn't do it.
Done there, we moseyed back to a dirt road where we stumbled on a wedding party in the making. A bunch of 20 year old dudes who looked twelve were getting shithammered on rice wine in front of a tent blaring techno, inside of which people were setting up chairs.
Out back, women hunkered over fires and giant boiling cauldrons and it smelled delicious. The 19-year-old groom (who looked 15) and his father came outside and invited us to drink rice moonshine, so we also got a bit hammered.
An incredible Pocahontas-like hippie girl walked up with a bandana headband, bell-bottom hill tribe pajama pants and a tank-top. I’d never seen anything like that.
When we left she told us to come back for the wedding party that night, but we ended up getting drunk on the veranda and eating Ms. Hop’s stir-fried beef instead.
After we left the drunken wedding pre-party we walked back along the lake road as the sun went down behind us. Shirts and shoes off for most of the way, we eventually ran into a group of four young girls we ended up calling The Flower Posse because one of them was carrying a lone daisy delicately and dedicatedly in her fingers—her hands barely touched it.
They were between 7 and 11 years old, H’Mong girls from a village 30 kilometers away. Every Sunday they walked the 30 kilometers to Pac Ngoi to go to school.
They stayed there in a boarding house until Saturday, when they then walked back for a night with their families. Now it was Friday afternoon and they were enjoying a bit of di choi, di dao in a way that Olof and I could never imagine.
There wasn’t a complaint among them, only smiles at the strange lives Olof and I seemed to be living. We walked and chatted with them for a bit and then got back to Ol’ Hop’s place and had some thuoc lao with him and some young tour guides and then drank beer and played Neil young records to the delight of the old-person (my parents’ age) French group that was also there staying with Ol’ Hop.
They were hunched over their cameras and a bottle of brandy.
The next day we got up early and spent the morning trying to convince Ol’ Hop, his wife and the rest of the village – who had to be consulted on the matter – to give us a boat with no motor and let us paddle around the lake.
Each new person we talked to said “you know how to paddle?” and we said yes, being confident in our summers rowing canoes around lakes near home.
Ol’ Hop asked us the same question seven times up until the point we were getting in the rectangular metal slab that barely floated—his friend had arranged it for us.
Hop’s friend had asked the question three times in about three minutes. We laughed at them but the fact was that these slabs were nothing like canoes.
We got about 5-10% of the way to the island pagoda at the other side of the lake that we had wanted to visit and I was already sore and dehydrated, having nearly run out of our two liters of water.
We’d mostly been paddling in circles to the delight of the French who passed us by in their motorboat. Olof wanted to keep going but I told him I was in no shape to do so.
There was a small wharf with a beer stand within a distance we could reach so I told him we’d rest there for a minute, all the while devising a plan to drink beer there and break the news to him that if he wanted to go on, he’d have to go on alone.
Once there, we opened the cold bottles with a family that was cooking a delicious fish-saucy fried-fish lunch in a house on stilts over the water with children running around the place like animals.
I told Olof that if he didn’t want to go on alone, I’d call up Ol’ Hop and have his friend pick up the boat here for a small fee. And that’s exactly what happened, except, of course, it was his wife that picked up the boat, not his friend. Standing at the back, she paddled with one ore swiftly, deftly.
We had ironically taken some of the most beautiful pictures of the trip in the middle of the lake there. They look like we are in the most beautiful remote region of the world, true explorers, our muscles showing in white skin up against the dark blue of the lake and greens of the towering mountains ahead and behind and all around.
I hated to give Olof such a disappointment so early in the trip, but I knew he would soon not be disappointed. After a beer or two in the heat, we understood that it is indeed fantastic to not see lakes and not see pagodas if that’s the way the cornbread crumbles...
We had to walk the same way from the wharf back to Hop’s. Exhausted, hot and a little bit drunk, I made the executive decision that we would walk down the very next path to the lake for a skinny dip.
We turned off the road and walked down to a small beach and as my clothes came off, Olof’s girlfriend called him from Sweden. They skyped while I swam out as far as I could go before losing my breath and getting scared and slowly floating back, lightheaded and on my back, looking up at the incredible 360 that surrounded me: the mountains, the paddies, the fog-mist, the small houses in the village, buffalos on the shore.
We had ironically taken some of the most beautiful pictures of the trip in the middle of the lake there. They look like we are in the most beautiful remote region of the world, true explorers, our muscles showing in white skin up against the dark blue of the lake and greens of the towering mountains ahead and behind and all around."
When I got back to the beach, Olof was slowly and coyly taking off his clothes and I could tell that not all things were right. The skinny dip is a joyous celebration but he was just going through the motions.
As we waded out a tiny bit together he told me she’d said she wasn’t sure about anything. It’s something she’s given him before and I don’t think it hurts any less as time goes on.
A boat of Russians trying to pull in broke down where we swam and we watched as its poor captain paddled the thing in by hand. They floated by silently and then we got out of the water and went back to Ol’ Hop’s for dinner.
The French were huddled around their cameras again, reminding me of my parents again, who I hadn’t so much as called in 6 months, while we huddled around the beer and Neil Young and “Country Roads, take me home” (both Toots and John Denver) and asked Ol’ Hop and his wife about their family.
They didn’t say much. 6 kids, all married and working elsewhere except the youngest son who helped out around the house but was never seen.
We had another feast: stir fried beef with onions and tomatoes, French fries, stir fried greens, boiled greens, soy sauce, fish sauce and fresh chilies, boiled sprouts, Vietnamese perfect rice...and it was another night of singing and humming along with the beer, and the more beer we had, the funkier the music got (Kenneth Boothe to Nigerian Reggae) and then there was the thuoc lao bong, a joint and lamenting our girlfriends.
Olof was worried his girlfriend was having a fuckfest in Amsterdam. My girlfriend was worried that I was having a fuckfest on the road, and I was worried that she wasn’t having one on her trip to China.
I thought that a little extra-distance extra-fucking would be good for the both of us. But I can’t say she’d leapt at the idea. Either way, the road, contrary to what my friends say, has never been a real fuckfest for me.
On the road again
The next day, we went out driving. Olof wanted to go to a waterfall but I told him I wanted to cut out on my own.
He’d been good about this the whole trip, dealing with my need for spontaneous and absolute alone time. I could tell he’d rather have a companion for his trip to the falls, but he let me take off with a smile anyway.
I wanted to go find the bridge girl again, alone, then drive down some random dirt roads, alone, and then find the hippie girl again, alone. I drove the 40 minutes to the bridge and the girl predictably wasn’t there, but I wasn’t disappointed because the roads were beautiful.
On the way back I started turning down dirt roads left and right, most of them veered off the main road over a creek or two and into villages that flanked the main road and crossed bodies of water, maybe up a hill and then back over the creeks to the main road.
They were incredible roads and fantastic villages. Some of them dead-ended into lovely village-hut cul de sacs, a dog here or there, a bike, stacks of wood, some vegetables and fruit, maybe a fire and smoke, very old and very young people mingling together, children being force-fed things...
At the end of the most beautiful road, a small path turned off to a small bridge that led back to the paved road. On the bridge were an old lady and a young woman. The old lady told me I’d just turned around at her house at the end of one of the nearby cul de sacs.
“Come in for dinner,” she said. “Stay the night.”
“Yeah,” said the young girl. “Stay the night.”
I wanted to take her up on the offer but instead I mumbled something barely discernable about having to meet my friend and sped off.
I wanted to go back to the wedding house and ask about the hippie girl but when I got there it looked like the scene of a disaster, a barren house abandoned during wartime, junk and garbage strewn everywhere and not a drunk reveler or old lady tending a cauldron in sight, let alone a strange hippie girl.
I turned down the next dirt path, room for a single tire only on dry mud. I went around a corner and went over a hill and all of a sudden there was nothing but the path, fields on hills, and a hut or two in the distance.
No signs of running water or electricity or construction. No villages. The slow drive was mesmerizing weaving in and out of corn paths and over rice paddies on those tiny clay walkways and over a couple of handmade bridges with whole sections missing and whole other sections wobbly and loose.
I came to a small river crossing and was unsure about whether to cross it or not on the bike – it was getting late and the sun was going down and the water was high.
But then two fellows who looked like they were hauling illegal lumber sped by on Chinese Honda Dreams and went through the water and up the ensuing mud hill with ease. If they could do it, so could I, and so I did it.
On the other side, they followed a larger path and I followed a smaller one that looked like a foot path and it led me to a dramatic valley and absolute silence.
I never felt more isolated or happy. Parts of the valley had been farmed, but there was only this one path I was on. Not a soul. Not a hut. Just mountains, and the stream I crossed, and rice and corn and this incredible sky that opened up slowly like a flower in bloom when I turned the engine off.
The beauty was so immense and vast and alone that it hurt I had to run away. I kickstarted the bike and drove back to Ol’ Hop’s as fast as I could. I made sure we got the hell out of Ba Be as early as possible the next morning.