Mai Chai: Destination Unknown
The engine splutters as it carries us far away from civilization. These two wheels have made this trip hundreds of times over, and so has my driver who guides the two-hour motorbike journey in flip flops — one of the tamer sights in Vietnam, the motorbike capital of the world. With no idea exactly when or where the final destination is, I have absolutely no desire to ask. We are somewhere in rural Mai Chau, Northern Vietnam, traversing miles upon miles of gravel roads and dirt tracks, gradually climbing from the low region to the high.
The district is close enough to Hanoi for a weekend trip but remote enough to allow visitors a snapshot of a simpler time. The historic town is known for many ancient traditions, including Xoe dancing, loom weaving, and teeth blackening — a rite of passage denoting a married woman. Where the low region offers a quaint glimpse of idyllic village life, from domestic living in stilted bamboo houses to straw-roofed eco-lodges, the high is better known for its breathtaking mountain vistas and terraced paddy fields. Maneuvering lesser-travelled roads, we’re flanked by mossy green mountains hugged by a thin mist, the humid afternoon sun beaming down overhead. We’re heading for one of those mountains, but which exactly isn’t clear.
After an hour of driving, a burst of colour interrupts the natural surroundings as we enter a tiny town. Designed to encourage passers-by to stop and wander, a bustling Sunday market spills out from covered stalls onto the cracked pavements. Bright yellow typography sits against red polyester banners, advertising everything from fresh produce to motorcycle parts to haircuts. Women sit on tiny plastic stools in front of the week’s yield, shielded from the harsh sun by a rainbow of parasols. As quickly as we can appreciate the micro market’s charm, we’re out the other side and flying through a tunnel of towering, arched trees. As the infrastructure becomes makeshift and the winding tracks more rough, there’s a sense our destination is nearing. The motorbike’s tyres, of which the ridges and grooves are almost entirely worn away, struggle with the demands of the roads. It’s our cue to pause next to an offbeat paddy field — jagged, unsymmetrical, pristine pear green.
Enchanted by the imperfect beauty, a sudden blur of white skims the corner of my vision. Butterflies. Thousands of puddling butterflies perching in the rich minerals of the irrigation overflow. Unphased by my presence, I stand in their serene formation, soft, gentle flutters all around me. It’s a perfect moment of stillness in an otherwise raucous journey. The silence of the moment is louder than the persistent drone of the engine that’s numbed my eardrums. Eventually we retreat, clambering back onto the motorbike and pressing on through the afternoon humidity, climbing higher in altitude. The mountain paths we were once chasing are now beneath the wheels. It feels like we’re getting close. I wonder if we’re nearly there yet. But I really hope we’re not.