Along the highways in the Mekong Delta, often less than a hundred meters from the road, there are peaceful dirt and gravel paths carving through the quiet villages of Southern Vietnam. Winding through tranquil palm forests, striking rice paddies, and riverside fishing holes, they are almost entirely isolated from the ceaseless racket of civilization.
Our goal for today is to spend as much time as possible on these unmarked tertiary tracks. While not a particularly efficient method of routing, they are immeasurably more enjoyable than the alternatives. The trails don't appear on our map, so we're not entirely sure how to find them, but so far, watching for scooters that dart off the highway into the trees seems to do the trick!
After less than three kilometers on a noisy highway, we spot an opening to our right, in the trees, off the main road. Riding up to the gap, we locate a path which barely has space enough for our bicycles. The sense of excitement is palpable as we turn onto the narrow lane. But after some pedaling, our path ends, depositing us in some jungly-looking woods.
Hmmm… should we go left or right? The only thing we're certain of is this: we're not going back to the highway. Without much deliberation, we head down the left branch – it takes us to a palm grove which ends at a house with an unfriendly barking dog. Whoops! More than happy to backtrack, we turn around and try again.
Weaving our way right at the crossroads this time, we find another path which seems to be headed in our general direction. Completely not caring about efficiency or the extra kilometers this might cost us, we're just thrilled to be wending our way through tiny paths and villages of the Mekong delta.This is so much fun!
It must be longan season here in Vietnam, for in every small village we pass, women squat together in open-front buildings, busily snipping large bunches of the fruits into sellable quantities. Normally the ladies return our smiles and waves, but this time, two of them come running out of their workplace to bring us the fruits of their labor! How sweet!
With my handlebar bag stuffed with delicious snacks, and a gaggle of workers giggling about our presence, we thank them for their gifts and carry on, popping a of the few eye-ball like fruits into our mouths as we go. While we could easily buy them (and often do), we're buzzing with happiness about the fact that they've been gifted to us.
Arriving in a small village, we stop for lunch at a place that is either very popular, or the only game in town. The tables are packed, but men in work boots and overalls smile and scoot over to make room for us on a wooden bench. Once we're settled, we order up two plates of what everyone else is having: a ubiquitous dish of grilled meat and rice, garnished with cucumber, tomato, and a little bowl of sweetened spiced fish sauce.
It is delicious. As we eat, a teeny weeny kitty mews for our scraps…
…while a group of kids entertains us, giggling and playing together in a little alleyway between the restaurant and their home. With large broken blocks of styrofoam in hand, the kids sand them gleefully against a gritty cement wall, making a loud sawing *CHHHHSS CHHHHSSS* sound as flecks of snow-like foam rain down on their friends. This lively attempt at creating a winter wonderland is adorable and heartening.
Sadly, the photos of the kids playing don't turn out that well, but this one of the gang's cute ringleader does:
Energized by our meal, we carry on out of town.
Before it's time to re-join the highway (okay, we actually do need to make some headway towards Ho Chi Minh City today), we stop for a photo-taking session in front of some particularly beautiful flowers. The photos don't turn out, but my floral appreciation catches the eye of one woman who lives on the narrow alley we're riding.
She stops for a bit and we admire each others bracelets: hers, a circlet of milky green jade with a flash of copper, mine an elastic strand of wooden beads from Sun's beautiful daughters in Cambodia. After our brief but poignant exchange during which I can't stop thinking of my own grandmother, she smiles and pats my shoulder, then turns away to leave.
With staff and hat in hand, she slowly treads town the path away from us, and I wonder who she is and where she's going and how long she has lived here. I am grateful to have met the graceful lady, grateful we stumbled upon the quiet Vietnamese back roads she calls home.
It is all but certain the paths we've been riding will run out before we reach Ho Chi Minh City. At the very least, they'll likely stray too far from our route to be a viable option. But no matter, whatever Vietnam delivers next, the memory of discovering these tracks by chance, and the rides we enjoyed together here will easily last a lifetime.