Jesse Meadows heads to the countryside and encounters that part of Vietnamese culture we so often tend to forget; hospitality. At Tho Ha she experienced it in abundance
When searching for day trips, it’s easy to get bogged down in the lake/mountain destination combo. They’re everywhere around Hanoi (throw in a pagoda and you've got yourself a day trip). But I wanted to go somewhere different, so we set off for a small village on a peninsula in the Cau River called Tho Ha.
It’s a straight shot north across the Chuong Duong Bridge, about 40 kilometres from the city. Once you reach the city of Bac Ninh, resist the strange octagonal fortress that you will very much want to explore (it’s a military college, and a man with a big gun will turn you away), and instead go left around it, towards the river.
The city will give way to rice paddies and lotus ponds, and you’ll have to look hard down the alleys until you find one with a sign spray-painted on the bricks: Ben Do Van Tho Ha. Kick your bike into neutral and ride the brake down the steep ramp to the ferry dock. A mere VND3,000 will get you across the river to the village on the other side.
We made a friend on our ferry ride; a woman named My Phuong who had recently returned from Saigon to her hometown on the peninsula. She was happy to be back, she said, and was eager to show us her favourite place in town; the pagoda. We followed her straight off the ferry into the village, before she waved goodbye and disappeared into an alleyway.
When we walked into the pagoda’s courtyard, we realised a funeral was under way. Villagers in bright white headbands sat in clusters around mats full of food. But instead of the sombre mood I’d expected, they were all smiling warmly. One group of women waved me over enthusiastically, filling a bowl of che for me. They laughed when I tried to eat it with chopsticks, and gave me a spoon. They fed us aggressively — all white foods, like bananas and sticky rice and popcorn.
Some of the older women asked us to photograph them. One stood proudly beneath a statue of the Buddha, another smiled wide in the entrance. The kids, on the other hand, laughed hysterically and ran for cover every time we pointed a lens their way. We played photographic hide-and-seek with them for a while, until we got lost in the village’s narrow alleys.
We happened upon one lane that was echoing with the snorts of pigs. Peering between bars on the windows, we found massive sows, some the size of small horses. A curious one ambled over to sniff me out. I apologised to her for being locked up, and also for how good bun cha tastes, and she let me pet her snout.
Language Without Barriers
On the walk back to our motorbikes, a woman waved us into her house for what appeared to be tea. She explained that it was in fact a drink called nuoc voi, and motioned that it would be good for our stomachs. It tasted like celery, but is apparently made from the leaves of a native Asian tree species with natural antibiotic properties.
I’m sure she was explaining all of this to us while we sat around in her living room, smiling and nodding and feeling embarrassed that we didn’t know more Vietnamese. We all laughed together in misunderstanding. Lucky for us, smiles have no language barrier.
As we waved goodbye to our new friends in Tho Ha, I realised that the only money we’d spent that day had been on the ferry ride. Not every adventure has to cost you. The best travel experiences are simple. Like nature restores the soul, so does the kindness that you find in the countryside.
Take the Chuong Duong Bridge north to Long Bien. Drive straight to Bac Ninh City. Take the main highway (TL286) to the left around the military fortress. Follow this road towards the river until it turns into Duong De. There will be a small alley to your right that leads to the ferry dock.