Today there is no riding, there are no kilometres to count, no time to calculate, scooters to dodge or buses to run us off the road, today we’re staying put and indulging in being tourists for a bit. Tam Coc is only about 100km’s from Hanoi, a final skip to completion of this road trip that we can’t believe is nearly at an end. We might have otherwise dawdled a little more but with a damaged passport from the ride to Hoi An I need to get to the Australian embassy to get some sort of resolution for the upcoming next leg in Japan. The rush will commence tomorrow but for today we’re taking a moment to enjoy being trapped in a scene of perfection painted in a country so far from our own.
First stop, mechanic for an oil change and a little look at the weird sound so ominous from somewhere within Rob’s engine. Yesterday we rode our luck, literally, and made it to Tam Coc but something’s wrong, we just know it. We pull up to the mechanic and for the first time it’s a woman, in 23 visits to mechanics we’ve never seen a woman in this country that has such clearly defined roles, there’s women’s work and mens work it seems. Although on the surface it seems to be a benign definition it’s rules just like this that often signal power imbalances and social inequities. I can only hope that the gender split in Vietnam is as benign as it appears to a tourist. But it seems not everyone sticks to the rules, she goes about the dirty greasy work like every other mechanic has, quickly and with no fuss.In no time there’s what appears to be a husband and wife team looking into Rob, pulling off parts with lot of puzzling noises coming from Rob and the pair alike. Engine back on, start him up but the noise persists. More noises ensue. Again Rob is operated upon, and this time there’s no hoping or guessing, a few large chunks of something are pulled from the engine, torn and split into rubble. Seeing the broken fragments of engine parts on the floor it’s hard to imagine how Rob made it yesterday, it looks like we were just a loud crunch away from a catastrophic engine failure at any moment. It could have been bad, but it wasn’t, we leave thanking ourselves for our stroke of good luck near the end of this ride in which we’ve had plenty of the other kind of luck.
Coffee comes and goes so with good bikes, new oil, caffeine and food we’re off for a bit of sightseeing, a lazy boat trip should do the trick. The mountains here are similar to those in Phong Nha, solitary mounds of drastic shape emerge from an otherwise flat landscape in contrasting drama. We board our boat and in no time we’re being paddled into the silence of a cave and out the other side of one of the small aggressive mountains. This slow river winds through picturesque scenery dotted with lilies, lapping gently to the reeds and bamboo that grow densely up to the bank and all the while there’s silence broken only by the rhythmic shuffle and swoosh of oars cutting the water. Gone are the screaming engines, the relentless honking horns and ingrained need for concentration of yesterday, today we have nothing to think about beyond observing something beautiful.Our guy rests back causally smoking a cigarette while he expertly paddles the oars with his legs, a trained art that he makes look so simple. This novel way of paddling is one remarkable feat but it’s that he’s a man is the other, this job is nearly exclusively done by women in another show of that Viet gender separation. We’re having the status quo of weeks upturned for the second time today in what shouldn’t seem so surprising, but it does. Through caves and streams carved out through the dense flowering lilies we paddle in silence through scenery that is nothing short of artwork. Nursing fatigue and a bit of a cough this is the day we both needed.
This day is needed and so dramatic while being devoid of the drama we’ve become accustomed to. We take up two small plastic stools on the banks of a rice paddy field just out of town to sip a beer with these mountains and a setting sun as a backdrop that define a landscape of drama. We were going to ride into Tam Coc town for dinner but scenes like this aren’t left so easily, it looks like we’re eating in. They say things happen in threes, at this beer tent that is little more than a tarpaulin stretched over a roadside space we are cooked up rice and vegetables by a man; in Vietnam, men don’t cook. Or at least that’s what we’ve been told. There’s a number of gender specific roles in Vietnam but in this tiny town we’ve had some of them upturned by men paddling boats and cooking and women fixing bikes. Such simply notions for such a huge topic as gender inequality.As we travel north there have been changes, the food is probably better in the south to be honest, but in the north the scenery has exploded and the ingrained gender division seems to be a little less ingrained. Be it imagining exploring these rugged mountains, staring at completing this road trip or breaking out of socially determined roles the sun sets over the mountains as a new place. It’s all Vietnam, it’s one country and we’re in one world; but heading into the north feels a little like a new Vietnam, a brave new world.