We disembarked our junk this morning in Halong Bay and backtracked toward Hanoi by bus. The road is elevated as it slices through expansive rice paddies, where workers wear traditional conical hats (non la) and use water buffalo to pull carts.
There are designated tourist stops on this highway where arts and crafts are made and sold, including two in which the artisans are uniformed teenagers who diligently sew or weave or paint.
We left the main road and headed north, passing through small towns where many dwellings are wooden shacks but a few prosperous families live in narrow, multistory houses. It is common to find three generations living together in the same house or apartment in Vietnam. Those fortunate enough to own a three-story house would traditionally have grandparents on the ground floor, adult children on the second floor and grandchildren on the top floor.
We traveled for hours into hilly, green countryside and near dusk, made a quick pit stop at a roadside store and diner. There was a roof overhead, but the building was open on both sides. Insects buzzed the lights and food, and a young mongrel dog on a chain eyed us nervously.
There were a couple of Western brands in the store -- Coke and Pringles -- and our group snapped up nuts, candy and peanut brittle. We passed on one local delicacy -- bottles that contained some sort of alcoholic drink and a whole cobra, poised as if ready to strike. The drink was supposedly good for the libido, if not for the appetite.
I asked one of our guides about a pile of neatly stacked items on the counter. They were about the size of candy bars, wrapped in deep-green banana leaves.
"Like your Spam," he explained.
"Spam? How does he know what our Spam tastes like?" I wondered to myself.
I bought one anyway and peeled back the banana leaves and bit cautiously into my pencil-shaped Vietnamese Spam. Not bad, but not good either, and not at all like Spam.
"What are you eating?" one of my cousins asked.
"I'm not sure but he said it was like Spam, so I assume it's pork."
Our guide interceded, "Not pork."
"It's not pork?" I asked.
"No, not pork," said the guide, with an authoritative shake of the head.
"Well, what is it?"
Then it struck me, the answer to the rhetorical question my cousin had posed earlier as we wandered through one of the small villages en route: "Where are all the old dogs?"
Some people eat dogs here, and cats, and worms, and just about everything else. I guess I'll never know what was inside those banana leaves, and as the owner of a mischievous beagle, I'm not sure I want to know.
A couple of hours later, we rumbled into Lang Son, a dimly lit city 20 miles from the Chinese border. We threw our bags in our rooms and crossed the street to the hotel's restaurant, an old structure with white-washed walls, large sections of which were covered by grey mold.
The doors were open to the humid night air on one side, and as our group began to be seated, something low and dark darted in from outside. It covered 30 feet in a few seconds and paused directly in front of me. I quickly snapped a picture and it was on the move again, this time stopping within inches of the foot of a woman in our party, already seated.
I was the only one in the room who had seen our uninvited guest, and as I approached the lady whose foot was so precariously exposed, I wondered how I could bring the 4-inch-long, turbo-charged spider to her attention without starting a stampede.
The big fellow saw me coming and dashed across the rest of the dining room toward the kitchen, out of sight -- the same direction from which our food emerged a few moments later.
I showed my picture to the rest of the group. "We called them Hanoi Racers," my uncle said. "Sometimes they'd crawl into our cells."
Dinner went down, barely, and a few of us ventured by foot toward some distant streetlights while the rest of the group called it a day.
We arrived at Lang Son's main street, a broad boulevard with a few shops and a restaurant or two. As we walked down the sidewalk, everyone we met stopped and stared.
Strangers on the street are a rarity here, and Westerners are non-existent. We could not have been more of a curiosity if we had arrived in a flying saucer. We returned their astonished looks with a smile and a nod and received much bigger smiles and nods in return.
We heard unfamiliar music from one of the dilapidated buildings and stepped inside to find a sizeable dance floor ringed with chairs, and smartly dressed young women and men sitting on opposite sides of the room from each other. Every jaw in the room hit the floor simultaneously as the seven green Martians entered.
All eyes were on us as we chose a table in the back, foolishly hoping to blend in, but before we could sit down the owner or manager had arrived to escort us to the main table in the place, front and center. As soon as we were seated, the music started -- American music -- which is all that was played while we were there.
When a song started, the men would rise and cross the room and extend a hand to a lady, and when the song ended, each would return to their seats on opposite sides of the room.
The dancers moved in a circle, each couple passing in front of our table every minute or so with a shy smile in our direction. We smiled back and applauded their excellent dancing at the end of every song, feeling a bit like judges at a competition.
Eventually we thanked the proprietors for their hospitality and came back to the hotel to get some rest before tomorrow's search for the jungle prison.
Vietnam is a poor country, so one has to approach lodging in the countryside with an appreciation for the unexpected. After our comfortable hotel in Hanoi and the relative luxury of our junk at Halong Bay, accommodations here in Lang Son seem a bit austere.
The beds are like boards, but with a room to myself, I'm using the thin comforter from one as the mattress of the other.
The hallways are only partially lit but inside my room, the lighting is stark -- all the better for spotting Hanoi Racers under the bed.
The bathroom is a tight little space, with a shower head coming out of the wall that sprays everything in the room. The temperature of the water can only be adjusted while standing in the stream.
The floor is dingy and uneven and when I arrived, there were puddles left over from the last occupant's shower. Considering the humidity, that could have been a while back.
After some debate, I switched on the water, which quickly began to rise until the floor and my feet were submerged. I was looking around for a drain when a triangular-shaped bug rocketed out of its hiding place, buzzing my face. I backed into the sink and knocked my toothbrush into the muck.
I finished my shower in record time, as more hopping bugs filled the air. They're in there now, behind the closed door -- I can hear them pinging off the walls.
Tomorrow, we search for the jungle prison, Dogpatch, and if we reach it, we'll be the first Americans to visit since the war ended.
I have learned one thing about traveling off the beaten path in Vietnam -- it's as wild as you want it to be.
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