We were driving (or more like struggling) up a steep, dusty, barely paved road in what on the map was designated as Ta Sua nature reserve. The views were of average magnificence, we’ve seen better, but still some nice rolling hills, mountain passes, mist. Every 20 minutes or so we would stop to take in our surroundings and stretch. Occasionally children and adults, fully dressed in traditional minority village attire, would walk or drive by and silently stare. No friendly hellos! that we grew accustomed to in Vietnam. Just silent – at times intensely curious, at times surly – stares. So we stared back. Occasionally we would wave hello, but we didn’t get much of a response.
This was no Sapa – a colorful, ethnic tourist mecca firmly established on the “must-see lists” for Vietnam, and where minority Hmong villagers are about as used to seeing Westerners as their own kinfolk. We were literary in the middle of nowhere in northern Vietnam. Ta Sua is maybe 10 kilometers or so outside of a tiny 16-block town of Phu Yen in Son La province. I am pretty certain it’s not on many visitors’ itineraries, because there is literary nothing to see or do in the town. We were motorbiking from Hanoi to Hoi An, and figured Phu Yen would make a good first stop just because it was on the way, and there was a nature reserve *Side note: surprisingly modern hotels apparently exist in every corner of Vietnam*
To take a break from driving we decided to stay two nights, and explore Ta Sua on our day off. So here we were, on one of our leisurely breaks, hanging out, admiring the beautiful mountains, watching the clouds attempt to clear mountain passes, as another motorcycle rolled by. Unlike all other passersby vehicles, these guys stopped. And stared. So we stared back. What’s up? I wasn’t sure if we were breaking some rules or offending some sensibilities by showing up around these parts.
What the hell. I pointed at my camera and gestured to ask permission to take a picture. They broke out into wide smiles. Grinning. Which of course made us grin right back. I snapped a few pictures, showed the images to them, and we shook their hands. At this point, these guys just couldn’t help themselves. They were literary poking and prodding us, as if to verify that we were actually real. They might have seen Westerners before, but they certainly did not act as if they have.
All four of us walked away from that encounter pleased as punch. You can see our reaction – in real time – on our 4 o’clock video.
This is the cool bit about taking the roads less traveled. These experiences, which aren’t necessarily much in and of themselves, are cool because they are shared with so few other people and are so unique. There is no guarantee that you will have the same experience; and in fact, it’s extremely unlikely that you will. But something else will happen. So just go, chart your way forward, stop in some random town, and see what happens.
And on a side note – I am not much of an advocate for deliberate “off the beaten path” travel. I am not sure I really know what that term refers to, and in fact, it kind of offends me. It’s almost like putting a box next to “unique cultural experience not had by other tourists” to be checked off. It’s weird, you know?