This post was last updated on November 19th, 2013
I’m in love with a small town by the name of Vu Ban.
You’ve probably never heard of it, and it’s likely you never will again. The dusty town is about 100 kilometers from anything warranting a city, and there are certainly no ‘attractions’ to be had here. A dirt road will lead you in, through, and on, but it’s littered with potholes, large rocks, and patches of mud. Not at all easy on a bicycle, though the buses seem to have no problem zooming through.
Despite the lack of pavement, business is booming here in Vu Ban. You can buy a shiny new motorcycle or the latest-edition flat screen TV. There are only a handful of makeshift-restaurants, but you needn’t worry about where to lie your head—there are three guesthouses to choose from. There’s also one school and a small but tall hospital, though it’s easy to miss both if you blink at the wrong time.
While there is little to bring you to Vu Ban, there are a few reasons to stay.
There are rice fields and rolling mountains, small village houses and large French-inspired homes—plenty to keep the eyes wandering and the soul smiling.
There are people who have no problem spouting out full conversations in Vietnamese, though it is obvious you have no idea what they’re saying. The women will laugh and poke at your sweat, amazed at the beads of water forming on your skin. Of course they’ll insist you put on long-sleeves to protect yourself-that one is easily understood. The men will invite you to try their tobacco, smiling at your refusals and showing off their skills all the same.
There is a small market bordering the rice fields where they sell live chickens and ducks and a smattering of green, fat, furry worms. The old women will try to convince you to sample one of the mysterious insects, but their mischievous smiles will warn you that perhaps it’s not really meant to be eaten after all. As if to make amends for their trickery they’ll gift you with a small, sour fruit instead. And as you walk away, everyone will giggle and shout out goodbye until the market is just a speck in the fields.
There is a small and dusty Internet café, filled with teenage boys smoking cigarettes and playing computer games that are probably popular back home, too. You’ll receive multiple stares when you use the Wi-Fi for an hour, but come time to pay the bill the young owner will insist that foreigners use the Internet for free. It doesn’t matter if no other foreigners have likely passed through before, it’s free all the same, and a welcome respite from the constant haggling and over-paying elsewhere in Vietnam.
To continue your technology needs, there is a mobile phone store where you can replenish the 3G on your iPad. When you can’t understand the Vietnamese instructions, a fellow customer will spend an hour—and use two translation devices—to make sure you know how to keep your 3G balance up-to-date. Then he’ll jump on his scooter, returning only five minutes later to ensure you’ve already secured one of the hotels to sleep in.
There’s a small plaza on the corner of the only main street in Vu Ban. A woman sells hot dogs in baguettes, wrapped in newspaper, from a stand. It’s the perfect place to grab dinner before seating yourself at the miniature plastic tables and chairs that dot the lawn. Twenty-somethings drink beer on their motorcycles; older couples sip bamboo juice from plastic bags. Everyone will do a bit more staring, perhaps wondering how you’ve made your way here. But it’s the friendly, open-minded kind of staring, followed with a giant smile and kind-hearted wave.
We stumbled upon Vu Ban because it was the first place with a hotel after a long, difficult day of cycling. We stayed an extra day because of the warmth and charm that overflowed from the town. Perhaps we will return to the simple comforts, genuine people, and stunning views one day again. We can only hope to be so lucky.
Have you visited an unexpectedly wonderful place before? Where was it and what made you love it?