Our Vietnamese motorbike drivers pulled to the side of the road alongside a group of young men beating the long grass and scooping bucketfuls of filthy water from a gully.
“They looking for rats so they can eat them,” said Toan, one of the drivers we’d hired for a day trip throughout the Ninh Binh region.
The next moment, two of the men sprinted across the gully and into the field. One of them ducked into the grass and emerged with a rodent in his hand. Using his other hand, he pulled out its teeth so it couldn’t bite him, then deposited it in the burlap bag tied to his motorbike where dozens more were squirming and squeaking.
Pure fascination compelled me to watch. And, seconds later, a poisonous snake slithered into the road, only to be chopped in half by another young man wielding a trowel.
“One day I get bit by this snake,” said Toan. “It badly hurt but I have herbs to heal so I fine.”
Thus began our day in the Vietnamese countryside. Not exactly what I signed up for. But one more fascinating slice of life in Southeast Asia.
Though we’ve spent time in Vietnam before, we’ve never been to this region and only came because we heard Cyclone Haiyan was wreaking havoc on the south coast where we were headed.
It’s been part of the pattern for this trip. Just when it seemed as though we were up against a wall, a door opened and showed us something new and wonderful.
After the unusual start to the day, we found ourselves halfway up a stone mountain overlooking a 1,000 year old cave and tiny temple, gazing at stunning, sky-reaching karsts that burst from the earth.
Toan pointed out the local cemetery and told us Vietnamese people bury their dead then unearth them three years later, clean the bones and rebury them in a second cemetery.
He told us about his village of 200 families, how he used to be a farmer and how he learned Russian at school. He also showed us parts of the country we’d never have seen without him.
At the Van Long Nature Reserve, we climbed into a small bamboo boat with a chubby Vietnamese woman pilot and spent the next 90 minutes floating on mirror-flat water with a whisper of a breeze caressing us. All around were massive, charcoal-coloured limestone rocks jutting hundreds of feet into the sky, drizzled with green moss and leafy ferns. No sound other than the buzz of dragonflies, the flutter of wings from iridescent turquoise kingfishers or snowy white egrets and the whoosh of bamboo oars dipping into the water.
We wove on motorbikes along small, pebbly roads and concrete paths, past fisherman dangling lines from their tiny boats and girls wearing conical Vietnamese hats pedaling bicycles along the water’s edge. We watched in amazement as women gripped wooden oars in their feet and paddled their boats along the river, one of them holding a baby while her companion fished mussels from the water.
And we were treated to a lunch of local specialties – no less than seven dishes for four of us – that included threadlike noodles mixed with locally-caught mussels, stirfried greens, grilled chicken, a whole fried fish, a beef dish for Toan and Suen, egg omelette, sour soup and a mountain of rice.
No dog, cat or rat in sight.
After lunch, we tasted the beauty of tranquil Kenh Ga, which translates to “chicken canal” and is so-named since the hot springs in the area were used for cleaning chickens. Seated on plastic chairs inside a small ramshackle wooden boat with a motor and canopy, we floated through a water channel that opened up onto a tiny village which is half submerged during rainy season.
Layer after layer of limestone outcrops reached heavenward to the sky and vanished into the misty horizon. Snowy white ducks paddled alongside the boat and rapidly scuttled out of the way when we got too close, gnarled fishermen tossed nets into the water while tiny yellow butterflies fluttered around the lush greenery – and all were reflected in the smooth, serene, shimmering water that had flowed through this village for centuries.
On our way back to town, I asked Suen if he’d ever eaten rat.
“No rat. I eat dog and cat,” he replied. “Want to try some?”