Sunday 22 April 2012

Hanging Out with the Hill Tribes

Map 2 of our North Vietnam Motorcycle Tour

We arrived at Sapa early afternoon and settled into our almost-top floor hotel room boasting an awesome view over the valley towards Hoang Lien Son National Park, home of Vietnam's highest mountain, Mt Fansipan, visible in the distance. In the cool high altitude (1500 metres) air we decided to do the short but scenic 6km walk to the nearby Hmong village called Cat Cat, down steep hills and stands of giant thick-as-your-leg bamboo, past waterfalls and along bubbling rivers where young kids splashed about. On the way we passed a couple of elaborately dressed Hmong women who decided to tag along while persistently trying to sell us their trinkets. We attempted to shake them by turning off the main path and going down the steeper goat's track, but there was no way we could out-hike a pair of locals who climb hills as easily as say, we drive cars. Thankfully they let us be after several polite but firm no's, and we thoroughly enjoyed our walk.

Road to Cat Cat Village, Sapa
The next day we rode on towards some of the more remote areas of the Bac Ha District, via the steepest, roughest, and most winding dirt road of this tour. I had to lean as far forward as possible to make it up the hills without having to stop and walk, as Ben struggled to control the bike over bone-jarring bumps (I struggled to simply hang on and not get bucked off rodeo-style while the rear of the bike did its own thing), but in the end we revelled in the challenging dirt ride and we were rewarded with amazing vistas.

Resting with a vast view of the countryside after a bumpy ride between Bac Ha and Coc Pai.
The farmland here was significantly more arid, with rice terraces giving way to steep slopes of maize and corn crops. Life this high up in the hills was tougher, as a lack of irrigation meant that everything depended on the scarce rainfall of the dry season. We learned there was only ever enough food for subsistent living.

Waiting for Rain. Hill tribes in this region rely on subsistence farming for food. Dry season crops on the rough road between Bac Ha and Coc Pai.
Despite this, we got the sense that community bonds were strong here, as we saw so many groups out working the land together, chatting away while ploughing, planting or simply walking back home after a hard day's work. Everyone we passed waved and said "hello!" or "xin chao!" and seemed genuinely curious about us outsiders. This beautiful group of teenage girls (and boy) were shy at first, but loved seeing themselves on the camera screen.

Walking Home. Flower Hmong teenagers returning to the village after working in the fields - near Coc Pai
Its Not a Race. Flower Hmong teenagers returning to the village after working in the fields - on the road near Coc Pai
Beautiful Flower Hmong Woman - on the road near Coc Pai
After a bumpy day's ride we stayed overnight at an obscure town in the hills called Coc Pai, breakfasting the next morning on another batch of banh cuon.

As the road continued down along the rivers cleaving through the Vi Xuyen District the terrain became lush terraced rice and vegetable farmland again, with a smooth road that was a haven of banks and turns for the road bike rider (and cheeky kids for the photographer).

Beautiful Hillside Road - between Coc Pai and Ha Giang
Stones and Houses Among the Terraces - between Coc Pai and Ha Giang
Mischief After School - between Coc Pai and Ha Giang
We were supposed to stay at a home stay that night, but the word on the street was that it was going to be packed to the rafters with vietnamese tourists, including a mad woman who was causing trouble with other guests, so we settled for a riverside resort alternative with bungalows overlooking the river Lo - not bad indeed! After a typically hot, humid day a dip in the river was irresistible.

Wind Picking Up Before the Storm - Ha Giang
Storm clouds approached as we returned to our bungalow just in time to see the entire landscape overcome with blustery winds, lightning and thunder at first, followed by torrential rain, ending in a hailstorm which battered the grass thatched roofs and brought down tree branches. It was wonderfully exciting for us, but terrifying for most of the Vietnamese for whom this was the first time they had experienced hail. Luckily we had the sense to park the bikes undercover beforehand, and we didn't want to think about if we were still out there on the road riding …

Crikey! A rare hailstorm attacks Ha Giang
Just as we thought the landscape couldn't get any better, Vietnam upped the ante again with Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, the dramatic limestone karst range straddling the northernmost border with China. The approach was another steep rise of continuous switchbacks through slopes green with newly planted crops.

Tia enjoying the view. Road ascending the Dong Van Karst Plateau from Ha Giang
Cultivation - Dong Van Karst Plateau
A late morning stop at a village found us at a Saturday market in full swing, with hundreds of local hill tribe people coming, going and browsing the stalls. A taste of the Sunday markets to come, before continuing up the hills.

La Chi Woman at Saturday Market on the way to Dong Van
Hmong Woman at Saturday Market on the way to Dong Van
A quick peek at the famously voluptuous Co Tien (Fairy) double mountain near Quan Ba Pass, before continuing through to some of the most fascinating scenery I had ever seen.

Bends on the road - Ha Giang to Dong Van
Huge valleys and mountains were perforated with jagged black karst rocks, making for extremely rugged terrain.

Rocky Fields and Valleys - Ha Giang to Dong Van
But even as we stopped to take in this seemingly barren, harsh landscape, we heard the tap-tap-scrape sound of a hoe below us. Amazingly, even this vast, steeply sloped field of stones was cultivated, with every available bit of dirt having at least one food plant growing in it. With no way of getting a plough in, the soil was turned by hand, and from what we could see, mostly by women.

Planting Between the Rocks - Ha Giang to Dong Van
Hard Working Women - Ha Giang to Dong Van
Our jaws struggled to remain closed as Chung led us through the remote villages of mud houses, the palace of the former Hmong king, and mountain after steep mountain of limestone karsts.

Road through the mountains of Dong Van
Red Ride. Typical Mud Houses near Dong Van
Village in the Valley. Near Dong Van
We were overwhelmed by the toughness of these people who were obviously brought up as hard workers from childhood.

Children carrying heavy loads on the road to Dong Van
Minding the Buffalo. Young local boys dressed in traditional shirt - near Dong Van
Young Hill Tribe Girl - Dong Van Market
A landscape as dramatic as this probably wouldn't tolerate anything less.

The next day was our day of colour. We woke up early to start walking to the Dong Van Sunday Market at 6am. Naturally, many of the locals trumped our efforts by starting to walk to the markets the night before, seeing as they lived a couple of mountains away.

Market Colours. Haggling over Vegetables - Dong Van Market
Wry Smiles from a Hill Tribe Man - Dong Van Market
Although we were only there for a couple of hours, the Sunday market went for an entire day. These markets were not simply a commercial affair; they were full-on social events with so much colour and energy that one could not help but get caught up in the festive atmosphere. One lady convinced Ben to try on a traditional men's black shirt, which so amused the locals that he became an instant celebrity with everyone wanting a photo taken with him.

It was fascinating to watch as people haggled over cows and buffalo, chickens and ducks, pigs and dogs, young and old. Although I would be happy never to hear again the ear-piercing human-like screams of a pig being tied down to a scooter.

Fresh Eggs - Dong Van Market
Ducklings for Sale - Dong Van Market
This was the place where everyone caught up with friends and gossip, did their shopping, ate tong goh (stewed cow offal, complete with head and hooves, slow-cooked in a giant wok all day and all night, eaten with large flat rounds of riceflour bread toasted over hot coals) and drank local corn-based moonshine for breakfast. We opted to chow down some regional style pho scattered with delicious barbecued pork and aromatic herbs, settling amid the locals in a smoky eating area, slurping and watching the market get even more busy with hungry marketers as the morning progressed.

Kitchen Essentials - Dong Van Market
Pork Pho - Dong Van Market
Hill Tribe Boy Eating Pho - Dong Van Market
Wandering Through the Cooking Smoke - Dong Van Market
We jumped back on the motorbikes to catch up with the Meo Vac Sunday market, a few towns away. Brunch was in full swing, with the eating tables full of people slurping away at bowls of noodles produced en masse.

Waiting for the Soup. Fatty Pork Pho - Meo Vac Market
Even the kids were needed to help pump out noodles while everyone else ate.

Learning the Trade. Young boy assisting father with cooking noodles - Meo Vac Market
At this market colourful cloths used to make the traditional dress were for sale. Women tried on new embroidered skirts, while men sat beside sewing machines at the ready, to modify this or repair that. We thoroughly enjoyed these markets, since there was something interesting going on everywhere we looked.

Enjoying Noodles. La Chi Woman at Meo Vac Market
We stayed at Tinh Tuc that night, after satisfactorily avoiding a truck that had fallen off a cliff, and a painful karaoke session that was cancelled due to a well timed power outage. Our journey in this part of the world - the awesome landscape and its inspiring people - will stay with us forever.

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