There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Hanoi (3), the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature: Part 8 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 7:
Trekking from Sa Pa (3), Around Ban Dem and back to Hanoi
On to Part 9:

Our Train from Lao Cai arrived in Hanoi at 4 am on Saturday morning. Truong (call me Joe) was on the platform to meet us, looking more awake than most people can manage at that hour. We drove back to our hotel and checked in to complete our night’s sleep.

Joe turned up again after breakfast and we set off to see Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 and educated by the French. He travelled in Europe, joined the communist party, and rose through its ranks in the Soviet Union and China. He returned to Vietnam in 1941 to lead the struggle for independence.

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned and Ho became president of North Vietnam. His next task was to unify his country. In keeping with their world view at the time, the Americans misinterpreted this local struggle for unification as part of a global war between ‘communism’ and ‘the free world’. They compounded this error by throwing their full might behind the discredited and hopelessly corrupt government of South Vietnam. This monumental blunder prolonged the war by ten years, killed over a million Vietnamese (and almost 60 000 Americans) and made no change to the final result.

Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 with his dream of an independent and united Vietnam unrealised. He wanted to be cremated, but instead his body was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum in Ba Dinh square where he had earlier declared Vietnamese independence. The lower part of the mausoleum echoes Lenin’s tomb, the upper part has a more local inspiration. As a piece of architecture it is somewhat brutalist, but at least it would not blow away in a high wind.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
(and Harry Enfield photographing the Enfield family)

There is always a queue to see Uncle Ho, but it is especially long on a Saturday – the French occupation having given the Vietnamese a proper understanding of le weekend. A few places ahead of us was a tall westerner with his family. He looked vaguely familiar. ‘Isn’t that Harry Enfield?’ Lynne asked. It is not easy to recognise someone you usually see dressed up and in character, but his voice is very distinctive, and yes, it was Harry Enfield (non-British readers may be unfamiliar with the name, if so click here).

Queuing to see Ho Chi Minh
(We travelled half way round the world to see green wheelie bins identical to the one outside our backdoor)

The queue moved steadily and we soon reached security. Ho Chi Minh would complete our set as we had visited Mao in 2004 and Lenin in 2007  [No. There is also Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il - we saw them in Pyongyang in 2013] and, by comparison, security was relaxed. Lynne was allowed to keep her handbag containing her phone, though had we made a call or, even worse, used it as a camera I would be writing this from a Vietnamese prison.

Once through security we saw the queue stretched on, and was being merged with another from a different entrance. We were patient and it moved quickly enough, so we soon reached the mausoleum and filed past the body. The lighting was sombre and, as with Mao and Lenin, the smart and rather scary guards ensured, all hands were removed from pockets, no one loitered and there was a dignified silence. Ho Chi Minh looked peaceful and real, which is more than can be said for the other two.

Beyond the mausoleum we came to the palace of the French governor of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh inherited the palace when he became president, but instead chose to live in the more modest surroundings of the cook’s house. We joined the crowds gawping through the glass at the very plain rooms in which he lived and worked, and then at a display of his old cars. Next to a huge armour plated beast donated by the Russians was his beaten up green Peugeot.

Palace of the French governor of Indochina, Hanoi

Musing on the profound coincidence that I also drive a Peugeot, I turned round and bumped into Harry Enfield. I suddenly felt the need to shake his hand and tell him who he was. He already knew that, so I burbled on a little and made even more of a fool of myself, but at least I did not try to do any of his characters. Harry was very gracious and polite, we wished each other a pleasant holiday and I gave him my space so he too could stare at Ho Chi Minh’s Peugeot while we moved on to the house on stilts.

Ho Chi Minh's stilt house, Hanoi

Having hidden out with ethnic Thais during his struggle he had a traditional Thai stilt house built and moved into it from the cook’s residence. The tide of Vietnamese pilgrims swept us up the steps, past his rooms and then down again. There is a debate about how much time he spent in the stilt house as it is said to be connected to an underground bunker, which would be a far more sensible place to stay during American bombing raids.

Ho's living quarters
Stilt House, Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh’s various homes, used and unused, are set in a beautifully landscaped botanical garden. The tiny One Pillar Pagoda nearby, considered one of the symbols of Hanoi, is rather overshadowed by the Ho Chi Minh museum. Built in the 11th century by King Le Thai Tong, it has suffered some heavy-handed restoration and the concrete single pillar looks anything but 11th century.

The One Pillar Pagoda

The Temple of Literature is a short journey away. Confucianism maybe a philosophy not a religion, but the temple (like the Confucian temple in Beijing) looks remarkably like a religious building. Founded in 1076 to educate princes and high officials, the Vietnamese consider it their first university. The names and biographical details of those successful in the examinations between 1448 and 1779 are carved on stelae mounted on tortoises.

Stela on a tortoise
Temple of Literature, Hanoi

The French bombed the temple in 1947, destroying some of the stelae and several buildings. There has since been much careful reconstruction.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

We visited L’Indochine restaurant for lunch, courtesy of Haivenu Travel. The set menu was largely served to tourists but the multiple small courses, chicken soup, banana flower salad, pork with sesame, beef with honey, chicken with lemon grass, prawns with onions and peppers in a sweet sauce was all very local and top quality.

Hanoi Beer
The pleasing, malty brew washed down every meal in Hanoi

We spent the the afternoon shopping for presents and souvenirs - after all we could not go all that way without buying our grandson a tee-shirt.
In the evening we dined in a small restaurant near our hotel. The street was almost deserted and the restaurant was strangely quiet for a Saturday night. After we had eaten we strolled down to Hoan Kiem Lake and discovered where everybody was. Motorcyclists circled the lake in their thousands, the pavement was crowded and the bars and restaurants were heaving. Once we had found the right place it seemed Saturday night in Hanoi was noticeably lively.
Saturday night round Hoan Kiem Lake,
Back to Part 7:
On to Part 9:

Friday, 30 March 2012

Trekking from Sa Pa (3), Around Ban Den then back to Hanoi: Part 7 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 6
Trekking from Sa Pa (2): Ta Van to Ban Den
On to Part 8

Those more familiar with OS maps might note that red indicates a (largely) metalled road of any size.
Tracks shown in yellow are footpaths or concrete strips for motorcycles

Next morning, despite Minh’s assertion that today’s walk was all on a nice simple concrete path, one hour out, one hour back, Lynne could not be persuaded to leave the homestay. So after a bowl of noodle soup with a fried egg and a couple of slices of watermelon, Minh and I set off without her.

Minh and I set off without Lynne

Sitting in the middle of the road to the village was a young man eating fruit from a plastic box. ‘Would you like to try?’ Minh asked. The fruits were about the size and colour of plum tomatoes, but more cylindrical with a core running down the middle. I bit into it and winced, it was almost as bitter as a sloe. ‘It’s better dipped it in salt,’ Minh suggested. The lad offered me his salt and that improved it enough for me to finish it, but not so much I wanted another one. ‘What are they?’ I asked. ‘Nhot,’ Minh said. I tried ‘nhot’ in Google Translate, and it came up with ‘viscosity’, which is a strange name for a fruit. 

We walked through the village, crossed a suspension bridge over the main stream and then another over a side stream. The deck of the second was seriously rusted, some of the holes being as big as my feet. Through the bridge I could see the rocks and tumbling stream below, expecting to be in it at any moment.

The centre of Ban Den village

Once out of Ban Dem we found the concrete path. What Minh had not told Lynne was that the ‘one hour out’ was all uphill, sometimes gently, but more often steeply. I kept up a cracking pace leaving Minh trailing in my wake. At least that was what I want to believe, though, more probably he was just allowing me to set the pace.

Minh lags behind - or not

The concrete path was not entirely continuous, but after an hour’s walking we did indeed arrive at the collection of rough wooden houses that are the Dao village of Nam Toóng.

Nam Toóng

We walked between the houses to where the path ended and the rice terraces began. The farmers would soon be planting their crops and we watched a man carry his plough down the hill to his waiting buffalo.

Farmer carrying his plough

Wading through the mud, we returned to the village and dropped in on the school where relay races were taking place. I slipped a few thousand dong into the cardboard box standing at the entrance and we stood and watched.

There was great enthusiasm among the children and the young male teacher adjudicated on close finishes, penalised those who set off too early and dealt patiently with the unco-ordinated who ‘hop’ using alternate feet and never quite realise they're running (there is one in every school). His decisions were swiftly given, as fair as was humanly possible and accepted without question. After each race the winning team shouted and waved their arms in the air and lined up for the next with barely suppressed excitement. The money in the box is supposed to help the children, but if it ended up in the teacher’s beer fund, I would not begrudge it; it is always good to watch a professional at work

Relay races, Nam Toóng school

We moved on to a house where Minh was greeted as a friend. The older child – who perhaps should have been in school – was waving round a large beetle attached to a bamboo frond by the stump of a severed leg. The beetle tried desperately to fly away, but could only buzz in angry circles. The younger child, held in his mother’s arms, had a slightly smaller but particularly evil looking bug in his hand and was clamouring for his parents to attach that to a similar frond. I do not generally find I have much sympathy for insects, and I know these children do not have access to the wealth of toys my grandson enjoys, but the game made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

We set off back down the hill to Ban Den. I do not like long descents, they hurt my knees, but we moved along swiftly and in forty minutes were back at the rusted bridge. Minh was right to say it would take us two hours, but it was an hour up, twenty minutes there and forty back rather than an hour each way.

Minh leads the descent

I held my breath as we crossed the bridge, though I doubt that made me any safer. Minh had suggested a twenty minute detour to a waterfall, so a hundred metres later we turned off the track and worked our way obliquely back towards the river along a jungle path. Reaching the water’s edge we crossed a small beach and scrambled onto a boulder a couple of metres high for the best view.

Along a jungle path

The waterfall was truly underwhelming. However whilst sitting on the rock I suddenly noticed that despite the usual hundred per cent cloud cover it was now distinctly hot. I had a slurp of water but realised that what I wanted more than anything else in the whole world was a cold beer.

Not the world's biggest waterfall

We clambered off the rock, always harder than climbing up, and made our way back to the homestay, arriving at almost exactly the time we had told Lynne to expect us. Minh stuck his head and shoulders into the chest fridge on the terrace and emerged holding a couple of bottles of Tiger beer. Never had anything tasted so good. Lynne had one, too, though I had to point out (more than once) that she had done nothing to earn it.

She had spent a pleasant morning sitting in the garden chatting with the various people who wandered in, some to sell handicrafts, some just to talk. The conversations were, it seemed, not particularly hampered by the lack of a common language. It seemed quite normal for anyone to wander in as they pleased; at one point a boy had walked up the garden path, gone into the kitchen and helped himself to two slices of water melon. Mrs Ut neither acknowledged his presence, nor chased him away.

Looking about her, Lynne could not help noticing how widely bamboo was used; there was a birdcage, the garden railings, several baskets, a range of drainpipes and gutters, and last night's dinner to point out only the most obvious. I was able to add instrument of insect torture to her list. [And as of July 2016, she can add 'gramophone needle']

It was nearly lunchtime and Minh brought a plate of fried potato slices out from the kitchen. We nibbled our way through that and then another plate arrived. We finished the second just in time for lunch, and we set to work on a huge plate of fried rice with pork, the remains of yesterday’s bamboo and other assorted goodies. It was excellent, but the quantity eventually defeated us.

Feeling pleasantly stuffed we took our leave of our hosts, walked down the track to Ban Den and found the car ready and waiting to return us to Sa Pa where we were reunited with our suitcases.

Down the track back to Ban Dem

During the hour’s delay before the car was available to transport us down to Lao Cai, we watched a funeral procession bring the centre of Sa Pa to a halt. Pictures of the deceased in what seemed to be police uniform were carried in front of the coffin. ‘Was he a very important man?’ I asked Minh. ‘A very old man,’ he replied ‘that is why the funeral is so large.’ I was just musing on the thought that at home, the older you are the smaller the funeral usually is when Minh added, ‘He was 64.’

Funeral, Sa Pa

The journey to Lao Cai passed quickly and we checked into the Thein Hai hotel for a shower and to change the clothes we had been wearing for three days.

Minh had recommended a couple of restaurants, but we were still full of fried rice so we wandered the street market in search of something we might eat on the train. We found a woman sitting on a blanket with the last of her banana stock. The local bananas are sweet but small so we asked for four. This was clearly an eccentric request. Waving a 10000 Dong note to indicate her price, she made it clear we could have the whole branch – some two dozen – or nothing. For 30p we took the lot. We ate four on the train, nibbled a few more the following day and left the rest in our hotel room. I hope they were of use to somebody. One legacy of French rule is that the Vietnamese bake decent bread, so we bought a baguette and a triangle of ‘La Vache Qui Rit’ cheese, the Laughing Cow being yet another French legacy. At home any shop would sell a single banana but few (or less) would split a box of foil wrapped cheese. In Vietnam it is the other way round.

Street market, Lao Cai

Equipped for our picnic, we said farewell to Minh at the station and enjoyed an uneventful overnight trip back to Hanoi.

Back to Part 6
Trekking from Sa Pa (2): Ta Van to Ban Dem

On to Part 8

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Trekking from Sa Pa (2), Ta Van to Ban Den: Part 6 of Vietnam North to South 5

Back to Part 4
Walking the Muong Hoa Valley:Sa Pa to Ta Van

On to Part 6
Those more familiar with OS maps might note that red indicates a (largely) metalled road of any size.
Tracks shown in yellow are footpaths or concrete strips for motorcycles.

I did not feel at my best the next morning, but I was up early and we sat in the yard ready for breakfast. Eventually Der surfaced, gave me a conspiratorial smile, and started on his daily chores. There was no sign of Minh.

A little later Der went off on an errand taking Nhu with him on his motorbike – something that looks terrifying to us, but seems second nature to most Vietnamese.

Der and Nhu go off on an errand
Ta Van

We went in and sat by the fire in the kitchen, the scruffy little cat choosing to sit on Lynne’s foot.

Der returned, chopped up some pork and put it in a pot over the fire, and still there was no sign of Minh. Eventually he appeared looking like a man who had come a distant third in a drinking competition he had never wanted to enter. Der – who seemed to do most of the cooking – made some pancakes.

We sat outside at the ‘normal’ sized table, drank tea and ate pancakes spread with something sweet which may or may not have been jam. Outside the Hmong women gathered like vultures, awaiting the first tourists of the morning.

Waiting for th first tourists of the morning
Ta Van

Breakfast over, we shook hands with Der, gave grandma an opportunity for a last giggle, and set off. We felt privileged to have become part of their family for the day.

Our plan was for a half day walk to the Dao hamlet of Giang Tu Chai and then down to Hoa Su Pan 2 where a car would pick us up and take us to our next homestay in Ban Dem, the chief settlement of Ban Ho village.

A Vietnamese ‘village’ is actually an administrative area, sometimes quite large, comprising several settlements described as ‘hamlets’. Usually they have individual names, but in some villages, like Su Pan, they are known as Hoa Su Pan 1, Hoa Su Pan 2, etc. Sometimes, as in Ta Van, the village and the largest settlement have the same name, while in others, like Ban Ho, there is no settlement of that name.

Again we had a choice of routes. The easier way involved walking along the valley and approaching Giang Tu Chai from below, the more demanding led up the valley side and approached the hamlet from above. Again we settled for the easy route.

We walked back through Ta Van, down to the river….

Down to the River at Ta Van

…..and then up the other side of the valley, from where we could look back to where we had stayed.

Looking back at Ta Van across the valley

We were now back on the metalled road from Sa Pa, and we followed it through an area renowned for its ancient carved boulders. A small museum attempted to explain some of the carvings, but the meanings of most, assuming they have any, are yet to be decoded. Sadly the museum contained only photographs as most of the boulders have been removed for study in Hanoi. Two remain lying in the grass outside. I found it difficult to pick out the carvings from the marks left by several million years of weathering.

Leaving the road we descended back into the valley through the hamlet of Giang Ta Chai (not to be confused with Giang Tu Chai).  It is a Hmong settlement which, unusually, has several Christian families and a church. The French ruled Indo-China for over a hundred years before independence in 1954 so there are many Vietnamese Christians – more specifically Catholics - but most live in the urban centres. There are few churches in the countryside and even fewer in the ethnic minority villages of the northern highlands.

Giang Ta Chai Church

Easter was ten days away, but the banner reads The Church of Giang Ta Chai, Happy Christmas.

We crossed a metal suspension bridge built beside an older rattan bridge. Beneath the bridge a bored Vietnamese guide was watching two westerners who had clearly come on a fishing holiday. I have difficulty working up any enthusiasm for fishing as a participation sport, but as a spectator sport its tedium is surely without parallel. The guide had my sympathy.

On the far side we found tables and chairs lurking beneath a thatch-roofed enclosure and took the opportunity for a well-earned cup of tea. Relaxing for a moment we had time to notice that although there was still complete cloud cover, it was starting to warm up down in the valley bottom.

Just over the river is a thatch roofed tea house
while below the bridge is a man on a fishing holiday

The earlier wide path along the river had narrowed to one passible only by pedestrians and motorcycles, but it was flat and easy going. After a kilometre or so we took a rough track rising along the valley side.

It was a good steady climb, sufficient to bring out a sweat and raise the heart rate. Regular visitors to this blog will know that I may be over-weight and over-sixty, but I do regularly put on a pair of walking boots and am no stranger to rough paths and modest gradients. Such walking, though, is not one of Lynne’s hobbies and she soon started to flag and as she flagged she started to complain. Long before we reached the top she was voicing the opinion that it was all a plot to kill her, and that Minh and I were doing it deliberately.

Lynne struggles upwards

With effort and appropriate encouragement we made it to Giang Tu Chai, a collection of ramshackle wooden houses perched on the valley side. It was the only hamlet we visited that had no motorcycle access and, as far as we could see, no electricity.

Giang Tu Chai

We entered one of the houses, a large single room dwelling with a wattle partition dividing what Minh called the ‘front room’ from the kitchen. The only light came through the open door and the gaps in the walls.

The ‘front room’ was more like a farm shed than a living room. In one corner a man was making one of the large baskets local women carry on their backs. He did not look particularly pleased to see us and soon put down his work, picked up his pipe and went outside for a smoke.

Minh seemed on better terms with the old woman – presumably the man’s mother or mother-in-law – who squatted in the kitchen cooking lunch. Except for the flames of her fire, she seemed to be working entirely in the dark, though my flash photograph rather spoils the effect. A cat sat by the fire staring at her as she stirred some green leaves in a pot.

Squatting by the fire cooking lunch

She chatted with Minh while we let our eyes accustom to the light so we could get a proper view of a life which cannot have changed for a hundred years or more. Almost all Dao women still wear the traditional red headdress, but lower down in the valley most of them seemed on nodding terms with the twenty-first century, somewhere up that valley side we had walked out of the modern world and into an older and harsher environment.

Eventually we realised we had intruded for long enough, and had to tear ourselves away. As we left, the old lady scuttled from her kitchen and introduced us to her pile of handicrafts. She may have been Dao but she had the same stock as all the Hmong women. Now, though, seemed the right time for a token purchase.

Even Lynne had to admit that the effort of getting there had been worthwhile, but now we had to get back. Our ascent had been a steady rise along the valley side, but our next path dropped straight down to a suspension bridge we could see far below.

Minh with the bridge down below

The descent was, by any standards, steep and slippery; my walking poles would have been useful but they were in a cupboard on the other side of the world. Occasionally we needed our hands to climb down rocky sections or had to grab at convenient plants to prevent an over-precipitous descent. Neither of us found it easy and Minh’s trainers were giving him less grip than would have been comfortable.

Struggling down

Long before we reached the bridge Lynne was telling anyone who would listen that she was going to die. There was no one to listen except Minh and me, and we ignored her. According to her diary ‘I was now so tired I could barely put one foot in front of another. I was getting close to despair, my feet hurt, my legs hurt, I’d had enough.’ She does so go on. 

We got there in the end – to Lynne’s great relief. She posed with Minh for a photograph on the bridge looking ‘fine and smiley.’

Posing on the bridge 'fine and smiley'

Then it dawned on her that to be picked up by a car we had to reach a road and that meant ascending the other side of the valley. It was not a long ascent and a nice, simple concrete path of moderate steepness led straight up the valley side. Minh and I strode upwards and let Lynne proceed at her own pace. I paused to take a photograph of her, ‘Smile,’ I said cheerfully. Lynne however did not have the will. Her diary says ‘I did feel that if I were to drop down dead in the next few moments David should have a last photo to remember me by. I couldn’t raise my head,  I was that tired as I crawled up the slope, but I summoned all my final energy to raise two fingers at the cruel bastard who thought this was some idea of fun!’

Two fingered salute

She made it, still alive and complaining, and Minh phoned for the car.

A tiny old man had followed us up the path. Minh and I were sitting on a boulder when he reached the top and I was flicking through the pictures on my camera. Attracted by the bleeping he came over to have a look. He seemed fascinated by the electronic magic. ‘He says he’s 89,’ Minh said as the old man squatted down to have a better look. My one-year-old grandson can manage that manoeuvre, but I lost such suppleness many years ago. The old man inspected the camera with interest, marvelled briefly at my digital watch and then, as if to prove he really was from another age, opened and closed a zip on Minh’s rucksack as if he was seeing one for the first time. When our car arrived he straightened up with complete ease, while I struggled upright from my boulder.

Electronic magic
We were driven further down the road and found ourselves enveloped in thick mist while the temperature plummeted. After a few miles we took the narrow side road descending steeply towards Ban Dem, the main settlement of Ban Ho ‘village’.

‘Ban Ho is lower and warmer,’ Minh had told us, and he was right. Once we were below the mist the temperature rose pleasantly into the low twenties. The tarmac ran out on the edge of the village so we strolled into the centre where we had a late lunch of  pho bo, noodle soup with beef. Coriander is the usual herb in pho, but on this occasion the soup was strongly flavoured with mint. As I slurped my noodles, I heard the distinctive and not entirely unfamiliar rumble of my grandmother rotating in her grave. A Vietnamese village café was one thing, but to eat beef with mint sauce was clearly a step beyond civilization.

Our home for the night was at the farthest and highest point of the village, which Lynne saw as the straw beyond the last straw.

Our hosts, Mr & Mrs Ut, were an elderly Tay couple who were clearly important within the village. Their large wooden house, set in a substantial garden, was a manorial hall compared with Der’s modest residence. The kitchen, though much larger than at Ta Van, had a similar packed earth floor and an open fire. There was little in the way of kitchen appliances except the usual two ring gas burner.
The Ut's house
Ban Dem

Downstairs was open at the front and had as many tables and chairs as a restaurant. At the back was a curtained off sleeping alcove and a television. The huge single room upstairs was reached by an outside wooden staircase. A dozen mattresses had been laid out on the floor, two of them had been covered with sheets for us. There were stairs up to the gallery where there were more mattresses, one of which was for Minh.

There was a shower room on the back wall and while we made use of that Minh walked back into town to buy some bamboo tips for dinner.

Minh hepls Mrs Ut in the kitchen

There was a carp pond beside the house and large fish could be seen patrolling its milky depths. A little further away was a similar pond on a slightly lower level. A narrow concrete channel fed water from one pond to the other and over it had been erected a sturdy wooden hut. Breeze blocks on either side of the channel provided a place to squat and waste was swept away by the rushing water. As toilets go it was simple and effective and as fragrant as any toilet anywhere. There were carp in the upper pond, carp and crap in the lower pond but nature seemed easily capable of dealing with this low level of pollution. More worrying was the narrow and uneven path between the ponds, but thankfully that was lit at night.

The path between the ponds

Lynne went for a nap and I pottered around for what was left of the afternoon. When she returned we were offered a cup of tea and cakes of banana pounded and boiled in sticky rice and stored in banana leaves. They tasted as appetizing as they looked and neither of us persevered beyond the first bite.

Banana and sticky rice

Dinner was again at 6 o’clock when the sun set. We ate with Minh and the Uts seated at a ‘normal’ table on the terrace. It was basically the same meal as our previous dinner and the two lunches before, but this time with fried bamboo tips rather than cabbage. There were also a large pile of boiled bamboo fronds. These were to be dipped into a paste of pounded herbs collected by Mrs Ut herself. ‘It’s very bitter,’ Minh warned us.  He was right, we both found it too bitter to be enjoyable and judging from the way Minh avoided them he agreed. Mr and Mrs Ut, though, took a different view, slapping the fronds into the paste with vigour and chomping them up with obvious relish. Between them they demolished the whole huge bowl but only picked at the beef and chicken.

Mr Ut also produced a water bottle full of rice wine, a gentler fruitier distillation than Der’s. Glasses were filled, clinked and emptied and then refilled. Minh informed us that, on doctor’s orders, Mr Ut would drink only three glasses as he had a stomach problem but we were free to carry on. After the previous night’s excesses this seemed a good time to call a halt.

Lynne went to bed soon after dinner complaining of sore legs, sore feet, sore everything. Minh and I sat and chatted while the Uts watched television with their granddaughter who had turned up around five o’clock and had been doing homework ever since.

Back to Part 4
Walking the Muong Hoa Valley:Sa Pa to Ta Van

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Trekking from Sa Pa (1) Sa Pa to Ta Van: Part 5 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 4
Lao Cai, Coc Ly & Sa Pa
On to Part 5

Those more familiar with OS maps might note that red indicates a (largely) metalled road of any size.
Tracks shown in yellow are footpaths or concrete strips for motorcycles

Our target for the day was the Day village of Ta Van but there were two possible routes. Discussing it on Tuesday I had given in and settled for the easier route but fell asleep wondering if I might make another bid for the more demanding route in the morning. We awoke to the sound of a thunderstorm unleashing a deluge on the Muong Hoa Valley, and the issue was settled.

After a fortifying bowl of pho we met Minh and set off down the road south from Sa Pa. The rain had stopped and as we left town we had excellent views of both the mist below us and the mist above.

The mist below,
Muong Hoa Valley
We marched along among a battalion of tourists, accompanied by at least as many Black Hmong women, their baskets full of handicrafts. I had been looking forward to the walk, but this was more like being part of an invading army. Then, about a kilometre out of town, we reached a handicraft centre. Everybody else turned off, and we were left pretty much on our own.

All tourists have Black Hmong attendants
Leaving Sa Pa
A kilometre later we left the metalled road passed through a hamlet where a gaggle of children were playing in the dirt and joined a wide path leading gently down into the misty depths of the Muong Hoa Valley.

We leave the road past children playing in the dirt
near Sa Pa

We descended on a broad and gently graded track. Minh wore a pair of trainers which had seen better days and was keen to keep his feet dry, skipping over the puddles and round the worst of the mud. I did not bother.

Lynne and Minh take a breather
Muong Hoa Valley
‘Those boots are waterproof?’ he asked as we took a breather. ‘Completely,’ I answered. ‘But very heavy,’ he countered. ‘They’re surprisingly light,’ I told him, but he looked unconvinced.  They really are light, as boots go, but two pairs of walking boots had added weight and taken up space in our luggage. At home we had wondered whether we would really need them; by the end of the first hour we knew we had made the right choice.

Terraces filled with water and ready for planting
Muong Hoa Valley

We passed through a farmstead or two and beside many rice terraces and eventually found ourselves below the mist.
The valley bottom comes into view....
The view into the valley was filled with many, many more terraces, filled with water and ready for planting.

...with many, many water filled terraces

We dropped in on a handicraft centre, where we could look without pressure to buy and then stopped to inspect a small field of indigo, which I had not realised was a plant, never mind a commercial crop. Only later did I learn it is actually woad – a plant my ancestors would have known well.

A small crop of indigo
Muong Hoa Valley

It took us a couple of hours to work our way down  to the bottom where we crossed the river by the Lao Chai bridge, one of many suspension bridges for pedestrians – and the inevitable motorbikes – spanning the Muong Hoa River.

Beside the river, in a large breeze block building we found a kitchen, a lot of people and a dozen or more long communal tables. We sat down and Minh disappeared to order. The Australians on the next table had a huge pile of flaccid buns, triangles of processed cheese and omelettes that could have been used as building material. They seemed happy, but it did not fill me with optimism.

A girl was circulating with a tray of drinks, so we selected a couple of bottles of beer and waited for our food. We had beef in a gingery sauce, chicken with mushrooms, tofu with tomatoes, cabbage and rice. It was much the same as the previous day’s lunch, but well-cooked and vastly preferable to a flaccid bun. As we ate, more and more customers poured in, some crossing the bridge, others descending from the other side of the river, almost everyone had an accompanying Hmong retinue. We had seen a few other parties when walking, but we were largely on our own; now we could see just how many walkers had been out there in the mist

Outside the restaurant
Lao Chai, Muong Hoa Valley

After lunch we followed the road along the valley bottom. Although unsurfaced it was passible by motor vehicles (though easier with four wheel drive) but the traffic was almost entirely pedestrian. We briefly visited the village school. The classrooms were clean and airy and one little girl was busily working through her lunch hour (or was she in detention?)

Working through her lunch hour
Lao Chai, Muong Hoa Valley

Outside a group of girls played jacks.

Playing jacks, Lao Chai Muong Hoa Valley
We walked past terraced fields and the houses of the people who worked them. Children played in the mud, piglets scampered across the road, and a flotilla of ducks sailed serenely up a field. Everywhere water buffaloes grazed or wallowed as the mood took them.

A flotilla of ducks, Muong Hoa Valley

The flatlands of the Red River and Mekong deltas produce three harvests a year. Here the mountain climate is less generous and the small terraced fields prevent much use of mechanisation – not that many farmers can afford anything more mechanised than a buffalo. Lao Cai is the poorest province in Vietnam, and it looked like it.

Fields and the houses of the people who worked them, Muong Hoa Valley

We reached Ta Van in mid-afternoon. Minh lead us through a gate into a covered concrete terrace outside a well-built village house. We were greeted by a smiling young man carrying his two-year-old daughter in a sling on his back.

Der's (Tuonz's) house, Ta Van, Muong Hoa Valley

‘This is Der,’ Minh said introducing our host. Vietnamese is a tonal language and although I have a tin ear for tones ‘Der’ was clearly pronounced in what we might call ‘imperative voice.’ I asked Minh how it was spelled. ‘T-U-O-N-Z,’ was the answer. Vietnamese has been written in Roman script since the seventeenth century but to the untutored eye the writing does not always match up with the pronunciation.

Der (I could write Tuonz, but I have set a precedent by writing ‘Joe’ for Truong throughout the Hanoi posts - and it is easier for the English speaking reader) lived here with his rather uncommunicative wife and their daughter Nhu. Grandma – Der’s mother-in-law - was visiting from Sa Pa. Our host were Day, the women being dressed in much brighter colours than the Black Hmong, with complicated checked headscarves.                                                                                          

Behind the terrace the open front room contained the usual altar to the family ancestors. To the right was the dark recess of the kitchen. It had a packed mud floor, permanently running water collecting in a plastic bowl before spilling down the drain and an open fire which was heating a cauldron of pig swill; the pigs had a sty at the end of the garden. There were shelves for the usual kitchen utensils, a two-ring gas burner and the usual low dining table.

The family altar at Tuonz's House, Ta Van, Muong Hoa Valley

To the left of the altar was a curtained recess containing a bed and a television and beyond that, in a lean-to extension, was a five-bed dormitory. As these beds were ours – all of them – Lynne lay down and had a nap. There was another dormitory upstairs, which Minh had to himself, and somewhere, though we never discovered where, sleeping accommodation for Der, his wife and Nhu.

I sat at the ‘normal’ sized table on the terrace and Minh brought out some tea and a ball of sweetened puffed rice. It resembled a large ball of Ricicles, but was homemade and had a slightly smoky tang. Eating it involved scraping off the outer layer, collecting up the grains and popping them in your mouth. Grandma seemed to find something immoderately funny in the way I did this. Disappearing into the kitchen, she returned with a metal spoon, scraped off some rice, collected it in the spoon and handed it me. I poured it down my throat. This was hilarious. We repeated the game several times, and each time my actions were as comical as the time before. I have no idea what I did that so amused her, but I was happy to play along

Tea and a large ball of 'Ricicles', Ta Van

After a while, Lynne emerged from her nap, Minh said he was going to help with the cooking and suggested we took a walk round the village. The village, indeed the whole valley, is criss-crossed by concrete paths about a metre wide. Most villages are inaccessible to four-wheeled vehicles but the paths provide motorcycle access almost everywhere. Our circuit of the village followed a concrete path down through the houses and across the top of some rice terraces. Here a water buffalo blocked our path but despite their size and their horns they are docile beasts and it was easy to push it out of the way. We walked down to the river, below some terraces and then back up to the house.

Village house, Ta Van

Grandma was there to insist we finish the rice ball, and also produced a welcome bottle of beer each. A concrete outhouse at the side of the terrace contained not only a flush toilet, but a shower, so we made good use of it.

Walking round Ta Van
Lynne about to show a buffalo who's boss

Ta Van has a number of homestays so there were several foreigners in the village, but by now walkers had stopped passing, so a group of Hmong women gathered outside our gate. It is sometimes said that much of their handicraft is actually made in factories in China, I cannot vouch for all of it, but market traders in Sa Pa had sowing machines behind their stalls to fill in quiet moments, and the women outside our gate were all busy sowing as they chatted. Whether or not there is a big enough market for this vast avalanche of bags, scarves and mobile phone covers I do not know, but the quality is good and the provenance of much of it is genuine enough.

Below the rice terraces, Ta Van

A thirty-something American staying nearby came out to talk to them. The women were keen to extract some money from him, and although he made some purchases they wanted him to buy more, telling him how rich he was and how happy they would be to share some of his wealth. He ended up giving them a lecture, though how much they understood is debatable. ‘Money,’ he told them, ‘cannot buy happiness. It is far more important to have good health and to be surrounded by a loving family.’ He was, of course, right, but the argument is far easier to understand when you have ample money for your basic needs and a bit more besides.

Darkness fell about 6 o’clock. ‘Do you want to eat out there or in the kitchen with the family?’ Minh asked. The decision was simple, though it meant folding ourselves down on to tiny stools beside the low table – not an action that comes naturally to me.

Der brought shot glasses for himself, Minh, Lynne and me – local women do not drink alcohol (in public, anyway) – and a half litre bottle that had once contained water but was now was full of rice wine.  Although it is called ‘wine’ it is actually a spirit, the distilling being done locally, sometimes even at home.  ‘Try it and see if you like it,’ Minh said. He would not have asked if he had known us longer. Over the years we have survived and even enjoyed Irish poteen (illegal), Sudanese arrigi (very illegal) and Armenian mulberry vodka (legal) - among others -  and consider ourselves aficionados of home distillation.

Clinking glass with Der, Ta Van, Muong Hoa Valley

Glasses were filled, clinked together, emptied and refilled and we got on with the serious business of eating. The food was excellent, if very similar to our last two lunches. There was no tofu this time, but the beef was particularly good, the tender meat spiced with the flavours of ginger and lemongrass.

Mrs Der, Nhu and Grandma, Ta Van, Muong Hoa Valley

Half way down the second bottle Lynne called a halt. I think Minh was quite relieved, he did not want to lose face by being the first to drop out, but he had reached his limit before the second bottle was drained. I knew - without any need for a common language – that Der wanted to open a third, but needed support from one other person. He looked at me. It would have been sensible to shake my head, but I am not always sensible. I nodded.

The small, scruffy house cat deals with his flees, ta Van, Muong Hoa Valley

We sat and drank as relatives and neighbours drifted in and out for a gossip or to stare at the strange foreigners. After a while my aching knees told me I had to give up sitting on the low chair, so I found a ‘normal’ chair, sat in the corner of the kitchen and let Vietnamese domestic life wash over me.

Friends and relatives drop in for a chat while Der stirs the pig swill
Ta Van, Muong Hoa Valley

Eventually we went to bed. Dinner had started at sunset, so although it had been a long evening, we went to bed about 9. As I made my way to the outside toilet I realised I had drunk more than was strictly good for me, but by then it was far too late to do anything about it.

Back to Part 4
Lao Cai, Coc Ly & Sa Pa
On to Part 5