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…..

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

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