Star Date: December 2006
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Hello! Hmong hill tribe)
"The secret of
health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to
worry about the future, not to anticipate troubles, but to live in
the present moment wisely and earnestly."
Vietnam has a rich, intriguing history. This diversity is linked with the many wars and occupations of the Chinese, Khmers, Chams, Mongols, French and Americans, to name a few. This vibrant nation should never be underestimated. Always getting out from under conflicts these strong people are once again struggling to make their way in the world. During the second century B. C. (time of the first Caesar of Rome) the Chinese swept down and occupied Vietnam for over 1000 years. During this era Vietnam's coastal areas were on the major trade routes between China and India and the culture, science, arts and religions were influenced by these two giants. Combining this knowledge advanced Vietnamese culture and produced many great scholars, doctors, botanists, artists and philosophers.
The most recent hero, who delivered independence to the people of Vietnam in 1954, from the grasp of the sometimes cruel French colonial rule (12,000 indentured workers died at one Michelin rubber plantation alone) was Ho Chi Minh (Bringer of Light 1890 -1969). Uncle Ho as he is so lovingly called, came from a humble background. In 1911 his life changed forever when he set sail as a cook's assistant on a French ship. Visiting North America, Africa and Europe he mastered 5 languages and settled in Paris. His energy turned towards Indochinese independence and when he finally returned to Vietnam 30 years later he led his people to victory from their French rulers. Everywhere you go there is an Uncle Ho image or museum and the way he is idolized is in marked contrast to the simplicity in which he lived.
Traveling through the mountains of the far north we passed by caves and villages where Ho Chi Minh had lived and led his resistance movement. From one of the most remote areas in northern Vietnam, Ha Giang, we tried to get a permit up to the military sensitive border area with China. Turned away at the police station because we needed a guide (a costly tour situation) we looked at the map and took an alternative route heading east to Cao Bang. This began a day that led from the middle of nowhere to the unknown. The 9am bus broke the world's record for the longest 'trolling' in history. Trolling is a name we give for the technique of a public bus leaving the station and slowly driving the streets, lines baited, hoping to snag more passengers. One and a half hours later we had driven one mile across the river to the big market and round and round honking, all the while stopping to load large boxes of supplies or fruits and vegetables. This was a ritual which, like a shopping tour, allowed us to hang out at the market, buy necessary items from stalls and shops, talk to the locals, etc. In 3 hours we finally made it to Bac Me - only 30 miles down the road. A "one horse town" with only a single hotel, we decided to carry on. Our disagreeable bus assistant told us and two local tribes women to get out in a tiny village with only a couple of shops. We had no idea where we were or what our options were. No one spoke English but as it often is with people in these remote places they are the salt of the earth and ooze sincerity and kindness. Seeing our frustration a woman from a dark little tea house next to the river welcomed us in warmly, sat us down, and served up a cup of communal tea. There were no hotels out here and being 2pm we glanced around wondering what the day would bring. A bed in the corner was home to Grandpa, who scooted on his knuckles along the rough plank floor, wheelchairs not being an option. His wife ran the little restaurant and helped us figure out that the two brightly dressed ethnic women were heading down the line at 5pm. We decided we would have whatever flavor they had chosen and follow them. While on the bus, nee cargo truck, we had commented that if we got stuck out in the middle of nowhere at least we would have literally tons of vegetables to eat. You have to watch what you 'wish' for. Remembering where the last box had been heaved off I walked back to the little shop, had her open the parcel, and bought an array of fresh vegetables delivered by our very own bus. Thus loaded I walked back to the tea house and the accommodating daughter, my age, opened her kitchen to us. Dinner was prepared over a bamboo fire in the corner of the room, directly over 4 snorting pigs waiting for the peelings. Who needs a garbage disposal that is always clogging up? Filled up we waited for the bus to Bao Lam and left amid great fanfare from our new friends and neighbors.
The scenery on the road from Ha Giang all the way to Bao Lam was spectacular; winding it's way along the Lu River valley, with lush green rice fields and thatched huts, amid looming peaks and canyon walls. The stares we got showed that westerners were the exception rather than the rule, as in Sa Pa. The smiling, honest young bus assistant, who spent more time riding on top than in the bus, made up for his cranky predecessor and just after dark we pulled into the tiny village of Bao Lam. Joseph situated me in the corner of a tea shop just as all the lights went out. In total darkness Joseph passed up the rough dorm type rooms across from the bus station and sniffed out a hidden little guesthouse across the road. Amid candles and torches we moved into our new home for the night. As in most remote towns, 6 am starts the day with a booming broadcast of "Radio Vietnam". Preferring Robin Williams version, "Good Morning Vietnam", we are always prepared with our 'super duper Chinese noise proof' ear plugs. To our great joy the commotion outside led us to the weekly area market and we literally swam through a sea of colorful costumes as all the ethnic groups, Tay, Nung, Hmong, and Dzao converged to buy and sell their wares. Having a resident 6 inch long praying mantis named George in our room, who liked to climb up our arms, we were thrilled to see ethnic costumes in green and yellow, complete with wings, possibly portraying this common and stately insect. Bao Lam is definitely off the tourist route. Not even in the Lonely Planet or on the map, and with no real infrastructure, we felt that our pleasant encounters with these wonderful locals were almost "first contacts". It was an enjoyable experience for both parties as we laughed our way through the large market, women proudly posing and displaying their elaborate colorful costumes and hats, then squealing with delight to see themselves on camera for the first time. A minimum of 25-50 people followed us around and roared as Joseph bargained for a bunch of apple bananas or I bought vegetables for dinner. We followed groups of hills people home along a country road and sat by the river enjoying the remarkable scenery, every bit as lovely as the famous mogote mountains in Yangshuo, China. Our needs being very simple we only require a clean, quiet room, thermoses of boiled water to cool for drinking, a market table of vegetables and fruit, (which appears like clockwork in even the smallest village), and a basic kitchen or fire in which to cook our once daily meal. Rice is always a given in Asia, especially in Vietnam where it is a revered staple on the table, plus a successful export crop. We had unearthed another rough cut gem. With friendly Hong and his family running our guesthouse and swaying our decision, we decided to stay and explore the wild countryside for 6 days. We had no idea where we were but we knew that we were happy to be there!
As previously explained we are never at a loss for things to do, traveling with a library of 70,000 books on our laptop. Our biggest problem is finding enough time to have the computer read to us. With movies, music, books, and photos to stimulate the brain cells, this gift of technology allows us to settle into a place for a few days and never get bored, even in a town with no internet or contact with the larger world beyond. Often Joseph will put on a short attention-grabbing slide show for interested family members, amid "Oohs!" and "Aahs!". Favorite subjects seem to be scenes of Hawaii, pictures from this webpage, and Encarta video clips, but taking the lead amid howls of laughter, are photos of themselves or their village. A new town always has to be explored and that we did. We followed many dirt roads to surrounding villages or along the river and a dirt path zigzagging 2000 ft. straight up the mountains. Everyone was drop jaw shocked to see us pop up and would smile and beg to have their picture taken, so they could see the results. Digital cameras are great for making friends. Many stars were born during our walks. Mountains were being carved away by hand for road rock and all the young guys needed to show their muscles on film. Once when we started taking a shot of two enormous Vietnamese pot bellied pigs eating out of a tire, the lady owner showed up with more yummy slop. We said, "Stand next to them and we'll take your picture too." "No, No my hair is a mess and I have my old clothes on, but wait a minute", she conveyed in a local dialect. She ran at lightning speed back to her thatched hut and came out sporting a new blouse and tugging at her hair. She proudly stood next to the two pigs, who hadn't missed a beat at the trough. This friendly lady then invited us into her home for a cup of tea. She corralled her two little daughters, ages 3 and 5, and pulled off their dirty play clothes and replaced them with frilly pink and yellow dresses. A slap of spit on the hair and they were ready for their photo, rivaling fashion models. This commotion, of course attracted all the neighbors with newly donned attire, boys playing reed flutes, and more pigs and dogs. Photo shoots for People Magazine were never so hectic. Joseph snapped and showed, then we bought peanuts in the shell from their little shop and were given fresh pears as a gift. We blew up a colorful balloon and played a game with the gaggle of kids who had gathered. Balloons are a great gift to pull out of your pocket. Lightweight and always appreciated you can play with many kids at once - then move on before it pops. Living 'in the now' these simple folk are never disappointed. We headed back to town with our escorts trailing us, happy that we had the time to discover the real Vietnam. A favorite walk was east out of town, across the foot suspension bridge, then heading up the valley on the high path. We were invited into several thatched huts so poor that we only ate a couple of the small taro type roasted potatoes offered to us. There were too many other mouths to feed. But were these people complaining because they only had 1 bed, 2 small chairs, a smoky cooking fire in the corner, clothes like rags, and uneven dirt floors? No! Happy as chickens in a yard full of bugs the kids played games with their new cherished balloon, listened while we read and taught them English from a school book that materialized, and gasped in awe at their photos on our camera.
We continued our climb up the mountain through the lush jungle to the next valley and dropped down into the dry riverbed. We heard voices and followed them to the end of the riverbed, at the foot of what becomes an enormous waterfall in the wet season. A startled Grandma, her pregnant daughter, and a baby were busily washing clothes. We ventured to guess, due to the remoteness of their hut, that we were the first foreigners to ever visit them. Still wide eyed, we helped carry their laundry back to the most spartan hut we had ever seen. They showed us how they pound grain in a hollowed out log and grind corn between two large, hand carved mill stones. Two little boys that appeared were excited to see their photos before playing with their shiny new balloon. I slipped a bracelet onto Grandma's thin muscular arm. These villagers are poor but wiry and in excellent shape. Most westerners 20 years younger would have a tough time even making it over the mountain to town. We followed the river bed over enormous boulders and had a refreshing swim and rest by the first spring fed pool we found. Down we went jumping and scrambling our way towards town. As we looked back up the valley we realized that we had just visited another world.
We spent 5 nights in Bao Lam, long enough to enjoy another bright market day. This time we ran into many of the tribes people we had gotten to know on our walks. All dressed in their finery they would come up to us and smile, the women obviously proud to show off their hand done costume, a big improvement from the ragged clothes they wear around the farm. We noted about 20 albino or albino cross adults and children in the valley, a first in our travels. One pure albino woman who had shown us how to grind corn in front of her hut near the top of the mountain, proudly posed and squinted in the sunlight. Women who were shy the first market day now marched up and posed for a 're-shoot'. After enjoying several hours of the bustling market Joseph headed back to the room to edit photos and I sat on a low wooden stool eating a pomegranate with the little old lady who we bought our fruit from everyday. Gazing out at the crowds she handed me a toothpick and we sat there picking our teeth in unison, ending another great market experience.
Thirty four bodies in a minibus built for 20! Breaking a record for us this once a day transport from Bao Lam to Cao Bang was simply business as usual. We chuckled as they used everything but oil and a crowbar to shove the remaining sardines into the can. When this scenario is played out we are always thankful that we got our seats early at the originating town. Even the police were wise to this prank and set up a road checkpoint to count passengers. No problem! The bus sidekick just put the recent acquisitions on motorbikes and we all breathed a sigh of relief. This pleasure was short lived as we rounded the corner past the roadblock and picked up our stowaways. Cram, squish, inhale, off we rolled to Cao Bang.
An 8 am bus from Cao Bang winds it's way through a wonderland of limestone mountains decorated with green rice terraces and lush foliage. Even if you aren't prepared to stay in Trung Khanh, (at one of the 2 guesthouses), the scenic trip is worth the 1.5 hour ride. The 25 km further to Ban Gioc Waterfalls passes through one pleasant little stone village to the next, like pearls on the bluish green string of water from the river in the valley. The falls aren't disappointing, even in the dry season and it was fun for us to wave at the Chinese tourists enjoying the view from the other side. Totally undeveloped on the Vietnamese side, the Chinese side had a hotel and gaggles of tourists walking in pods or riding horses. On a local minibus we weren't even stopped to show papers or pay an entrance fee at this supposedly sensitive border area, but then we chose to walk through the rice paddies and enjoy the wild area of the falls rather than follow the road. Our return trip of walking over 7 miles was filled with scores of school children on bikes giving mass drive by "xin chaos", smiles or hellos from fellow walkers and meager markets with locals rich beyond material goods. All the while we followed the lazy milky green river complete with scores of bamboo waterwheels. Besides sharing rice syrup sweetened beans with locals in the market, we were invited into the large 2 story home of a Nung villager, with whom we had walked for over a mile. This ancient log, rock and bamboo structure had been recently reinforced with cinder block on one end. Cool and dark inside we were offered pale tea by his one eyed elderly wife (the affluent often make it way too strong) and 'moonshine' from his son, last of 7 children. The hand hewn planks on the floor supported a sitting area, three partitioned bedrooms, a cooking corner with a large stone wood burning stove and the largest cauldron we have ever seen. The fourth corner covered the squealing pig pen below. There wasn't a trace of odor and not an item out of place or a speck of dirt in this spacious home. As usual, like opening a drain, the house quickly filled up with curious assorted neighbors, grandchildren and on-lookers. This was definitely the first visit by strange westerners. Amid photos and giggles at the sight of their image, we waved goodbye but saw many of these friendly folk later riding their bikes along the road or in the market. The gorgeous river drew us in and we stopped to make our vegetable salad and soaked our feet amid the clusters of bamboo, mini waterfalls and interesting rock formations. By this time the low autumn sun was flooding the tidy harvested fields of rice with a bright golden light. We knew with over 15 miles back to town and apparently no more minibuses running, it was time to go with the flow and wait to see what would turn up. We stopped to watch farmers build large 20 ft high phallic shaped hay stacks in their fields and made a deal for the freshest green beans (for sprouts) that we had ever purchased - still drying from the harvest. Just then a large truck hauling gravel drove by and Joseph flagged it down and asked by gesturing if there was a chance of a ride back to town. The driver not only welcomed us into his air conditioned cab but stopped to buy us each a bottle of water and paused at the most scenic places for Joseph to snap a few more photos. His kindness was frosting on a day full of kindheartedness, and helped us to simply smile at the grumpy restaurant owners that evening. Like the little standard issue rubbish bins in every Vietnamese hotel bathroom proclaims: "Happiness to Everyone!"
In Trung Khanh, a "Radio Vietnam" kind of town,
we had become accustomed to rising early, inspired by the 6 -7am booming
broadcast from loudspeakers, roosters, and finally the revelry of the ever present
little military compound. We spent
several days wandering rural paths and exploring villages. The villagers were always
friendly but we were careful to have a stick for overly protective dogs.
As we walked by the many dark little stone or wood doorways a head
would pop out, say "hello" or "xin chao", and pop
back in, in unison. We felt as though we were in the Black Forest, with
rows and rows of cuckoo clocks going off in unison. If we
happened to return the same way the excited folks would say "Hi!" but this time linger at the door
for a better look; or we would see the shutters rustling as they
spied on us incognito. Trung Kagh's market, held every 5 days was a
lively, noisy affair, serviced by 3 large traveling buses carrying
cheap Chinese wares of every description. The main ethnic
minority group represented were the Tay.
A crazy 4 hour bus ride, involving 4 change of buses (only one scheduled) got our motors revved and ready for Hanoi. Beep, honk, beep, we were back; the silence of Ba Be shattered. We noticed right away that the pollution of the summer months had diminished and we spent time exploring the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, taking in the eclectic Russian inspired circus in Lenin Park, and walking through Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum Square and gloriously traffic free complex. We enjoyed the lakes and walkways in the Truc Bach Lake District, home of the delicious Indian Restaurant: Foodshop 45. A quiet little backwater we would have definitely found a hotel nearby if we had been staying longer in Hanoi. Instead we had headed, like homing pigeons, back to our little alley and this time stayed on the 3rd floor to avoid more noise. A definite consideration in boisterous Hanoi.
And so it
Northeastern Vietnam. Have a Happy Holiday Season!
Keep Smiling while trying to minimize the stress. Carry warm
memories of Christmas past in your heart but enjoy the gift of Now.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 16,000 VND.