It was early February 2001 and little did I know that I was about to embark on a 20-year adventure discovering the unspoiled and intriguing cultural diversity in the hill tribes and minority regions of South East Asia and China. My wife and I had temporarily abandoned our jobs in New York City for a three-month trip, first to Australia, then Vietnam and finally, China. The Australia portion was fairly uncomplicated. Save for a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, most of our time would be spent in the Sydney area, staying at the gracious invitation of good friends. As the flight to Ho Chi Minh City drew nearer, Vietnam travel planning became more intense, but apart from thoroughly reading the Lonely Planet guidebook, the extent of our “plan” was to travel from South to North, with an interest in visiting some remote and less-traveled areas, mostly north of Hà Nội, around the town of Sapa.
Though I had been working in fashion photography in NYC since the late-1980’s, the inspirational heroes in my photographic education had always been documentary photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Sebastio Selgado, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Gilles Peress and Mary Ellen Mark. This trip was going to provide me with the opportunity to rediscover those roots and I had a nice new “friend” to assist in the journey. Before we left, my wife surprised me with a gift of the medium format Mamiya 7 camera and its stunningly sharp and non-distorting 65mm wide-angle lens. While digital technology was becoming more and more prevalent, there was no question in my mind that on this trip I was mostly shooting black and white film, and this was the camera to take; a rangefinder in the Leica tradition, and due to the medium format film capability, image quality that would blow away any 35mm camera. [Note from the year 2021 – While I do now shoot digital with a Canon 5D, the Mamiya 7 is still my first-choice camera, and practically every black and white image in this book was shot with that camera.]
The camera choice was simplified in Australia when my wife inadvertently let my Nikon F2 get submerged in salt water, proving the old adage once again that the wife giveth and the wife taketh!
Coming from the laid-back chill of east coast Australia, it was certainly jarring arriving at the intensely bustling HCMC airport, amid drivers of jostling taxis and cyclos (a bicycle driven carriage), all begging you to allow them to take you to your hotel. We had selected the plush, $25/night Giant Dragon Hotel, in the Pham Ngu Lao district, which happened to be in the main backpacker “khu tay ba lo” region of HCMC. Succumbing to practically the first imploring cab, we soon found ourselves zooming through the dusty, hot and fairly uninteresting city outskirts.
After dropping off our bags and rejuvenating with some delicious phở noodles close to the hotel (complete with politely fending off children hawking photocopied versions of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American), it was time to walk the city to Sinhbalo Adventures to meet Sinh himself, a recommended guide who seemed to specialize in planning trips for those willing to rough it. But walking the city not such a simple task! While there are certainly a fair number of cars in HCMC, the vast majority of traffic consists of endless waves of whizzing motorbikes, scooters and cyclos. Road rules and pedestrian conveniences (crosswalks) are largely absent and negotiating the crossing of a street proves at first to be both terrifying and impossible. After watching a few more-seasoned tourists navigate the roadways, the treacherous task seemed less daunting: As long as you have the nerve to step into the street, the bikers will adjust their path to avoid you, but, and this is VERY important, DO NOT make eye contact with the biker, because that will imply that you see them and you will stop to accommodate them, which essentially means you are going nowhere. So, after plucking up the courage, we dipped our feet in the roadway and propelled ourselves forward with perhaps an unconvincing air of blind ignorance. Miraculously, and with some relief, we soon found ourselves successfully on the other side.
Whether it was a motorbike, a scooter or a bicycle flashing by, it was impossible not to notice how often one would see a young Vietnamese woman passenger dangling diagonally off the rear seat, effortlessly balancing herself on a tiny perch while holding an umbrella to keep the sun off her face. These women were usually dressed in the ultra-stylish and traditional áo dài, a tight-fitting and long tunic style dress worn over pants. Wearing an áo dài meant that you were covered from head-to-toe in clothing, though its form-hugging design famously inspired the leering description, it covers everything but hides nothing. The male counterparts chauffeuring them around displayed none of the same clothing style save for dark, wrap-around sunglasses and usually a cigarette hanging out of the side of their mouth.
Sinh seemed very helpful and booked us on a small, two-day tour of the Mekong Delta, a few hours south of the city, with the allure of exotic floating markets and verdant scenery. We asked about going to Pleiku to do some trekking in hill tribe regions of the Central Highlands, the mountainous section of western Vietnam bordering Laos and Cambodia. Billed as being unspoiled and populated by several different ethnic groups, including the Jarai and Bahnar minorities (also known as Montagnards), the Central Highlands were a destination that excited us both as it was off the main backpacker route and promised authentic flavor. But Sinh gave us the bad news that there was Montagnard unrest in the region, and the government had the area completely closed off, so we settled for what we thought would be a fairly diversionary and touristic excursion to the Mekong while we adjusted our plans on our way north.
Meandering through the city the rest of the afternoon, we stopped at the fascinating War Remnants Museum, which had a number of interesting and gruesome exhibitions from the “American” war. Of course the Vietnamese call it the American War! But to my naïve and ethnocentric ear, it still struck me as unusual to read and look at images titled with the reverse name. Later that afternoon, and quite by extraordinary luck, we met Mason Florence, the writer of the Lonely Planet book that we had studied so carefully in Sydney. Mason invited us to dinner that night with several LP colleagues and this dinner would yield a treasure trove of great information for our travel itinerary to the north.
It was indeed a soft landing to find ourselves on that first, sultry Vietnam evening sipping ice-cold beer and eating all kinds of grilled meat, shrimp, squid, etc. barbecued right at our table with a group of seasoned travel writers. They confirmed that the Pleiku area of the Central Highlands was off-limits but suggested that we instead visit the town of Đà Lạt, built by the French as a colonial hill station/garrison, also serving as a retreat (resort) from the oppressive Saigon heat. To boot, the mountainous regions around Đà Lạt were home to many minority communities, and they suspected a local guide could easily be found for some trekking. It all sounded good to us as we kicked back one frosty Saigon beer after another.
After authentic French croissants and some strong Vietnamese coffee, the next day was spent touring HCMC with our new best friend, Thanh, a cyclo driver who spoke remarkably good English. In addition to the typical tourist stops we spent some time in Cholon, the historic Chinese quarter, visiting several pagodas and the atmospheric Binh Tay market, replete with baskets of live fowl, hanging meat carcasses, fruits, vegetables and Chinese knock-off goods.
Our next two days in the Mekong Delta were predictably touristy, but certainly scenic - ubiquitous floating markets that were obviously targeted to visiting western tourists rather than local customers - yet the novelty of paddling and splashing up to a vendor did have its moments of charm. Emerald-green rice paddies, banana plantations and various fruit orchards dotted the riverbank, and there was an interesting visit to a local farm, where amid all the lush produce, sheets and sheets of ultra-thin rice paper lay drying on bamboo-mesh platforms. The rice paper, we learned, was a common ingredient in Vietnamese cooking, most often used in the making of spring and summer rolls. While waiting for a ferry in the town of Vinh Long, a young girl, perhaps no more than five years old, stared at me intently with an outstretched hand. She was wearing a patterned and light sleeveless dress with a gold chain around her neck. Her expression and gaze were unwavering and did not change as I slowly raised the Mamiya and took one picture of her before the moment vanished and she turned away to her mother. I only wish that I could have sent her the picture but communication with the mother was not possible.
Returning to HCMC for our last evening, we eschewed the posh Mandarine and Hoi An restaurant to dine with some locals in a non-descript eatery. The first four pages of the menu consisted of snapping turtle, minced bat, several varieties of snake and two of field mice. We went the safe route and ordered a hot pot, which turned out to be delicious, but our appetites were somewhat lessened by the giant water bugs feasting on chicken bones on the floor. Luckily there was chocolate in our hotel room!
A rather modern and air-conditioned bus awaited us the next morning for our 8-hour journey to Đà Lạt. The bus fare was a whopping $5. We arrived in town with still plenty of daylight to explore the crumbling French-colonial architecture, found a charming hotel adjoining the main square ($20) and most importantly we met Dong, a local Chill minority guide, who eagerly agreed to take us on a two-day trek the following morning. Dong asked us to be ready to go at 8am, and my fears of over-sleeping were quickly erased in the wee hours by the booming loudspeakers that woke up the town at the crack of dawn with music and I can only assume local news and announcements. And if the music and news somehow failed to eradicate your slumber, the intermittent symphony of rooster calls certainly sealed the deal.
This day, and it’s not just any day, was Valentine’s Day, and it started with a steep walk to the Tiger Cave waterfall. The mountain scenery was stunning, and the crisp blue skies and cool temperatures eased the effort of the climb. Now and then the forest opened up to coffee plantations and fast-moving streams, some of which were quite deep and had to be crossed barefoot. Dong traversed these streams effortlessly, while we inched along the rocky streambeds gingerly, our western feet way too sensitive and unprepared for the rough stones underneath. In the late afternoon, after a particularly grueling and sharp ascent, we reached the Chill village where we would be spending the night. The village was very simple, an open dirt oval with basic thatched huts around the perimeter. There was no electricity, but plenty of water from a nearby stream. The men and women appeared to still be at work in the fields, so I photographed the local children who followed us wherever we went. The children were of course completely unsupervised, and girls as young as 5 or 6 carried their baby siblings in papoose-like shawls, clearly responsible for their welfare. The boys ran around without a care in the world. We would later be told that most families have between 10-15 children and motherhood generally starts around the age of 14.
In the evening, after a delicious dinner cooked by Dong, the villagers built a bonfire around our campsite and thrust cigarettes, rice wine and, terrifyingly, the mandatory singing of Beatles songs. Let it Be said that it perhaps was not the most romantic Valentine’s Day but, without a doubt, the most atmospheric!
The next morning seemed even more glorious than the day before and despite the wretched Nescafe 3-in-1 facsimile of coffee and cream, we hiked up another two hours to a smaller Chill village. Along the way, we saw locals working in the fields and tending to livestock. Luckily our biggest stream crossing had a monkey bridge of small slats and rope handrails, so our pampered feet caught a much-needed break. After a long descent we were back in town by late afternoon, and after a quick clean-up, we met up with Dong for dinner and to say our goodbyes. Dong wished us off with locally made gifts of friendship bracelets and we embraced and gave him our heartfelt thanks for two spectacularly memorable days.
While the bus journey to Đà Lạt was beyond our expectations for comfort, we weren’t relishing a 15-hour slog to get to the central part of the country, principally near to Huế and Hội An. There were no flights out of Đà Lạt, but there were flights from Nha Trang, a coastal city about 135km away, so the next morning we hopped on the bus and rode over several stunning mountains passes before descending to the sea. Along the way was a brief stop-over to see the majestic but crumbling remnants of the 13th century Cham Towers at the Po Klong Garai temple.
Nha Trang was definitely not a place that we thought we wanted to spend any significant amount of time. Its principal attraction is the sea, but we weren’t in Vietnam to chill on the beach, plus we had heard it was becoming increasingly western-commercialized, so the plan was to get in and out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we discovered when we arrived that it would be two days until the next flight to Đà Nẵng, so we had to make do with all the delights of this burgeoning backpacker paradise. Here the Lonely Planet guidebook was extremely helpful, explicitly stating that whatever you do in Nha Trang, AVOID the drunken orgy of Mama Hanh’s boat excursions. With this information foremost on our minds, we confidently booked a snorkeling trip the next day, assured by the travel company that our boat, the Mama Hanh II, was not the “party” boat that we had been warned about in the book.
The next morning, under a blazing blue sky, we headed to the pier for our day of quiet relaxation and coral-reef snorkeling. But we quickly realized we had been duped and were indeed on the dreaded ship of inebriation, as scores of enthusiastic Brits clambered aboard, green Carlsberg beer cans popping-open for their breakfast. The rowdiness was held in check for a few hours, but once the polite boat staff started handing out fruit snacks to the passengers, things started to get ugly, as watermelon balls and grapes were adopted as ammunition for an old-fashioned and intoxicated food fight. We spent as much time in the water as possible to steer clear of the mayhem. The snorkeling was pretty mediocre, or perhaps we had been too spoiled by the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, so we were very happy to return to port later that afternoon and escape the unruly throng.
Since our arrival in Vietnam, I had been carrying my cameras and our money/travelers checks and passports in a simple camera bag. The bag was permanently on my shoulders when out walking, and either in my lap or cushioned between my feet (with the strap wrapped around my ankles) when sitting down and eating. So, on this night, like many others before, we settled ourselves into dinner, my bag safely cradled between my sandals. We ate at a lovely seaside restaurant, grilling spicy shrimp and beef right at our table, and, perhaps inspired by the heroics of our shipmates from earlier that day, washed it all down with maybe one-too-many beers. Rising unsteadily at the end of the meal, we staggered out onto the promenade and happily accepted a cyclo ride for the 5-minute journey back to our hotel. In this pre-smartphone era, we decided to stop just next to our hotel at an internet café to send off an update to our friends and family, and about 30-minutes later, trotted into the hotel lobby.
“Give me the bag” I said to my wife. “Bag?” she answered, “you have the bag!”. Uh no, I didn’t. Panic! Shit, I must have left it in the internet café… It wasn’t there. Or maybe in the cyclo.. Nope, the driver was still there, and nothing was inside. Now it was time for major panic! The cyclo driver sped me back to the restaurant, I burst in, our table was vacant, and I looked expectantly under the table for the bag. Nothing… Our passports, all of our money, my Mamiya 7 camera, it all went poof before my eyes. Then I looked up and over at the bartender who was watching me with great amusement, my camera bag dangling in his outstretched arm. The curse of Mama Hanh had ended on a happy note as all the contents were safely intact. The weight of terror, both of losing these irreplaceable items and facing the wrath of my wife (hard to choose which was worse) evaporated in a split-second, the bartender was generously rewarded, and our trip resumed.
The next morning, I discovered the Mama Hanh curse was not so easy to eradicate! I awoke feeling lousy, congested, coughing, low fever, and was not relishing the early-morning flight to Đà Nẵng. Of course, I used my weakened condition to justify to my wife the reason why I so negligently jeopardized our whole trip the evening before, “must have been this bug which made me so light-headed and absent minded”, I optimistically wheezed. But despite yesterday’s happy ending, sympathy from the other-half was not readily forthcoming. As the morning wore on, it was harder and harder to distinguish between the pounding in my head and the pounding of nails of the doghouse, which clearly was now fully constructed, and ready for my occupancy!
The flight was uneventful and short, and soon after arriving we were in a taxi for a quick transfer to Hội An. Despite the dull and wet weather, Hội An was undeniably charming, replete with a mixture of colonial architecture, sweeping verandas, lofty Vietnamese “tube houses” and Chinese temples and shophouses, all in soothing pastel tones. Complimenting the architectural assortment were winding alleyways, stone streets, and quaint bridges, including the famous Japanese covered bridge and pagoda. We found a lovely guest house with a view of the Thu Bồn river and grabbed some lunch at a nearby café. Feeling increasingly unwell, I meandered back to the hotel for a nap. Along the way, I passed an arched courtyard and was struck by a shaft of light illuminating various people busy with food preparation. I wearily took one picture and staggered on. Ironically, this image has been sold more than any other image I have ever shot.
Other than eating a delicious 5-course dinner that evening of Hội An specialties, including Cao Lau and Banh Bao Vac (a $3 outlay), most of the rest of my day was spent dozing in the guesthouse. The next morning I was feeling no better, and though the day was warm and sunny, I stayed in bed while my wife went sight-seeing, along the way buying two silk sleeping bag liners, which would prove to become indispensable travel necessities over the next 20 or so years of remote trekking. I mustered enough energy to devour some Banh Mi for lunch at the nearby Mermaid restaurant, and feeling a little rejuvenated, we spent the afternoon at Mỹ Sơn, a breathtaking conglomeration of damaged/dilapidated Cham temples, some dating back to the 4th century, now recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site. Tragically the site was damaged extensively during the American war, but its intricate carvings were nevertheless quite remarkable.
Still feeling crappy, I got up early the next day for the 6-hour bus journey to Huế, the capital of the country from 1802 – 1945. Huế’s main attraction is the historic imperial city and citadel, and even in my weakened state, it did not disappoint. In contrast to Beijing’s imperial city, here you could walk around the entire complex, without barriers or plexiglass covers, and thankfully no gimmicky, commercial enterprises were in operation. The vastness and grandeur of the structures, some in reasonable condition, others quite deteriorated and bullet-ridden, both from neglect and war (French and American), were extremely impressive. Walking past the citadels thick walls, crossing the ringing moats on ornate bridges and entering the royal pavilions via the imperial gates stirred the imagination, conjuring fragmentary images of life during the Nguyễn dynasty.
Leaving the imperial city in the late afternoon, we grabbed a dragon boat down the Perfume river to the Minh Mang royal tomb. Wow! I thought the imperial city was awesome, but the Minh Mang tomb was mesmerizingly tranquil and gorgeous. And somehow it had escaped significant war damage, so you really could marvel at both the exquisite exterior stone and woodwork and the interior lacquered design. The landscaping was chosen with extreme care and precision evoking calmness and serenity in every direction. While I have been to many sublime locations in Asia, Minh Mang remains one of the most memorable masterpieces I have been fortunate enough to see.
Returning to Huế, the day ended on an even happier note when I stumbled across a pharmacy and noticed all kinds of antibiotics readily for sale. I picked one that seemed to have a familiar name from prescriptions that I had taken in the US, took the first dose, and went to bed.
The meds had immediate effect, and for our last day in the region before flying to Hà Nội, we decided to visit the famous demilitarized zone, or as commonly called, the DMZ. From what we could tell from the guide companies, this was going to be a highly touristic, commercial affair, so we eschewed the 12-hour guided tour and hired a car to drive us 2.5 hours to the Vĩnh Mốc tunnels, an elaborate, 30m deep underground complex built at the height of the American war. The tunnels were quite incredible, basically encompassing all the needs of a small village, 100’ below the ground. The Americans suspected that this village was serving as a supply route to the north, but the ingenuity of the tunnel system saved the village population from the US bombings and operated without a single casualty for over six years.
As an American in Vietnam, less than 30 years since the hostilities had ended, I was naturally somewhat apprehensive about the reception that I would receive from the local populations. These concerns became heightened the longer we stayed in Vietnam as the war damage could plainly be seen in many of the historic sites that we were visiting, with some sites actually morphing into war tourism. So I was quite astonished at the warmth and kindness that was being shown to me everywhere we went. At first I figured that because we were starting in the south, perhaps this would explain the lack of animosity being directed towards me, but even as we went north, and certainly Hà Nội was about to become the real litmus test, the amiability and friendship of the people was truly surprising. It was also profoundly easy to speak with the locals. Often they, and even kids, would speak rudimentary English, certainly enough to be able to communicate about basic matters. The elders tended to speak less English, but my high school language requirements came in handy as they spoke reasonably conversant French. Basically, it was remarkably simple to get around. Goods were incredibly affordable, food and lodging ridiculously cheap and of high quality, and even from a spending-money perspective, there were ATM’s in the big towns/cities spitting out the Vietnamese đồng, but you could just as easily use regular American dollars and the exchange rate was identical wherever you went. Sometimes you even might buy something in đồng but receive your change in dollars! It was also much easier to use dollars from a space perspective… After one visit to an ATM, withdrawing perhaps $200 in đồng, we practically needed another carrier bag as the volume and weight of equivalent Vietnamese currency was absurdly enormous.
It was instantly obvious that I was going to like Hà Nội a lot more than HCMC. For a start, the weather was less humid and markedly cooler, so much cooler that we had to wear jackets and long pants when outside. The architecture was also far more interesting, especially in the Old Quarter, with many surviving, ornate Chinese and colonial-era buildings. And refreshingly, the robust commercialism of HCMC was noticeably less visible in Hà Nội, with fewer children and strangers approaching/beseeching you to buy their items.
After finding a hotel near the Old Quarter, we visited Mason’s girlfriend, Luka, who we had met at the dinner on our first night in HCMC and who managed a highly recommended guide company, Handspan Tours. Our basic plan, after a few days in Hà Nội, was to see the north’s most visited destination, Halong Bay, then head to Sapa for some trekking around the Hmong minority villages. We were then hoping to find transportation to the border at Lao Cai and walk into China.
After a delicious lunch in her vegetarian restaurant, Tamarind Café, Luka set us up for a three-day trip in Halong Bay, plus a side day-trip to Cat Ba island. Luka suggested that after we return from Halong Bay to simply take the overnight train to Sapa and go to their one and only guest house (Chappa), which she assured us would be teeming with local guides looking to take us trekking.
We spent the rest of that day and the next seeing the Old Quarter, and various museums, including the serene Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and his beautifully preserved stilt house and the Fine Arts Museum. We also visited the famous Hà Nội opera house, which I was under explicit orders from my mother that I had to photograph, as she had heard so much about its grandeur. The second night we had a trendy dinner with Luka and her business partner, Sylvie, at the fashionable Red Onion bistro, an internationally renowned San Francisco-cuisine eatery created by executive chef Bobby Chinn. Luka had actually trained as a cook in the restaurant, so we were given the royal treatment from the staff, finishing our alcohol-heavy dinner for four with a sublime chocolate pudding dessert that almost broke the bank ($60 for the entire meal!). We then bar-hopped with our hosts till 1:30am, feeling like locals when we finally drifted off at the hotel in a drunken slumber.
The next day we started the Halong Bay excursion. After a 4-hour car journey, we boarded our creaky vessel and toured the waterways, marveling at the sheer karst rock formations piercing the water and the mist. It was quite an ethereal experience, with the milky sky and the calm water creating postcard-images in every direction. The boat was also outfitted with kayaks, and we and the other passengers took turns slaloming between the rocky outcrops. Dinner aboard the ship was surprisingly delicious, and we ended up whiling away the rest of the evening playing cards with a couple that coincidentally lived a few blocks away from us in NYC. As we went to bed that night in our small cabin, I proposed that we tuck our socks into our boots. It was kind of an odd thing for me to suggest, I don’t really know why I said it, but we did it. During the night, I would occasionally wake up and hear a strange sound, a very difficult sound to describe in words, but basically it sounded like rapid and tiny chewing. As morning dawned, the tell-tale evidence or lack thereof was plain to see. Our socks were gone! Eating breakfast with our excellent guide Lam, I recounted the strange events. I suggested, perhaps naively, that it was some kind of mouse that had devoured and absconded with our socks, to which Lam proclaimed, somewhat drily, “not mouse… rat!”.
Luckily, we had more socks, and a few hours later we were touring the national park on Cat Ba island, a dense and lush forest, with steep and quite muddy sections. The trek up to the summit was a little challenging, but the walk down was positively treacherously slick, and despite our high-quality western boots, we took turns losing our balance and ending up on our backsides in a goo of Cat Ba soil. Meanwhile, Lam was lightly skipping down in his plastic clogs, never for a second losing his footing. Luckily the guesthouse had a shower, and even more good fortune followed when our clothes were not consumed by voracious rats that night. Back in Hà Nội by the following evening, we celebrated our last evening of relative comfort, blowing $40 on steak frites, red wine and chocolate mousse at the excellent French restaurant, Café Des Arts.
After a lazy final sightseeing day, including a stop at the One Pillar Pagoda, we boarded the night train to Lao Cai. The journey was fairly uncomfortable and neither of us managed to sleep more than a couple of hours. We arrived at dawn and transferred onto a local bus for the 1-hour trip to Sapa, pulling into the sleepy, foggy little town around 7am, and easily finding the Chappa restaurant.
Even at this early hour, Chappa was buzzing with activity. We were able to get a breakfast of fried noodles and communicated to the staff that we were looking for a guide to do some trekking. Within a few minutes appeared Thang, a quiet, thoughtful young man, with a wry sense of humor. We liked him instantly. Thang spoke reasonably good English, and we told him we’d like to go on a 3-day trek to see some remote villages that most tourists would not be willing to visit, either due to the distance or the steepness of the terrain. Thang said he had a good itinerary for us, and suggested we leave after lunch. My wife was able to get a room at Chappa to catch up on some missing sleep, and I walked around the town taking pictures in the atmospheric mist.
The fog was still thick when we set off around 1pm. Our first stop was the Hmong village of Lao Chai, about 3.5 miles from town. We walked steeply up and down tiny footpaths, meeting locals along the way dressed in traditional clothing. It was a photographic paradise and my Mamiya was humming. At one point we met two Hmong sisters returning from working in the fields, and my portrait of them remains one of the most iconic of the entire project; the two women, amid an ethereal backdrop of misty, terraced rice fields, wearing their home-made, indigo-dyed clothing and their delicate metal jewelry, wicker work bags and tools on their backs. One of them smiled at me, conveying a sense of warmth and kindness, the other was more stand-offish, preferring to return a gaze of determination and hardness.
Just before dusk we arrived at the Dzay village of Tawan. Thang led us to our host’s hut, where we parked our gear, and while he set off to start cooking dinner, we explored the tiny community. The locals were all wearing traditional clothing, their ornamental silver jewelry sparkling as the late afternoon sun made a surprise appearance. The village huts were simple wooden affairs, usually built on stilts, with their animals (mostly pigs and chickens) penned in underneath. A set of steep steps led to each hut’s entryway. While there were openings in the slats to allow for a little bit of light, there were no windows proper, certainly no glass, and as there was no electricity, the insides were dark and smoky, the open-kitchen wood fires hard at work for the evening meal.
We returned to our hut for dinner, where Thang made a delicious meal of fried greens, pork, rice and soup. While we were certainly hungry from the day’s travel, the simple meal was unexpectedly superb. Our host was an older gentleman, who spoke reasonably good French, and he entertained with stories from the French war while he plied us incessantly with ridiculously strong rice wine. By 8pm or so, things were quieting down; a cushion of blankets on the wood floor served as our bed, and we tucked into our silk sleeping bags and drifted off into a warm slumber.
Fried noodles greeted us for breakfast the next morning, and after saying our goodbyes, we were off to Giang Ta Chai to meet the Red Dao minority. The women were all in traditional dress, with colorful red hats on their heads, while the men preferred, or were simply allowed, to wear western clothing. As in most other areas of Sapa, the main economy is rice growing. Since it was February, we were too early for the first rice crop of the season (in this part of the north, they generally get only two crops per year, while the more prosperous south gets three), so instead of lush green paddies, we saw layer cakes of murky beds of brownish water with tiny grass blades poking up. And though the weather was still decidedly misty, it was nonetheless serenely beautiful. After a small rest in the village, we continued steeply upward to Su Pan village, where we met more Dao and also Black Hmong communities. There happened to be a market that day, and many people were milling about, but the main activity was a group of men on motorbikes practicing for a driving test.
My hungry camera continued to gobble up the photographic entrees. The locals were generally happy to be photographed, though the women projected a shyer, perhaps vainer attitude. The children were eager to meet us, practicing their few words of English and following us to the outskirts of their communities. While the area was unquestionably basic, with no electricity, plumbing or running water, and no paved roads, the locals that we met all appeared to be faring reasonably well.
After a simple lunch just outside of town, we descended sharply to the Tay minority village of Ban Ho, where we were to spend our second evening. Thang delivered again, serving up another delicious dinner of fried greens, pork, egg, rice and tofu, which we ate with the family squatting around a round table. As was the case the night before, the dining table was very low, sitting perhaps 10” off the ground, with tiny stools scattered around, allowing you to sit cross-legged on woven mats while eating and drinking more and more rice wine (clearly the locals have been advised to get the westerners hammered!). On this night, the family all ate together with us, including the women and children, but we were told this was unusual, as generally the women and children are only allowed to eat in the kitchen area. Our host smoked from a pipe and matched us shot for shot, emphatically pronouncing “Hoa” as together we emptied our glasses. The women neither smoked nor drank. By 8pm or so, the fires were dying out, and another night of inebriated sleep was our destiny!
The next morning’s breakfast made it obvious that we were not the first westerners to stay in this hut, as sizzling banana pancakes made a nice change from the spicy fried noodles. The sun was making a more determined effort, and we hiked a circuitous route back to Su Pan, the picturesque Lavie stream crisscrossing our path, with a memorable, slightly shaky ramble over the rickety Cau May suspension bridge. There were obligatory stops at several waterfalls on our way back up the mountain, and when we reached Su Pan, a jeep was waiting and whisked us back to the Chappa restaurant in Sapa where we had delicious chicken soup, then walked the town, at one point stumbling upon a Vietnamese wedding, to which we were instantly invited, the bride and groom imploring us to smoke their cigarettes and drink more rice wine. After an hour or so of their generous hospitality, we headed off for much-needed showers at the Green Bamboo hotel with the rest of the afternoon being spent extensively repacking for our journey the next day to the border at Lao Cai and the land crossing into China.
Thang saw us off the next morning, and my last picture in Vietnam was from the back of our jeep while he waved goodbye to us in the familiar and pervasive Sapa mist. And though our three magical weeks in Vietnam were ending and our intriguing and mysterious journey into China was just about to begin, our pilgrimage from the south to the north had been exhilarating and eye-opening. The sublime scenery, the fascinating cultures, the delicious food, and the amazingly friendly and generous people had punctuated our stay with many exclamation marks. It would be sixteen years before I would have to chance to visit this country again, and much would change, particularly in Sapa.