Sue and I decided to finish our Southeast Asian odyssey, with an exclamation point– a five-month trip to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, then a swing down under to New Zealand and Australia. It was November 2017, and we were definitely in withdrawal after three years away.
While we had already visited Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, we were targeting new areas of travel within the countries themselves. As time was on our side (for a change!), we wanted this to be more of a free-form trip, with no cemented plans, if we liked a particular spot, we’d stay as long as we wanted, and if we didn’t, we’d move on quickly. We also were going to allow fellow travelers that we’d meet along the way to modify our itinerary should they either enthusiastically recommend or voice misgivings about a particular place. In fact, the only travel plans we made were flights from NYC to Hong Kong on November 3, 2017, then from Hong Kong to Auckland NZ on February 21, 2018, and finally from Sydney back to NYC on March 31, 2018. Everything in between was up for grabs.
What we were bringing with us, from a space and weight perspective, was by necessity going to be minimal, but fortunately all the travel was in reasonably warm temperatures, so no heavy winter clothing would be needed. Of course my camera gear, including film and Xray bags, was bulky and heavy, so the quantity of clothing options had to be minimal out of respect for the photographs. In the end, I was able to fit most everything I needed in two backpacks, a big one on my back, and a smaller one, with all the equipment, straddling my chest and stomach.
Our first stop was a solid week in Hong Kong, our home for a year in 2005-2006. We were looking forward to seeing friends and revisiting a city that we absolutely fell in love with a dozen years earlier. We found a cozy Airbnb in the Sheung Wan district and re-explored our old hangouts. Highlights included seeing friends perform an outdoor concert with the HK Philharmonic, hiking up Lions Rock and various places in the New Territories, a delicious seafood dinner in rainy Sai Kung, walking the scenic Dragon’s Back with the obligatory Thai/Chinese dinner at Big Wave Bay, and numerous delicious meals all around the island. Sheung Wan was definitely an up-and-coming neighborhood. Back in 2005, it wasn’t much to look at, but now it was lively and buzzing. We loved every second of our reunion and left the city with full hearts, like we were leaving an old friend that we knew we’d see again soon. After a short ride on the super-efficient HK subway (MTR), we were at the airport on Lantau Island and, within a few hours, in a spacious but somewhat antiseptic Airbnb in the heart of Hanoi.
It had been 16 years since our last visit to Hanoi, and while there were many changes, there was also quite a lot just exactly as it had been. Gone were the ubiquitous cyclos patrolling the tourist haunts, replaced by sleek and shiny Ubers. Also missing were the elegant women clad in the tight-fitting ao dais, replaced by more cosmopolitan types in typical western-wear. But the street hawkers still roamed the Old Quarter, with vendors in conical hats wheeling carts of pineapples, oranges and papaya, the colonial architecture was still very much intact and as charming as ever, and the smells and atmosphere were as I had remembered. Also unchanged were the swarms of motorbikes and the fraught road crossing experiences, still requiring a bit of faith that the sea of oncoming traffic would magically allow you to reach the promised land on the other side.
Of course back in 2001, Airbnb did not exist, so it was a bit different walking through a Circle K convenience store (basically a 7-11), to a non-descript back door that led to a small elevator and our roomy digs. We got settled fairly quickly and explored the neighborhood, buying some breakfast essentials, before heading out to a delicious stir-fry dinner at a nearby restaurant. Our next day was spent exclusively walking around the Old Quarter, with a delicious pho lunch and an amazing Chả cá dinner; grilled chunks of catfish in a tangy marinade of turmeric, ginger and chilis, with platters of dill, scallions and basil accompanied by broad rice noodles.
Inspired by such tasty food, we decided to take a cooking class the next morning at a local boutique restaurant called Home. We made a green mango salad with squid and shrimp, then we grilled some beef to eat in rice noodle pancakes and for the last course we learned how to make Chả cá. The food was superb and there was so much that what we cooked for lunch was more than enough for our dinner that evening. We spent the afternoon at the serene Ho Chi Minh stilt house, a beautiful wooden structure set in a small park with carp pools and lovely gardens. The house had been preserved just as it was when Ho (or Uncle Ho as he is affectionately called in Vietnam) lived there, and oozed tranquility and simplicity.
On our third day we visited the Temple of Literature, a soothing complex of red lacquered buildings set on stone columns and walkways, built in the 11th century and dedicated to Confucius. We had been there before, back in 2001, but it was equally mesmerizing this time around, a place to just wander and savor getting lost in thought. After an hour or so we walked down Dien Bien Phu Avenue to the Citadel, the imperial city of Thang Long, featuring spectacularly beautiful 11th century architecture and also home to the North Vietnamese Army HQ during the American war. The war room of the HQ had been left intact, with a long table and place cards for the military leaders, maps neatly laid out on the walls detailing troop positions, telephone and communication devices scattered about, allowing visitors to quite easily imagine what that room might have been like in the 1970’s.
After three days of reacquainting ourselves with Hanoi, it was time to start looking for our next destination. We had really enjoyed trekking among the Hmong communities in and around the northern town of Sapa back in 2001 but had heard that sleepy old Sapa had become something of an ethnic-minority Disneyland, with glitzy hotels springing up and package tours claiming to show authentic hill-tribe villages and lifestyles. So Sapa was not in the cards, rather what was on the radar was the far-less explored Ha Giang region, a bit further east of Sapa. We would certainly need a guide to navigate around the area and our research pointed to the Ha Giang specialist, Mr. Linh’s Adventures. We visited Linh’s office in the Old Quarter and discussed options. We agreed on 10 days of trekking around hill tribe and minority villages, but due to the distances, there would have to be some car and boat travel sprinkled in. We met our guide, Nha, and our driver, Mr. Bao, and made arrangements to leave the following morning. Nha immediately showed his bubbly enthusiasm for our trip, joking and smiling and seemed open to any suggestions we offered. His English was quite good, but likely his German was even better, as he studied and worked in Heidelberg for several years. Nha was in his mid-30’s, and already sported a considerable paunch around his waist. I wondered if he realized how much trekking we intended to do and if he was physically up to the task.
Nha and Bao showed up right on time the following morning and we headed north in a black sedan towards Ha Giang town. Bao didn’t say much, language being the likely barrier, but every now and then he seemed to pick up on our conversation, so perhaps he understood more than he let on. Bao was probably around 60, and despite chain smoking, he looked fit. It was also quickly apparent that he was a good driver, skillfully maneuvering around various road obstacles and difficult terrain. Along the way we stopped for lunch. Nha casually asked “Do you like fish?” and hearing our affirmative we were given interesting plates of snails and eels. By late afternoon we reached the Tay minority village of Hoi Thanh; our hosts had a lovely wooden stilt house set among a network of rice paddies and agricultural fields and waterways, with penned pigs, chicken coops and burlap grain bags stored under the stilt platform. Like many of the minority village houses we had stayed in, there were no windows, just openings in the wooden slats for ventilation – the openings also allowed shafts of light to illuminate the sleeping and kitchen areas. But there were dim electrical fixtures here and there on the walls, and, most surprisingly, Wi-Fi!
We took a walk into the village, avoiding the drunken men who periodically veered into our path. The afternoon was oppressively still and humid and we returned to our windowless digs to cool off and surf the Vietnamese internet. As the afternoon turned towards evening, our hosts began arriving home, presumably from working in the fields. The family consisted of a middle-aged couple, their daughter-in-law, and their 1-year-old granddaughter, who spent the evening zipping around us in her toddler wheelie cart.
We sat down with the family to eat dinner at the round dining table, which, as is common in minority villages, was perhaps 1ft off the ground, with tiny stools just a few inches tall serving as chairs. Nha assumed the role of “mother”, meting out the food in various bowls. When dishing out rice, he explained that you must always take at least two scoops (no matter how small) as one scoop is considered bad luck. The dinner was simple and delicious, and the family immediately went to bed afterwards. We were tucked away on our wood platform bed, the only noise as we drifted off to sleep being the occasional howling dog.
The next day was as sultry as the one before. After a breakfast of banana pancakes, a local Tay guide led us on a 10-mile trek to Lung Vai Village (Dao minority) and Khuoi My (Hmong), traversing steeply up and down through rice paddies and lush palm forests with a picnic lunch stop at a scenic waterfall. After about six hours of trekking, we were reunited with Mr. Bao, who drove us to the Dao village of Nam Dam, our home for the next two nights.
A gracious and extremely friendly middle-aged Dao couple hosted us for these two days, and we were not the only westerners, as there was a Belgian couple on motorbikes that had come from Laos and a Danish group on a 3-day tour of the province. The Belgians were raving about the northern Lao villages of Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw, and we took note to make sure they were added to our Lao itinerary. We all ate together that evening, the dinner was superb, and the rice wine flowed generously. I noted with satisfaction that the Dao wife was matching her husband shot for shot, enthusiastically shouting “hoa” as each empty shot glass was smacked down on the table.
The next day was a Sunday and it was raining, a perfect morning to drive the short distance to the village of Tam Son and see their market, which though smaller than the bustling and renowned Dong Van village market, promised to be more authentic and absent of any tourists. The reports were spot-on, as we were the only westerners in town, and were able to observe and interact with many different minority groups including Tay, Dao, Black and Flower Hmong (mostly consisting of women) plying their produce, livestock and handicrafts. The women were all wearing traditional dress, and once Nha identified to us the style and colors it was very easy to tell who belonged to which tribe. After a breakfast of spicy noodles, we returned to our home in Nam Dam to meet up with another local guide to start the day’s trekking.
While the rain had abated, the skies remained menacing, and we felt fortunate that we did not need to put on our waterproof clothing, which while effective in protecting against rain, generated so much body heat due to its lack of breathability that the decision to wear was basically, well – a wash! Our arduous route took us on a steady climb, first through the small Hmong village of Nam Son, then the higher Dao village of Truc Son, passing through muddy, terraced rice fields along the way. After leaving Truc Son, Nha led us down a steep hill, which eventually leveled out near the sound of rushing water. We bushwhacked the last few hundred meters, arriving at a treacherously slippery but quite beautiful waterfall, our lunch destination, where we ate chili infused chicken, vegetables and rice.
After a brief rest, and with the chance of a rescue airlift unlikely, we reluctantly rose from our idyllic but precariously slick perch and gingerly began the steep slog back up to Truc Son. Nha was definitely sucking air as the sharp ascent and humid conditions took its toll on his pudgy frame, but he made it in the end, claiming he had to stop several times to “take photographs”. Truc Son was abuzz with activity, motorcycles zipping along with Dao woman in traditional dress expertly handling the sloppy conditions. We soon found out that later that afternoon a charity football (soccer) match was to be played between the Dao women pig sellers and the Dao women buffalo sellers, with proceeds from the paid attendance going to a local school. By the time we had returned to Nam Dam, a big crowd had assembled near an open field, makeshift goal posts had been erected, and shouts of encouragement from a growing crowd could be heard.
The women had obviously not played a lot of sports, perhaps never at all, and despite the shouted coaching by many of the men in attendance, their skill was woefully lacking. Since the women were all in traditional and identical dress of black pants with red trimmed black jackets and red and white striped, black headdresses, it was impossible to tell who was on which team, but it hardly mattered and the score ended at a predictable 0-0. The women had a great time, some laughing at their own ineptitude, others relishing the challenge of trying to get the ball into the goal.
After another delicious dinner with our Dao hosts, the Danes and the Belgians, we awoke to more rain the following morning. This was not much of a problem for us, as we were spending quite a bit of the day in Mr. Bao’s car on the way to Dong Van, but we felt bad for the Danes as they trudged off on a day-long trek in their pink plastic ponchos, shimmering wet from the moment they stepped outside, and for the Belgians who were also traveling to Dong Van, but would have to maneuver the route on their motorbikes in nasty weather and via very poor and undulating muddy roads.
The ride to Dong Van was uneventful and the rain was ushering in a definite change in temperatures as it was downright cold when we arrived. Along the way, we stopped at a charming old farmhouse; the structure was used to film the Vietnamese movie “The Story of Pao”, a melancholy soap opera which we dutifully watched on YouTube that evening. Later we visited the Hmong King Palace, a solid Qing dynasty structure built in the early 1900’s out of stone, teak and terra cotta. Home to Vuong Duc Chinh, a mandarin puppet installed during the French colonial era, Vuong and later his son ruled this area of Ha Giang from the palace, overseeing all trade in the region, especially opium. The 64-room palace built in classic Chinese style with an interior courtyard, literally served as a fortress for Vuong and his family, the rooms (and execution ground!) were immaculately restored, and though there was evidence of some deterioration, it was still mostly intact and made for an interesting visit.
We also stopped at the top of a rise near Quan Ba for an aerial view of the famous fairy breasts, consisting of two huge grassy mounds gently pushing up from a wide plateau of terraced rice fields. The legend goes that a handsome young Hmong man played such beautiful melodies on his flute that his music soared to the heavens. A beautiful fairy named Hao Dao heard the tunes and became smitten, plunging to earth to meet the flute player. They fell in love and had a baby boy. But news traveled quickly to the heavens, and the Jade Empress was furious at Hao Dao’s transgressions, immediately ordering her return. Utterly despondent but with no choice, Hao Dao flew back, but left her breasts behind so that her husband could feed their infant son. The “breasts” are now known as Quan Ba’s Twin Mountains and judging by the crowds at the lookout point were a big tourist draw in the area.
Dong Van is famous for its vibrant and colorful market, but on a non-market day, particularly on a grey, cold, wet and windy day, it was downright bleak and miserable. We arrived at dusk, checked into a comfortable hotel, and ate in a non-descript restaurant with many other westerners, all of them motorbiking around the region. After dinner we took a stroll around the old section, and suddenly the town began to light up like a Christmas tree. We later found out that the lights were in anticipation of the annual buckwheat festival, a big deal in Dong Van and nearby Meo Vac, drawing scores of local tourists to see the tiny, wild, pink buckwheat flowers.
The next day, a Tuesday, must have been an auspiciously lucky day in the Vietnamese calendar, as on our 8-mile morning trek to the Hmong and Tay village of Thien Huong we encountered numerous weddings either in progress or in earnest preparation. The day was misty and cool with thick clouds layered over the Dong Van valley below. Even though it was still morning, some of the weddings were in full swing, the men exhibiting no sober respect for the hour, swilling rice wine from big jugs. While the men partied, the women were busy preparing food, in one kitchen dying the rice a festive color of bubble gum pink. My cameras were very happy, gobbling up the scenery, and we were similarly stuffed with generous portions of food and drink from the smiling and hospitable (some of the intoxicated variety!) locals. After several reciprocal toasts of good luck, we began our descent back down through atmospheric mist to Dong Van.
Once in town, we met up with Mr. Bao for lunch, then returned to the car for our drive to Meo Vac, stopping at the absolutely spectacular 1,500m Meo Vac pass, or Ma Pi Leng peak. We got out and walked steeply uphill for a few miles; the scenery was stunning, the sharp mountains swirling in mist, the pink buckwheat flowers in resplendent bloom adding bursts of shocking color to the otherwise charcoal landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, grazing livestock and shepherds wandered by, including a young girl in a blue patterned skirt carrying what looked like a massively heavy burlap rucksack bursting with stalks of cut vegetables. The girl stopped and allowed me to photograph her, though she preferred to look away from me, exuding maturity and hardness way beyond her years. Continuing on a snaking, narrow path, a series of tight switchbacks eventually led us back to Mr. Bao and we reached Meo Vac around dinnertime.
Meo Vac did not have the carnival lighting feel of Dong Van, but nevertheless there were preparations underway for the imminent buckwheat festival. The temperatures had dipped to downright frigid conditions, and we were wearing practically all our clothes as we dined in an open-air restaurant (none of the dining options were enclosed), reunited again with our Belgian friends who had made it safely from Nam Dam.
A bleak and gloomy sky greeted us the following morning (did the sun actually exist?) as we shivered together in our unheated hotel lobby sipping weak tea, but we were then rescued by Nha who led us to a tiny café serving bánh cuốn; rice flour rolled pancakes with minced pork in a spicy broth. We scarfed our breakfast alongside kids on their way to school, steam from the sizzling wok periodically obscuring the cook who was furiously turning them out four at a time. Most of our day was going to be spent in Mr. Bao’s car on our 8-hour drive to Ba Be National Park, but we did manage an excellent mid-morning stop at the Bao Lac market, with Tay, Dao, Hmong and Black Lolo minority women busy selling live fowl, vegetables and household goods. Like at the Tam Son market near Nam Dam, we were the only westerners in town, and felt truly privileged to witness this authentic diversity of cultures. There were baskets upon baskets of clucking baby chicks and ducks for sale, burlap bags filled with squealing piglets, produce and meat stalls, textiles, even smart phones all being sold along the sprawling network of winding streets and alleyways.
By late afternoon, and after numerous questionable “shortcuts” that had Mr. Bao and Nha shaking their heads at their maps and at each other in geographic confusion, we reached Ba Be National Park and the Tay village of Coc Toc, home to Mr. Linh’s very own homestay. Several westerners were there as well and the evening was passed pleasantly with a tasty dinner, Hanoi beer, and, most importantly, a heater for our room. There seemed to be no end to the foul conditions. It rained all night but stopped at daybreak and as we ate breakfast, I held out hope for improving conditions as the next couple of days would feature fairly tough trekking and dry weather would be most welcome. But as we came out with our gear to meet Nha and our local Dzao female guide, the heavens unloaded again, and we trudged out in a downpour.
It was a bleak Thursday morning in November, but not just any Thursday. It was Thanksgiving Day! I realized this as we began our wet slog sharply uphill on our way to two Hmong villages. To pass the time and to help ignore the rain and the pain, I told Nha, as best as I could remember, the origins and significance of Thanksgiving. Turkeys did not exist in Vietnam, nor did cranberries, but Nha felt an instant responsibility to create a memorable feast for us that evening and peppered me with questions about the appropriateness of certain dishes. By mid-morning, the rain had stopped, and the terrain leveled a bit, so both the sky and our mood brightened up a bit. We stopped to eat lunch at a small school – but while a few shy kids were around there were no classes in session. After lunch we continued climbing for a few hours in the mist through thick forests and terraced rice fields, all set among a backdrop of karst rock formations, and eventually reached the Dzao village of Na Nghe, our home for the night.
While we got out of our sopping boots and hung up our wet hiking clothes, Nha went off to find a suitable fowl. He returned with a fairly scrawny chicken, without a doubt of the free-range variety, and busied himself with dinner preparations with our hosts, the family of our Dzao guide. By the time dinner was served, a round table was covered with all kinds of interesting dishes, but the centerpiece was undeniably Nha’s Thanksgiving bird, barbequed to glistening perfection with ginger, garlic and honey, stalks of lemongrass stuffed inside. The family was extremely welcoming, plying us with plenty of corn wine, the father even suggesting that we stay in their village and build a house on the adjacent property. This was certainly the most memorable Thanksgiving feast of our lives.
We slept in a small side room near the kitchen, a stack of blankets and quilts serving as a mattress, wearing every piece of dry clothing we had as the house had no heat except for the kitchen stove. As we drifted in and out of slumber, the pounding of the rain resumed – and the wet conditions left no chance for our clothes and boots to dry out at all. We lingered for a while over breakfast the next morning to allow for the kitchen stove and our body heat to help alleviate the dampness; then the family insisted that Sue put on Dzao festival clothes for some family group pictures. After some hilarious wardrobe changes, we gave the family our heartfelt goodbyes and trudged off in the rain and mud on our way down the mountain.
Despite the conditions and the slippery footing, the walk was lovely, through several Black Hmong villages, and I noticed again how endlessly busy the women were; I saw them shoveling and carting heaps of rocks from quarries, hauling construction bricks, sand, earth, and toting enormous bundles of wood on their backs, transporting goods and livestock, harvesting and cultivating crops, and, as if that wasn’t enough, cooking, cleaning and looking after their children and grandchildren. They seemed do all this work with resolute determination, and though I spoke no Vietnamese, apparently without complaint. I have no idea how this region would survive without their constant contributions. In stark contrast the men appeared incredibly idle, many drinking and socializing with their friends, stumbling around in drunken stupors or languidly smoking water pipes. I even saw women driving men on their motorbikes because they were clearly too drunk to drive. But perhaps there is hope of changing times. While men outnumber women as motorbike users, there are plenty of women zipping around the countryside, going into towns and selling goods and one can only imagine that this independence and freedom of movement will eventually help them achieve a more favorable domestic balance.
As we continued downward throughout the morning, eventually the mountainous terrain gave way to a dense rain forest, the temperatures warming up considerably, and by midday we reached the mouth of the Nang River. A motorized raft was waiting to transport us to the other side, and we stopped for lunch at the scenic Dau Dang waterfall, watching rushing water smash into protruding karst rocks. We then got back on the motorized raft and puttered down the river to the Puong Cave, a huge limestone cavity home to thousands of bats living among shimmering stalactites and stalagmites. We concluded our raft journey by continuing to An Ma Island, where we visited the small and tranquil An Ma Buddhist temple before eventually reconnecting with land transport to return to Mr. Linh’s homestay.
A 360km drive awaited us the following morning. Mr. Bao was back after a few days of R&R and after a breakfast of banana pancakes, we clambered into his familiar car and settled in for an all-day journey to Bac Ha, our last excursion with Nha and Bao. We had several reasons for wanting to go to Bac Ha; first and foremost because it has the largest and most famous Sunday market in Ha Giang and as this was Saturday, we would be able to get up early the following morning in the town and experience the market. Secondly, as we were nearing the end of our Vietnam stay and wanted to spend some time in northern Laos, Bac Ha would give us good access to Lao Cai, from where we could catch a bus to Dien Bien Phu (DBP). While we’d have to spend a night in DBP, there was an early-morning bus that would take us over the border at Trang Tray and deposit us, 6 hours (and only 104km!) later, in Muang Khua, Laos.
Bao and Nha immediately resumed their animated discussions about fastest routes. You didn’t need to understand Vietnamese to grasp that there were some disagreements, but as Bao was older, and he was the driver, it appeared that he prevailed. While it took most of the day to get to Bac Ha, the drive was not uninteresting. We crossed some beautiful mountainous terrain as we exited Ba Be, then drove through mostly rolling countryside with stops at a marble quarry and then at an acacia tree farm. The weather was still dull and gloomy, but it didn’t rain, and we pulled into Bac Ha around dusk. We stayed at the decent Cong Fu Hotel, grabbing dinner with a few other westerners across the street at the Hoang Yen Restaurant. As the evening wore on, the temperatures dropped, and our breath was visible in the restaurant as we gulped down glasses of Dalat red wine (tasting better and better with each sip!). We finished the evening in luxury watching a dubbed version of Rocky (as good in Vietnamese as it was in English) in our heated hotel room.
We got up early the next morning, eager to see the famous market. It was indeed enormous, extending throughout the entire village, and not surprisingly there were many groups of westerners milling about, covered head to toe in camera gear and Go Pros, desperately trying to digitally capture the experience. The market diversity was impressive, with dedicated sections for produce, meat, crafts, household necessities, and, most interestingly, livestock. As in other markets, almost all the vendors were women, and in Bac Ha they were mostly Flower Hmong, differentiated from other Hmong minorities by their colorful and ornately patterned dresses, scarves and headwear. Most impressive were the women handling the enormous water buffaloes, priced at an equivalent cost to a brand-new car, loudly hawking the animals while good naturedly bantering and bargaining with customers, thick wads of Vietnamese Dong visible within the belts wrapped around their skirts. We realized how lucky we had been to experience the Tam Son and Bao Lac markets with only the locals, as this market lost some of its charm and appeal with so many tourists around, but being part of the problem, how could I complain?
Among the animals for sale were kittens and puppies, though I was not sure if they were being sold for meat or some other purpose. Like Bao Lac, there were cages upon cages of ducks, chickens, geese and other fowl. I watched someone buy a piglet from a young woman; the woman casually grabbed the animal, and in a matter of a minute or so had tied its front and back legs rendering it immobile. Squealing either in terror or anger, the pig was then transferred into a burlap sack. The deafening shrieks of the poor beast weakened as it was hauled onto a wagon and driven off.
We circled back to the Cong Fu and bade our farewells to Nha and Mr. Bao. It had been a memorable 10-day excursion with them, more so of course with Nha as Bao was fairly impenetrable. Whether it was coincidental or a sign from above, as soon as they drove off, the sky brightened, and within an hour we were bathed in bright sunshine under a brilliant blue canopy. Invigorated by the sudden change in weather, we took a long walk around the outskirts of Bac Ha, then returned to the Hoang Yen restaurant for dinner and made arrangements with a local guide for a trek in the neighboring mountains on the following day.
The fine weather proved not to be an aberration, as we woke to sunny skies and warm temperatures. Our guide was a young Flower Hmong woman who spoke reasonable English and she led us out of town, first walking along the route that we had taken the previous afternoon, but then turning sharply uphill on our way to two small Flower Hmong villages, Na Lo and Thai Giang Pho. As we climbed, the vistas along the route got better and better; terraced rice paddies framed by towering karst mountains, with clumps of green forests cropping up at regular intervals. Since it was late November, and well past the last harvest of the year, the rice paddies unfortunately were brown, but even in their monochromatic state, their symmetrical soft curves and contours were mesmerizingly beautiful. The rains of the last weeks had made an impact on our path as we slogged uphill, sometimes ankle-deep in gooey mud. It was slow and tough going, but our guide skipped up ahead in her plastic clogs as if it was a paved path. We stopped at an elementary school in Na Lo. The kids, aged about 5 or 6, were sitting at a long table with tiny colorful chairs having a mid-morning snack. One of the memorable pictures I took was of a young girl and boy, the two of them staring at me with hardened expressions as if they had been married (possibly not so happily) for 65 years, the girls’ arms fiercely crossed, the boy exuding suspicion, not quite sure what to make of me.
We picnicked on a grassy hill on our way down, declining a visit to the Thai Giang Pho waterfall as by this time we were waterfalled out. Back in town, we gathered our backpacks from the Cong Fu and made our way to the 3pm minibus for the 1.5-hour southwest journey to Lao Cai. While the actual ride probably did take about an hour and a half, we spent at least an extra hour driving all over Bac Ha picking up every possible passenger and burlap bag that they could squeeze into or on top of the minivan. It wasn’t until early evening that we arrived at our modest ($18/nt) accommodations, the Kim Cuong, and we immediately set out to locate the bus station for our next day’s journey to Dien Bien Phu.
We wandered around Lao Cai, receiving conflicting information from everyone we asked, but the bus station that serviced DBP remained impossible to find. Minivan hawkers approached us, seemingly selling tickets on their vans to DBP, but we didn’t trust them, and in the end, a bit desperate, I phoned Nha – who was already back in Hanoi and about to start a new trek, but still managed to make transit arrangements remotely for the next morning at 6:30am. With the next day’s travel settled, we found a lively restaurant on Lao Cai’s main drag, the place so bustling that in the end we squeezed into a small table with a young couple (Laura and Jack) from Brisbane, Australia, who kindly let us sit with them, and we all became fast friends while sharing food, beer and travel stories.
The van that Nha arranged arrived at 6:30am sharp the next morning, and promptly took us to a large bus station outside of town, where we transferred onto a different van for the ride to DBP. Now we understood why it had been so difficult to find the bus station the previous day, as it was a good 10km outside of Lao Cai. There was the usual waiting at the station, the van not daring to leave until every square inch was occupied either by a person or livestock or sacks of produce, but eventually the driver fired up the engine, and off we went. Continuing southwest, the van stopped along the way at Sapa, which we were very curious to see as we had not been there for 16 years and had heard from other travelers, in not so glowing terms, about its new-found popularity.
Back in 2001, Sapa was a small town with basically one guesthouse/restaurant, but as we approached the town on the new highway, we could not believe what we were seeing. The town had literally exploded into a small city, with billboards and multi-story, and even high-rise structures servicing the booming ethnic minority tourism trade. It was completely unrecognizable and a bit depressing, as Sapa had morphed into a kind of schlocky place, with bus excursions to villages that were specifically staged for minority-seeking tourists. We felt fortunate to have experienced it at a more authentic period and were happy when our bus pulled out and continued on to DBP.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that we arrived, but the ride was plenty scenic as we wound our way up and around Mt. Fansipan (10,300ft) and then through rolling countryside. DBP turned out to be quite a picturesque town, with a lively market along the riverbank. We stayed at the Ruby Hotel and were given their “matrimonial” suite at the whopping cost of $21. Our main reason for selecting the Ruby was its proximity to the DBP bus station, where we had a 5:30am date the following morning with the bus to Muang Khua, Laos.
Before grabbing dinner, we walked to see the famous battleground from the French-Indochina War, pausing particularly at the iconic Eliane Hill (coincidentally, Eliane was my mother’s name) where the French suffered their crucial and humiliating defeat to the Viet Minh army in 1954. The trouncing at DBP paved the way for the French withdrawal from Indochina and shortly thereafter, the establishment of the Geneva Accord, partitioning Vietnam into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) under Ho Chi Minh, and the State of Vietnam (South) with Emperor Bao Dai serving initially as a figurehead leader but soon exiled in favor of Ngo Dinh Diem. While walking the network of bunkers, which was remarkably reminiscent of WWI trench warfare, we met an older gentleman who spoke some French. The man claimed that he had been involved in the conflict and gave us a brief tour of the site.
We went to bed early after a simple dinner, then got up in the wee hours in pitch black and hustled to the bus. As you could only get tickets the day of departure, we got there very early, around 4:30am, to make sure that we would be able to get seats. When we arrived, there was already a small gathering of like-minded western backpackers milling about and we shared plans of future itineraries while waiting for the bus to turn up. Vendors came by with sticky buns and coffee and eventually the driver turned up with a creaky, dusty old bus and we bade our fond farewells to Vietnam. The 10 days in Ha Giang, where we were able to experience unspoiled hill tribe cultures and communities, and where we’d been treated so warmly had been particularly fascinating.