(August 18th) Northern Vietnam is storybook beautiful. There’s the place all the tourists go, called Sa Pa, which is full of farmed mountains covered in tiered rice paddies, like green, hundred-layered wedding cakes. It’s also covered with tourists (especially the Chinese, who were complained about by tour guides and, well, everyone, in every city we visited throughout Asia), so we opted for the less touristy but just as beautiful Ha Giang, which is just as full of fields, formidable and abrupt limestone mountainscapes and local villages, and, ironically, is the northernmost part of Vietnam, poking right into China. I didn’t take notes on much of the trip, but for a few minutes at the end of each day, so I’m little hazy on the details.
Our night bus from Hanoi got us to the homestay at 5 a.m., where we snatched a few hours’ sleep before breakfast of banh mi with our tour friends – a French/US couple (Pierre and Maddie), and a German called Marie. Our guide was Kien.
The day was spent in a van, stopping frequently to get out on the side of the road to take photos of the Bacsum Pass and Cat Ear pass, so named for the curved pointiness of the mountains. I thought they looked more like a row of teeth filed into points, as is the tradition of some local tribes. These mountains were karst formations of weathered limestone that are so prone to forming caves like the ones we’d trekked in in Phong Nha.
On one stop we saw a “rock god”, next to a small farm owned by a member of the Dzao people. The path to the small rocky outcrop they worshipped was flanked by a field so full of wild flowers there was the loud, mystical, 360º hum of honeybees. There was also a large crop of massive hemp plants they use to make their traditional clothing. The god itself was half a dozen towering protrusions that looked unnaturally hengey.
The next stop gave us a lovely view of a valley backed by the pointy mountains, and then we went onto see “boob mountains”, a pair of well-formed, rounded and equally proportioned hills that looked like breasts, before going to a small roadside hamlet for lunch.
After lunch, we stopped off to walk along a path that snaked along the side of a mountain towards a cave. It may have been more exciting had we not just seen 10 more impressive ones, and if we hadn’t had to walk up yet another steep hill to get there. Along the path there was a family selling spices and an orange cake made up of hardened honey.
We were dripping with sweat (and bored) by the time we reached the cave entrance, which was somewhat ruined by a well-tended, well-lit concrete path with handrails throughout, lots of lights, and signs stapled into the more impressive features. It felt a little like a school trip, rather than an adventure. We vowed not to go to another cave on this trip.
We drove along to another mountaintop, where there was a viewing platform up 8 flights of stairs.
Then we went to an old farm that was made nationally famous by a movie that focused on just how difficult were the lives of the women who lived here. In these rural communities, the women were the farmers in the fields, the ones who prepared and sold the produce, the homemakers, the shoppers, the mothers. The men seemed to be merely the figurehead of the household, whose job was to do bits of work here and there and drink corn wine with other men. We met the patriarch, an 80 year old who didn’t take much notice of us, but did seem to be doing a little work, feeding the pigs with grain.
We made it to the hotel after dark, and went to the neighbouring restaurant for a hotpot of beef and horse. Kien told us the horse meat was probably imported from China; Vietnamese used to commute on horseback, using the water buffalo to till the fields. Now the motorbike is so prevalent, horses are useful for nothing but eating, so nobody farms them anymore. Completely stuffed, and tired after a full day driving on the windy hilly roads, we tried hard to get through a few bites of the creamy, stodgy wedding cake they’d left for us in our room.
(August 19th) The next morning was a Sunday, so we woke early to go to the town market. All the regions farmers were out to sell their wares. Well, the women were out selling the food, clothing and everything else they might have brought to market. The men were only involved in the auctioning of cows and pigs and drinking corn wine.
It was 5 a.m., and many of the men were already visibly drunk on cheap, strong corn wine. I suppose this is kind of understandable, in a society that uses its women to work and its men to make deals. In that environment, of course you want the guys to be socialising. But it still felt like plantation owners relaxing while their female slaves laboured away.
Anyway, we also had some of the corn wine at breakfast. It tastes about 20% alcohol, but could have been as much as 40%. I had about 10 shots, as I seemed to be the only member of the team polite enough to accept every drink offered to me at that time of the morning. Kien enthusiastically poured and drank, while chatting to locals. For food, we at a soup with cubes of cow blood and ruffles of cow stomach, then a pho, some fried pastries, and three-coloured rice (white, yellow and purple) with peanuts. It was a little hard to enjoy the food, but also to enjoy the atmosphere itself; the sound of the clamouring shrieks of the terror-striken pigs stayed with us throughout breakfast, and with me for the remainder of the day.
We drove to a tower. It was hot, sunny, and high up, with over a hundred stairs to the viewing platform, and another spiral staircase to the top of the tower, where you could see into China, just a mile away. The tower was nicknamed the “north pole of Vietnam”, the northern-most point in the country, flying a huge 54 square meter flag to represent the 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Locals were taking selfies with the bottom of the flag. It wasn’t built so much as a symbol of national pride, but as a “fuck you this is Vietnam” to all of the much-hated Chinese immigrants who might look in this direction before crossing the border. At the bottom we ordered a much-needed “cafe sua” (coffee with condensed milk), which took a long time to pour, not ideal as Pierre and Maddie needed to catch a 4 p.m. bus back to Hanoi, which they’d later miss.
The rest of the day was a fast drive back to Ha Giang, delayed by a series of roadworks that were fun to film. We also had to stop to take photos of the most beautiful pass of the whole trip, and of the monument of youth, celebrating the people who’d built the roads we were driving along, with communist imagery (hammer, fist, construction workers etc). Lunch was a bowl of black chicken (including its head), plus some pork and noodles. Pretty bad food, or maybe we were just still hung up on the morning’s animal brutality and cow blood.
Back in Ha Giang, we hung out until our night bus came, failing to find a massage. In Hanoi, we took a Grab back to the hotel, at around 5 am got some sleep, offering a nice Italian couple who’d also taken a night bus back to our hostel the other bed in our private room. I had a heat rash on my elbow and knee that was pretty bad. I decided I just needed a bit of air conditioning.
(August 20th) We woke, very tired, had a shower, then waited in the hostel restaurant for our 9 a.m. bus, that worryingly also picked up a couple of families and two old couples (a boring British physio/engineer couple and an elderly, frail-looking American/Australian couple that were at most ten years from death). Perhaps we should have opted for the cheaper tour, if we’d wanted to hang out with backpackers. Hope came in the form of two other Brits, just graduated from Leeds and Nottingham, three days into their holiday around Vietnam. We were also joined by two groups of Spaniards, about the same age as us.
After waiting around in port for a little while, we got onto a speed boat and made our way out to La Han Bay, the less-touristy but equally-beautiful alternative to the internationally famous Ha Long Bay, which is apparently now full of tour boats and trash. Our speed boat putted its way through the karst outcrops jutting magnificently out of the sea (the bays are made up of over 1,000 of these islands), until we reached our three-story cruise ship. One of the couples included a fashion guy who works at Mango, I believe one of the company’s co-founders, who spoke with extravagant hand movements and facial expressions that really helped me follow the conversation in Spanish.
We hung out on the deck of the ship, smoking cigarettes with the young British couple. They were cute, just graduated uni. Kelwin was in marketing, having started a company working with small local businesses, giving “satisfied or your money back” ad advice. He’s also a “grime” producer, which gave me no end of pleasure – he described it as “underground, angry street rap”, yet he looks like the nerdy PJ Vogt from Reply all – glasses, goofy smile, short curly hair.
In the afternoon we kayaked through the islands, then Lily and I practiced falling out of the kayak and getting back in, in case we ever go on a kayaking holiday with Pisco. We’ve since done a bit of googling, and there is such a thing as doggy life jackets. We then swam, then Lily and I returned to the room, intending to miss the spring roll cooking class (with some romance time looking out the floor-to-cieling window in our air-conditioned bedroom). The sun was setting by the time we were above deck, where we drank until dinner, ate, then drank until late.
By this time, the heat rash I’d picked up a few days before was killing me. It had spread between my fingers, across my arms and into my elbow creases, anywhere that would retain sweat. Back in the room we applied cortisone, convinced that some time out of the sun and some AC was all I needed.
(August 21st) The next day offered tai chi at sunrise which we slept through, almost missing breakfast. We stayed in the room while the rest went to a “hospital cave”, used as a hideout and medical centre during the American war. We were making good on our promise not to visit another cave on the trip, and resting to see if the cool air of our bedroom might help with my heat rash. As they’d switched the boat off during the excursion, the AC in our room was off and it got too hot to stay in. We sat in the restaurant, had lunch when everyone returned, then jumped on a boat back to the mainland, and then a bus to our hostel in Hanoi.
Back at the hostel, we had a private room, with the bed covered in petals and two towel swans in a heart-shaped kiss. Thanks to our email auto-responders, telling our hosts “we’re on our honeymoon with limited access to the internet”, this was at least the third bed that had been made up this way. I’m sure we’ll be making a collage of these honeymoon beds at the end of the trip. Lily went out to grab a banh mi sandwich, while I stayed in bed in the cool air.