June 30, 2012
Flower Hmong women at the market in Bac Ha. Photo: Alamy
Lance Richardson journeys deep into the northern mountains, where a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups mix modernity and tradition.
In the third instalment of the convoluted Indochina wars, Vietnam, opposing the Khmer Rouge, invaded Cambodia, while China, supporting the Khmer Rouge, invaded Vietnam.
Things did not go well. Though China claims victory in the history books, Vietnam refused to withdraw from Cambodia and Chinese soldiers retreated across the border after only a few weeks, destroying everything as they went. This scorched-earth policy was executed with the brutal efficiency of wildfire: agriculture was decimated, settlements were razed. In places such as the frontier city of Lao Cai, 1979 became a year to remember.
When visitors step off the train today, they are confronted by a modern city square. From the ashes, Lao Cai rose like a neon phoenix. Gaudy lights proliferated; prefabricated housing became the common recourse for a population that had no choice but to start over. There are hotels and restaurants now, though street hawkers still sell ankle-bound chickens, clutched like bouquets of feathers. The Vietnamese penchant for karaoke has reached the mountains, too, adding a characteristic touch of surrealism. This is a country where you must be able to fire an AK-47 to graduate from state university, after all.
Most famously, Lao Cai is the gateway to Sapa, a hill station established by the French in 1922, where people flock to see ethnic groups such as the Hmong and Dao. Over the years, Sapa has become nearly as popular as Ha Long Bay. Much of Lao Cai's railway plaza is occupied by Sapa-bound buses; the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai is so busy that sleeper carriages book out in advance.
To some critics, this influx of tourism has a lamentable edge. Bill Hayton in his book Vietnam, Rising Dragon describes a Sapa "theme park", Dragon's Jaw Hill, exhibiting locals so "visitors can experience minority culture without the indignity of travelling down into the valley".
I meet my friend in Lao Cai on her return from Sapa and she confirms this, though she also describes scenes of beauty, engaging people and positive change. The influx of visitor money has brought power lines, for example, meaning mountain villages are notably quieter without generators.
Nevertheless, as we wander to a small parking yard where buses are more ramshackle and destination signs less familiar, another comment by Hayton comes to mind. "The image of Vietnam we foreigners seek is a close-cropped study in 'otherness'," he writes. "The people want progress and prosperity. The fantasy country we seek is the one they want to leave behind."
Of all the buzzwords of modern travel, "authentic" is perhaps the most complex. The tendency to equate "authenticity" with "old-fashioned" is starkly anachronistic in a furiously modernising world.
I have come to Lao Cai to travel on to Bac Ha, another town in the northern mountains. Like Sapa, it is surrounded by ethnic groups. Every Sunday the town has a morning market; some locals walk more than 30 kilometres through the night to reach it.
To attend the market, we board a small bus that circles Lao Cai for nearly an hour, collecting cargo and passengers. Boxes of apples and beans are passed through the windows; our luggage is passed out, strapped to the roof alongside carburettor parts. More people climb in than there are seats, including two Flower Hmong women and a child in dazzling embroidery. As the bus climbs into mountains so hoary they appear to have beards, one of the women leans out the window to vomit into the wind.
Bac Ha is considerably smaller than Lao Cai, though it has the unpredictable quality of a river in monsoon. We pass a quiet afternoon watching a girl learn to ride a motorbike in the shadow of Ho Chi Minh propaganda. Next morning, we're roused by the roar of 100 motorbikes, quarrelling voices and a cat complaining somewhere above the ceiling. The market is in full swing before sunrise.
It is a labyrinth of goods. There are pig carcasses, dismembered on demand, and fermented sauces alongside fluorescent-orange corn patties. The Hmong string their fabrics above melons and cabbages. Then there's the new stuff: piping, bags of concrete, batteries and mobile phones. Visitors are welcome - often effusively so - though the tourist stuff is pushed to the edges of the market, and vendors are still unsure how far they can take things, creating awkward situations where breakfast prices are pitched higher than the Wolseley in London. The rule of thumb is simple: stand firm, but never stop smiling, even when the stallholder has you in a vice grip over a cup of coffee.
Beyond the market, Bac Ha is surrounded by deep wealth, with tiny villages framed by rice terraces and mist-filled valleys ringing with the jangle of cowbells. Walk into any hotel, ask and you'll find a guide.
Duc is short and portly, with a smile that takes up much of a face hidden beneath a fisherman's hat. "He don't know English, but is very friendly," says Victor, the proprietor of Ngan Na 2 Hotel, where we arrange to visit Phula and Tay people in their homes. Duc is Tay and he nods often, managing to make himself understood without speaking a word. He points down a road that dissolves into a wall of white fog.
We go - for three days, in fact - into a place that is both old and new, hewn from the mountains by hundreds of years of manual labour, but dotted with motorbikes and the round ears of satellite dishes; a place where walking tracks are ankle-deep in mud, edged with precipitous drops into paddies; a place that has little time for debates over authenticity because people are too busy doing the best they can with whatever tools are available.
Indeed, the amount of work required to peel a mountain like an orange is almost unfathomable. Everywhere you look, terraces transform the landscape. Here a mountaintop is sheared away, replaced with a waterlogged field; there a mountaintop, too rocky for cultivation, pokes above enormous artificial steps, an outpost from a different time. Duc traces folds in the hills with an assured step, passing groves of cherry blossoms, small houses and gnarled guard dogs.
Hmong girls trail us in small groups, showing off their coloured gumboots. Two boys, fighting over a jar of lizards, dance on the road ahead.
Our first night is in the stilted house of a Phula couple, Sang and Huong, who mark our visit with a celebratory feast. Their home is small but airy, with an ancestral altar alongside a beach ball decorated with the Canadian flag. Sang and Huong sleep downstairs, we sleep upstairs and the toilet is down a steep muddy slope across the way. The kitchen is outside as well, with a pig's leg curing above some embers. It is, as an experience, most akin to visiting very old friends; though hardly a word is spoken, the conversation in my memory is long and warm. These people open their house with evident pride, filling our bowls long after we're full, giving us gifts of mandarins and showing us off to the neighbours over breakfast.
Before bed - a downy mattress on the floor - my friend takes a photo. Sang clutches Huong close. "Hai mot," he says, clasping his hands in a gesture of their partnership. "Two become one." Huong stares at the photo for a long time after that. It is entirely possible she has never seen a picture of them together.
The next morning we wake to the smell of wood smoke and the strains of a Vietnamese opera singer on the radio. We are gone within the hour, following Duc on a path that plunges us downwards, to the home of his people. The Phula traditionally live high in the mountains of Vietnam. By comparison, Tay are far more numerous, with a greater number of subgroups, and they prefer to live in lowlands near streams and open plains. As we tunnel through heavy mist, the building style begins to change. Our second night is spent with a family in their large, concrete-built home, its terrace jutting over a lettuce field.
Before this, however, we encounter another building that towers over the village like a citadel. Noticing our curiosity, a woman steps from the front door and welcomes us in. What follows is a tour through her grand house, with its spiralling staircase, glass atrium and spaces like small drawing rooms. She enters each in turn, gestures around bashfully, then stands back to bask in the warmth of our wonderment. It doesn't matter that most of these rooms are empty, or that the couple lives downstairs in a small corner. The house is not a house in the traditional sense; it's a symbol of wealth, the "progress and prosperity" Hayton talks about. Her husband makes sure we notice the television.
My friend and I take our leave, stepping into a light rain. I want to tell the woman something, but the language divide is too great now; we're reduced to fruitless gesturing. Later, in Australia, I will pull down a Vietnamese dictionary and find the word I was looking for. "Dep" - beautiful. Your home is beautiful.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of China Southern Airlines.
China Southern Airlines has a fare to Hanoi, from Sydney and Melbourne, for about $800 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Guangzhou (about 10hr) and then to Hanoi (2hr); see flychinasouthern.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another Vietnamese city. From Hanoi, Lao Cai is reached by an overnight train. Each carriage is owned by a private company, meaning quality varies, from the high-end Victoria Express sleeper to the state-run (but comfortable) Vietnamese Railway. Research well and avoid the Pumpkin Train. Tickets can be bought at the station, though it is advisable to book ahead through a Hanoi hotel or travel agent. See seat61.com/Vietnam. Bac Ha is a one-hour bus ride from Lao Cai.
Ngan Na 2 Hotel, just off the first town square in Bac Ha, is inexpensive and well run. See nganngabacha.com.
Ngan Na 2 Hotel has a custom-made booklet with walks ranging from one to four days. Our two-night stay with Phula and Tay families cost $US30 a person a day, all inclusive. Take extra water and good shoes.
The Bac Ha market is held every Sunday. Arrive the night before as it begins about dawn.