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Journey back in time to beloved Ha Giang

Update: June, 11/2012 - 19:23

 

Not so easy riding: Three members of the motorbike group negotiate a muddy track down to Dau Dang Waterfall in Ba Be National Park in Bac Kan Province. — VNS Photos Phi Hung
River crossing: The Nang river flows into Ba Be Lake via the Dau Dang Waterfall.
Colourful characters: Tay women buy accessories at Dong Van market. The Sunday market is as much a social occasion as an opportunity to buy and sell goods.
 
Ha Giang may be the poorest province in the country, but it has a wealth of sights to offer the visitor. Intrepid photojournalist Truong Phi Hung was lucky enough to return to the region and renew old acquaintances while on a dirt bike tour courtesy of Yamaha Motor Viet Nam.

Ha Giang is the poorest province in the country due to its mountainous topography and lack of agricultural land, yet for me it is this remote desolateness that makes it the loveliest place in Viet Nam.

Ha Giang, the "final frontier", which shares a 270km border with Yunnan province in southern China, is a marvel of nature, beautiful and inhospitable and unforgiving. It is also home to numerous colourfully clad ethnic groups – Kinh, Tay, Dao, Nung, Lo Lo and the lovely Mong, to say nothing of the Pu Peo and Phu La, who number fewer than 400 each.

Truly, Ha Giang is a many-splendoured thing. That is how I would describe the northernmost province of Viet Nam, and hopefully novelist Han Suyin will forgive my appropriation of her words.

So you can imagine my joy when last month I was invited by Yamaha Motor Viet Nam to go on a photo tour of eight northeastern provinces that included my beloved Ha Giang.

Besides, this was far more than a press junket, this journey would be a trip back in time to a place I had long longed to return; and it was a chance to repay a debt, a vow to a young ethnic girl who lives far away in the hinterland, whom I had chanced upon four years ago.

That was in 2008, when the idea of the phuot (road trip) was just taking off in Viet Nam. It was then that the more venturesome could freely take to the road and travel about the country independently and cheaply, thanks to inexpensive accommodation and the largesse of locals. The spirit of adventure had arrived in Viet Nam; and it was easy to ride.

Our group of six set off on dirt bikes, our final destination Lung Cu, a faraway land of limestone crags, cliffs and precipices; precarious mountain passes, zigzagging tracks masquerading as roads, terraced paddy fields and springs, forests and rivers; a land of tea plantations and orchards of plums, peaches and persimmons. This was an adventure with a vengeance.

It is where you will find Lung Cu Commune (the ceiling of Viet Nam) in Dong Van District and Flag Tower, atop Long Son (Dragon) Mountain, in the far north of Ha Giang, overlooking Yunnan province in China.

It took us about 12 hours to reach Lung Cu, riding along national highways 2 and 4C through three provinces – Vinh Phuc, Phu Tho and Tuyen Quang.

Just over 400km from Ha Noi, the rocky plateau of Dong Van stands tall and proud, its sides streaked with vein-like mountain tracks.

The craggy limestone landscape lies 2,000 metres above sea level, and fossils dating back 400-600 million years are routinely found here.

Despite the inhospitable climate, local ethnic people can be seen walking along steeply rising and falling roads to paddy fields, or school, or to the market – perhaps 15km away.

From a distance, Lung Cu Commune is an awe-inspiring sight, rugged and majestic, with limestone and granite peaks and outcrops, the mountainsides dotted with giant limestone boulders and wreathed in rich verdant forests.

 

Just passing through: Mong women walk along Hanh Phuc Road that connects Dong Van and Meo Vac via Ma Pi Leng pass.
 
We spent half a day in the commune, home to nine villages and seven ethnic groups, and which lies 1,600-1,800m above sea level. In winter, snow is not uncommon.

Most ethnic people in the area cultivate rice and the Mong and Lo Lo still preserve their traditional weaving ways.

On the way back to Ha Noi we decided to take in Dong Van Town, where the Mong are in the majority.

I remember, as if it were yesterday. We were about 10km from Dong Van when I saw a young Mong girl of about 17 carrying a large bamboo basket on her head walking up a muddy road.

She was wearing a pretty light blue skirt and blouse and a bright pink headscarf, as is the Mong custom in the region. And she seemed oblivious to the splendour of the rocky landscape about her and the cherry-red sunset in the distance.

We couldn't help ourselves. We stopped and did that most mundane of things, like all visitors: we got out our cameras and began snapping away. She carried on walking unaware or perhaps uninterested in the goings on behind her.

And then she stumbled in the mud, dropping her basket of maize.

We ran to her assistance. As we collected the ears we asked her about herself. Her name was Minh and she was returning home from the fields about 2km away up the mountain.

We offered to give her a lift, which she readily accepted, flashing a toothy smile.

Her home was a small wooden house on the roadside, typical of others in the area. Lucky charms hung over the door to expel evil spirits, while inside, the ancestral altar was adorned with flowers, fruit and vegetables.

Minh lived with her parents and four younger siblings – we discovered with difficulty, her Vietnamese being rudimentary.

But somehow we communicated, and learnt more about her life as we drank green tea.

It transpired that Minh had just graduated from high school in Dong Van and was now helping her parents in the fields, which lay several kilometres from her home.

Eventually, and with a touch of reluctance, we were forced to say our goodbyes, but we promised to send her copies of the photos we had taken, to her obvious delight. She duly wrote down her address on a small piece of paper and commanded me to keep my promise.

We arrived in Dong Van at 7pm and dined at a local restaurant on traditional specialties such as smoked pork, sausage and local river fish.

For most of the evening we talked about Minh and the pictures. We all agreed that she was the most beautiful girl we had ever seen and it seemed only fitting that she should live here in the loveliest part of Viet Nam.

We spent the night at a small hotel. I was restless and didn't sleep – the bitter cold had little to do with my insomnia.

The others were woken in the morning by the loud crowing of a cock and the excited barking of a dog, which seemed to summon us to take photos of the town. And we duly obeyed the call.

The town was built in the early part of the 20th century. At first, the Old Quarter was inhabited exclusively by Mong, Tay and Hoa, but in the 1940s and 1950s Kinh, Dao and Nung began to settle in the area.

Nowadays, Dong Van street has more than 40 houses dating back about a hundred years. The oldest is the house belonging to the Luong family, which was built in 1890.

We moved onto Dong Van market, which opens every Sunday, where people come from as far as 10km away to buy and trade.

The streets were a hive of activity from the early hours until sunset, with 7am being the busiest part of the day. There were a myriad goods being sold, ranging from vegetables, fruit, pork, chicken and fish to agricultural tools and home appliances.

We stopped at a thang co (horse meat) restaurant, which specialises in horse hotpot, a dish that has been consumed with relish by the Mong for aeons. It is an acquired taste, the eating of which is made easier when accompanied by copious quantities of maize wine.

The dish is basically a stew with the meat chopped into mouth-filling chunks. It is flavoured with salt and spices such as thao qua (cardamom) and dia dien (pineapple peel), giving the dish a hot and sweet aroma.

For Mong men, maize wine is an indispensable accompaniment, while woman settle for com nam (rice balls) or men men (ground maize).

Maize wine in Ha Giang, it ought to be mentioned, is a throat-burning 45 per cent proof. That said, it is surprisingly sweet and well worth the discomfort.

The six of us finished three large bowl of thang co and two litres maize wine before wobbling off on our motorbikes.

Somehow we arrived safely back in Ha Noi the next day. And as soon as I was home, I looked through the photos I had taken of Minh and selected the best ones to be printed and framed, hoping that she would hang them in her parents' house.

The next day, just before setting off to the post office, I discovered that I'd lost Minh's address. The remoteness of her home precluded the chance of writing an ambiguous address on the envelope.

I felt wretched and annoyed with myself at the same time. I vowed that I would return to Ha Giang, but fate smiles on those it fools, and it was never to be – until the Yamaha Foto Tour opportunity fell in my lap.

Ha Giang revisited

The press trip was to last six days and take in Thai Nguyen, Bac Kan, Tuyen Quang, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Giang and Bac Ninh.

There were 18 of us, all photographers and motorbike enthusiasts.

Most of the provinces and places to be visited I had already been to, including Ha Giang, where we were to spend two full days. Of course, my thoughts drifted back to Minh, and relief flooded through me.

I took out her pictures that I'd kept in my safety deposit box for the past four years and carefully stowed them away in my backpack, along with a gift of o mai, dried apricots, a Ha Noi specialty.

On the third day of the trip, we reached Ha Giang in the early hours, but it was still another 120km north to Dong Van Town, and I felt strangely agitated and restless.

I could bear it no more and announced that I would break away from the group for the last part of the trip and meet up again in Dong Van.

As I set off, I desperately tried to recall the way to Minh's house. I knew it was about 10km from the town, a brown wooden house, with a moss-covered tiled roof.

I spent nearly three hours on the mountain road before I reached a sign that read "Dong Van 12km". My heart leapt, as did the Yamaha Exciter Sport I was riding when I changed down a gear too quickly.

By some miracle, I found the house. It looked exactly as I had remembered it, as did the father who greeted me, when I knocked, perhaps too loudly, on the front door. "Minh is now married," I was told. "Three years ago."

When I asked where she lived, I was told just around the corner in another commune, 15km away.

Minh's father went on to tell me that despite her high school diploma his daughter had not been able to find a job in town and that she had had to continue working in the fields. "That is why she married early," he said matter-of-factly.

Trying to hide my disappointment, I explained that I wished to give Minh the photos I had taken of her when we'd met four years before and that she'd been so keen to see. But I didn't want to disturb her now that she was married and suggested that the father pass them on to her. He would hear nothing of it, and suggested that I go to the Sunday market, where she was sure to be selling vegetables and meat, as she always did.

And so I went. It only took a few minutes for me to recognise Minh in the crowd. She hadn't changed at all, aside from the fact that she now had a baby tied to her hip with a cloth band.

She was just as beautiful as before. She was selling vegetables, pork and two small puppies.

I approached her slowly, as she was caressing her baby boy. He looked to be about two years old. I called out her name and she looked up startled, and then smiled in recognition.

I sat down next to her and we talked about each other's lives, our work and families. Minh's husband was also a farmer. Their house, she told me, was halfway up the mountain, about 4km away. She said they grew crops and raised pigs, goats and chickens.

When I gave Minh the photographs, her face lit up and then turned dark. She said she could not keep them because her husband would be jealous. Instead, she said she would leave them with her parents.

I then, rather boldly, asked if I could publish her photo in my newspaper, but she vigorously shook her head vigorously and begged me not to do so.

We talked for another 15 minutes before Minh urged me to go because her husband, who was drinking rice wine at a thang co stand nearby, would be coming soon. She said he wouldn't like to see her talking to a stranger.

We said our goodbyes, without exchanging addresses, and I left the market to wander around the old town and await the arrival of my travelling companions

Perhaps half an hour later, as I was sitting at a tea shop, I smiled at the sight of a man stretch out asleep on the back of a horse, which was being led by a young woman with a baby on her back. As they neared, I recognised Minh.

The teashop owner said it was a common sight here. He said that while the women are selling their goods at the market, their husbands drink corn wine at a thang co restaurant until comatosed.

It was then that I most regretted not sending her the photos I'd promised four long years ago. And I remembered that Suyin Han's book was a tragedy, and wondered why she hadn't called it A Many-Splintered Thing. — VNS

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