The next morning we got up at 6:30 a.m., packed up our things, and joined Cuong and Mr. Giang at the table for breakfast. Our hostesses served us crepes, bananas, fried eggs, and baguettes. We ate until we were almost full, and then they brought us each a ramen noodle bowl. They served us so much food. We didn't want to be impolite, so we ate as much of the noodle soup as we could. We washed it all down with coffee. Any coffee that Cuong has prepared for us on this trip had been G7 3-in-1, a surprisingly good (and popular) Vietnamese instant coffee which comes in packets that contain coffee, creamer, and sugar.
By 8:00, we were packing up the car and saying goodbye to the two women who had taken such good care of us for the last couple of days.
As we drove out of Ha Giang City, we drove by a gorgeous bamboo waterwheel. The flat land gave way to a large plteau rising in front of us. We knew this because of a large sign announcing it, kind of like the Hollywood sign, with large white capital letters. We started to see conical limestone mountains (karst) rising around us. The road became very windy as it carried us up over the mountains, around hairpin turns. As we wove our way around on these roads, Craig got a bit queasy. He had realized too late that he should have taken some motion sickness medication.
In the town of Tien Thang, there was a market which straddled the main road. Sellers and buyers congregated on either side of the street. The road was passable, but you had to be cautious due to the people, stalls, and parked motorbikes which lined the curb and jutted into the street. Mr. Giang pulled the van over where he had room and let us out.
Cuong informed us that we would see 4 different ethnic minorities at the market: Tay, Nung, Yao, and Hmong. Each group had their own distinct traditional clothing style, along with accessories such as head wraps and silver jewelry. Men loaded live chickens into cages on the backs of their motorbikes. Women cut apart slabs of tofu in long rectangular wooden molds, and packaged them expertly in plastic bags without breaking their integrity. People shopped for fruits and vegetables and carried around their purchases in baskets on their backs. People carved pineapples into the elaborate shapes in which they always seem to be served at every restaurant we have been to.
There were several other western tourists here, but not many. This was not a tourist market; the locals were all selling to one another. A man held a baby chick in his hand, determining whether or not he should purchase it. People huddled around stalks of sugar cane. Most of the locals were very friendly, saying "Xin chao" (hello) and gamely posing for photos. As we walked down the street to the van, we passed some small fiberglass domes which we had seen on the drive up here. Cuong explained that these were for household harvesting of biogas. We also some some small old-school gasoline pumps, which had a graduated glass cylinder full of gasoline on the top.
After enjoying the sights and sounds the market, we go continued on our way even further north. It had become foggy and the roads were dangerous. But as usual we trusted Mr. Giang's ability to transport us safely. We were driving on mountainous roads, working our way up to Heaven's Gate pass, with an altitude of 1100 meters. We looked down into green valleys with terraces rice paddies in between karst monoliths. The road then descended down the other side of the mountain.
We stopped in the town of Yen Minh for lunch at the Minh Hai restaurant. Craig located his motion sickness pills, took them, and soon felt better. We sat at a table in the back corner. THe restaurant was decorated with wedding photos of the proprietor's daughter. For lunch we had fried tofu, spring rolls, green beans, chicken with lime leaves, baby pumpkin stuffed with meat, and pork wrapped in the kind of leaves that Cuong used to eat when he was in the army living in the jungle. These were really tasty, and the leaf became crispy and added to the texture of the dish. We had tiny bananas for dessert.
We got back into the car and continued our drive toward Dong Van. We were seeing more and more karst mountains, and if you looked carefully, you could just make out people up on the steep slopes, trying to farm in most inhospitable conditions. The central highlands and the south of Vietnam provide excellent land for farming, which belongs to the ethnic Vietnamese, the majority population. The ethnic minorities are for the most part confined to the north near the China border, where the landscape is mountainous and the soil is rocky. We saw small brush fires burning in an attempt to clear some of the land for farming. We passed some trees which had no leaves on them but their scraggly branches hold on to one or two red flowers. Occasionally, we would see these flowers in the road.
We took a wrong turn and wound up on a road where cars weren't allowed, so we needed to backtrack, but soon we were on the right track again. As we drove through the mountains, Mr. Giang pulled the car over and stopped where a group of White Hmong were farming the rocky soil. Multiple generations were participating, from the elderly to the infants, learning how to eke out a living from the earliest of ages. Babies observed from their perch on their mothers' backs. Boys and girls used hoes and picks to turn over the soil. Women would drop three corn kernels in at a time, and would then cover them up. Men plowed behind water buffalo, in between sharp-edged boulders.
Being from New England, where corn fields are flat, we were quite surprised to see corn being planted this way. This land looks unusable, but these people are struggling to get it to produce corn. Everywhere we stepped, we felt like we were in their way. They were tilling every inch of soil, all while smiling, waving, and talking to us through Cuong.
The women and girls were wearing flowing pleated skirts in brightly colored patterns. Under the skirts, they wore loose trousers (in contrasting brightly colored patterns), which almost resembled a lightweight pajama pant. They wore long-sleeved solid colored blouses topped by a vest with horizontal stripes. Men and boys wore black pants and black jackets, with a bright, solid-colored collared shirt underneath.
After spending some time observing their multi-generational work ethic, we got back into the car and continued on, seeing the ribbon of road clinging to the side of the mountains. Though the karst rocks look black on the outside, we saw many places where it had been chopped up to make stone walls, and the inside was light gray or brown. In the distance, the karst peaks took on a sawtooth appearance. We passed over a large river valley.
We stopped at a lookout point. There was a group of Vietnamese men, some of whom tried to sneak a picture of us with their iPhones. Craig noticed this and posed for them, and they got embarrassed. Two other men came up and asked if they could get their pictures taken with us. Only knowing a few English phrases, one of the men said "Happy happy!" as they waved goodbye to us. They all hopped back into their fleet of cars. Cuong could tell from their license plates that they were military. It's really heartening that things have progressed so far that a pair of Vietnamese military folks cheerfully ask to have their photo taken with American tourists.
Around mid-afternoon, Cuong and Mr. Giang announced that we had arrived in Dong Van. We surveyed the little town. Toni at Myths and Mountains had said that we would visit a "most unique coffee house." This piqued our curiosity, and we looked around to see if we could locate it by sight. COme to find out, we were in the wrong town. So we left and drove a little bit further to arrive in the actual DOng Van.
Dong Van is a small city situated within the towering limestone karst pillars. We checked into our hotel, a former government guest house called the Rocky Plateau Hotel. We had to leave our passports at the front desk because they needed to be checked by local officials (you need a special permit to travel in this northernmost region of the country).
Toni at Myths and Mountains had warned on the itinerary that "this [hotel] is a very simple place and not immaculate." This set our expectations appropriately. The room was fine, it had a comfortable bed and a clean bathroom. It even had a flat screen cable TV and a mini-fridge. But the glory days of the hotel were most definitely behind it. The rugs were stained, and the paint was scuffed and chipped. There were lamps placed strategically around the room, but only one contained a light bulb. Ugly dated still life artwork hung framed on the walls. Each painting had its own gallery-style light fixture above it, but none of the light switches seemed to operate them. The room was fine...but a bit shabby.
After freshening up, we met Cuong at 4 o'clock to take a walk through town. We walked down a street where two men were making concrete into blocks by hand. This old-school method of creating building materials is efficient in these remote areas, where there is plenty of labor cheaply available, but shipping materials and goods is expensive. We saw houses which were one hundred years old next to modern day houses. It was cool to see the limestone karst pillars towering over the old structures. The town is only 1 kilometer from the Chinese border, and was originally settled by the Hoa people who emigrated from China. The Chinese influence is visible in the architecture. As we walked by the old houses, a woman walked her toddler over to us just to say hi.
Cuong took us to the Pho Co Cafe, a hundred-year-old merchant's house built in the Chinese style, which is now a coffeehouse. We entered the dark wood building lit by red paper lanterns. The interior had incredible dark woodwork and an open-air courtyard. There were small bamboo lanterns. The style of the building reminded me of Yin Yu Tang, the Chinese merchant's house on display at the Peabody Essex Museum near home. We sat down and Cuong ordered us coffees. The young man working there had a modern haircut and western clothes. He sat beneath a blinking electric sign and the contrast between the present and the past was striking. He suggested that we try the frozen mango smoothies, so we ordered a round of those as well. When the coffee came, Cuong called it "patience-training" coffee because we had to wait for it to drip through a metal filter down into the cup. The frozen mango smoothies were quite delicious and refreshing.
After our coffee break, we continued down the street to explore more of the old quarter. We wandered down alleys and Cuong wandered into people's yards. Everyone was extremely warm and welcoming. They were mostly of the Tay ethnicity. One woman invited us into her house for tea. As we entered, her adorable 2-year-old son Duc said "power cut" in Vietnamese to let us know that the electricity was out. We were still able to see due to the natural light coming through the windows. Duc sat next to me on a bench as his mother poured us cups of special tea. We noticed that the walls had been wallpapered with newspapers.
We took pictures of Duc and he giggled and smiled as we showed them to him. His mom told Cuong that she is a teacher here in town. Teachers get paid double the salary for working in remote areas such as this, so she was earning $500 per month. When we got up to leave, Duc started to cry. I guess he liked us! We joked that Cuong should sing him the "leave, don't go" folk song that the Tam Tao villagers had sung for us a few days ago. We thanked Duc's mother for her hospitality, and apologized for making him cry. She laughed good-naturedly.
As we continued walking through old town, we passed some kids in the street who were kicking around a badminton birdie, a variation on hacky sack. We were invited into another house. Both the mother and the father were in the military and had various military citations hung up. They were cooking dinner, and they had a little boy who was shyly watching us, shrieking and giggling if we ever looked at him.
We passed a house that had drunken singing emanating from it. Cuong joined in the singing from the street, and one of the inebriated men came running excitedly out of the house. He couldn't believe Cuong had just shown up out of nowhere singing in a strong, confident manner. The two of them continued singing together and the man enthusiastically shook Cuong's hand. The man's adorable mother appeared and she spoke with Cuong. She is probably around 90 years old, but doesn't know her exact age. Cuong took a picture of us with her, and she stroked my face and hair. She was very sweet and friendly.
It was really striking to us how hospitable all of these people were to us, foreign strangers, inviting us into their homes and offering us refreshments, etc. It was very humbling, and we were very appreciative.
As we walked to the more modern part of town, it started to get dark. Cuong told us that he wanted to scout out dinner, and would meet us in the hotel lobby at 7 o'clock. Craig and I wandered up and down the main strip, passing and peeking into seamstress shops, restaurants, gas stations, corner stores, and hotels. We met a European tourist who was having a difficult time getting a hotel room. We referred him to Cuong, who was able to help him find a place. As we walked by a tour bus parked on the side of the road, the driver took our picture with his cell phone and then gave us a big thumbs-up. I guess they mustn't get many western tourists up here.
We walked back to the hotel, getting a little bit lost in the advancing darkness. We were one street parallel to where we thought we were, and it took a little wandering to find our way back. Once we got there, we rested for a few minutes before meeting Cuong in the lobby at 7 o'clock. He said he had found a good place for dinner, and we walked to Nha Hang Tien Nhi restaurant. Tourists were being turned away at the door because there was no room. But when we peeked inside, we saw Mr. Giang saving a table for us, wearing a sport coat and brandishing a bottle of rice wine he had gotten at the guest house.
We took our seats and the waitstaff immediately brought plate after plate of food. Cuong had ordered "whatever is local and good." You can never go wrong with that attitude, and it all turned out to be delicious. We were served pork, pea pods, sausage, beef, greens, bamboo shoots, rice, and a type of jungle vegetable that is gathered by the Tay people. I especially liked the sausage, which reminded me of kielbasa. We had a couple of rounds of chuc suc khoe rice wine toasts, and the local tourists at the next table took photos of us. At around 8 o'clock, Dictator Cuong sent us on our way back to the hotel to bed, and the locals jokingly sang us a lullabye as we exited the restaurant.
We walked back to our hotel. Craig turned on the TV out of curiosity while I wrote in the journal. It is always fun to see local television shows and commerciuals when traveling abroad. After I finished writing up the day's notes, we went to bed at 8:45.
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Woman at Tien Thang Market
Woman selling peanuts in Tien Thang Market
Selling sugar cane at Tien Thang Market
Sawtooth karst pinnacles
White Hmong families farming the rocky soil
White Hmong families farming the rocky soil
White Hmong families farming the rocky soil
Karst mountains tower over Dong Van
Pho Co Cafe, a Chinese coffeehouse in Dong Van
Pho Co Cafe, a Chinese coffeehouse in Dong Van
Duc and Steph
Cuong in the Old Quarter of Dong Van
Dong Van at twilight
Craig, Mr. Giang, and Cuong at dinner at Nha Hang Tien Nhi restaurant