The next morning we had an early start. We met Cuong at 7 o'clock and we walked to a nearby shop where Cuong bought some breakfast supplies. We walked through town, passing a store which sold small birds, There were around 20 birdcages hung outside the shop, containing one bird each. The birds sang as the sunlight permeated the morning shadows.
We arrived at Pho Co Cafe, the coffeehouse we had visited yesterday yesterday. Cuong asked the young man to prepare the food that we had just bought. I walked around the inside of the century-old merchant's house and took some pictures in the gorgeous morning sunlight. I went up on the front porch to take some pictures down the street, at the town's buildings against a backdrop of karst mountains.
Our breakfast was delivered: hot dogs on baguettes, Laughing Cow cheese, ramen noodle bowls, vanilla yogurt, bananas, fried eggs, and coffee. There was certainly never a shortage of food on this trip, and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.
Today was Sunday, which meant that the weekly market was taking place. We walked over to the flat area where the outdoor market was held. The grounds of the market abutted a water trench / aqueduct. On the other side were the back sides of row houses, and further into the distance, tree-dotted karst peaks against a blue sky with puffy white clouds.
We passed through a parking area jammed with motorbikes toward a sea of people in brightly colored clothing. Many different ethnic minorities were represented here, and the vast majority of women were wearing their traditional ethnic attire. People walked into Dong Van town from outlying villages in the mountains to socialize as well as do their weekly buying and selling.
There were few western tourists here. Men and women were engaged in various transactions, selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to ubiquitous white plastic flip-flops, brightly colored clothing, tools, sugar cane, cigarettes, lighters, medicine, toiletries, clams, toys,British soccer team decals, tobacco, cell phones, and live chickens. Shiny clothing sparkled in the early morning sunlight. The colors were like a kaleidoscope.
A Hmong man purchased a large locking wooden box which he hoisted onto his shoulder to carry home. Kids were eating fruit, noodles, and orange popsicles. Tiny toddlers used their chopsticks like professionals. They learn dexterity and fine motor skills at a very young age simply by eating.
People were very friendly, and when I showed interest in photographing their children, they would always adjust the baby, wiping its face or straightening its hat for a nice picture. Men and women sat at low tables imbibing in rice wine, which was being bought, sold, and traded in large plastic gas cans. Women sold sticky rice, which had neon-colored layers on the top in pink, purple, or yellow. Women cooked what appeared to be thick rice pancakes over the coals of a fire. They fanned the coals with pieces of white styrofoam.
Cuong let us spend as much time as we wanted here. We were very comfortable wandering around on our own, taking photos. Nobody even tried to sell us anything...how often does that ever happen in a market?
We could have people-watched here all day, but it was time to move on. After checking out of the hotel, we drove through some amazing landscapes. We could see karst limestone pinnacles rising up from the earth at different depths, each appearing to be a different shade of gray. It was very beautiful to be among these mountains.
Just outside of town, we stopped in Sa Phin to visit Vuong Palace, former home of the Hmong King Vuong Duch Chinh situated on a hillside. The king had signed a treaty with the French at the beginning of the 20th century, and thereafter became known as the king of the White Hmong.
A young woman guided us around the property. We crossed under a welcoming archway, and then climbed a set of stairs to the unassuming entrance. Little boys were playing on the stairs, sliding down the edge of the staircase on their bottoms. There were a lot of pine trees on the property. We had only really noticed pine trees on this morning's ride. They certainly weren't abundant any place else we had been so far.
There was much Chinese influence in the architecture of this palace, built in 1914.The palace itself was built of wood and stone, and had three courtyards. Wooden columns sat on granite footings carved to look like poppies. (The royal family had prospered greatly from the opium trade at the time.)
We wandered from one courtyard to the next, into and out of rooms, admiring the elaborate wood carving along the ceiling rafters. Wood was joined together perfectly, and the details were amazing. Some of the rooms contained antique furniture. The Hmong king had three wives, and they each had separate bedrooms. Two of the bedrooms contained traditional fireplaces like we had seen in Tay houses, but one contained a European style fireplace. One of the courtyards contained a half-moon shaped bath tub which was carved from a single piece of rock. This is where the king had soaked his body in goat's milk.
We had the place to ourselves; we had only seen two other tourists here. When we were finished with the tour, we used the restrooms and then continued on our drive. We passed little hamlets nestled between the mountains. There were cave entrances visible in some of the karst formations as we gradually descended to Yen Minh town.
We had lunch once again at the Minh Hai restaurant, where we had eaten yesterday. We sat at our "usual" table in the back and enjoyed cabbage leaves, sausage, pork, rice, and green beans. Our itinerary had originally called for us to stay tonight at a "very simple" and "non immaculate" hotel here in Yen Minh. But Cuong suggested an alternative.
It was only noon, and there wasn't anything to do in Yen Minh for the rest of the day. It was also a busy town, which would be noisy and not very relaxing. Cuong suggested going back to the guest house on the outskirts of Ha Giang City. We had enjoyed our time there so much that another night there would be a lot of fun. We would have had to drive back there tomorrow anyway, and Mr. Giang didn't mind driving the extra couple of hours today instead.
Cuong made all of the arrangements and we were happy to hear that the guest house had room for the four of us. As we passed over the mountains, we stopped at Heaven's Gate (elevation 1100 meters) at a little shop which sold traditional medicine and remedies such as bags of mushrooms and satin sachets filled with cedar. We had coffee there, and Cuong bought his wife a cedar tub for soaking her feet after a long day at work, similar to the ones we had soaked in at the guest house several days before.
As we headed back down from Heaven's Gate, Craig wasn't bothered by the car motion; he had taken his motion sickness medication today. We reached some road construction. It must be very challenging to fix these mountain roads and still keep them passable. Traffic was stopped in both directions and we got out of the car and talked to a local guide whom we had met at Heaven's Gate. After a few minutes, we were able to proceed.
As we approached Ha Giang City, the late afternoon light rendered the mountains very pretty. We came upon a muddy rice paddy where a young woman and her mother-in-law were plowing with water buffalo. The young woman had a radiant smile. She looked very delicate and it seemed incongruous to see her doing this difficult manual labor. She slogged through the mud behind her buffalo as a baby buffalo looked on. The waning sun illuminated her, making her look radiant as the light bounced off the water. Cuong talked to her and her mother-in-law, and joined us in taking some photos of the bucolic beauty of the moment.
It was a short drive from here back to the guest house, and we were greeted by the two caretaker ladies and the resident dog like long lost friends. The guest house was full tonight; there was a group of 12 French tourists. Despite all of the little curtained-off "rooms" around the perimeter being occupied, the guest house still seemed very large and spacious. Tonight we were in the curtained area that last time had been Cuong's "dictator suite."
Craig and I dropped off our luggage and then headed outside to take some photos in the late afternoon light. We were very comfortable here walking around by ourselves. As we walked down the dirt road, we ran into Chuong's mother, carrying two baskets of cabbage hanging from a pole slung over one shoulder, and smiling at us with her dyed black teeth.
We walked down the road, enjoying the reflection of the setting sun in the rice paddies. Our canine friend accompanied us. We felt like we were back "home". We saw ten little yellow and brown ducklings swimming in a puddle on the side of the dirt road. We watched a woman out weeding her rice field.
It was very peaceful, except for the sounds of power tools from the builder's house where we had enjoyed tea on our previous visit. He was using a planer, ostensibly working on something for his son's new house. The sound stood in contrast with the timelessness of the landscape, but still was nothing compared to the sounds of the city in a place like Yen Minh.
We walked back toward the guest house. As we passed the house next door, someone waved us over. We walked over to the house and saw that it was Chuong, our hiking guide! He was happy to see us, and greeted us warmly. He was tending a still where he was producing rice wine. Was he the source of the rice wine that we had procured from the guest house? Craig and I laughed as we recalled the TV show "Moonshiners", and realized we had just stepped into an episode.
Chuong was in a little outdoor kitchen which had a cement stove heated by a fire stoked with bamboo poles. A metal still sat on top of the stove.and clear liquid dripped into an old white plastic water jug. Chuong collected a bit in the plastic cap and gave it to Craig to drink. "Chuc suc khoe!" Next he collected some for me. It was still warm and very smooth. Such hospitality!
He waved for us to go into his house. We walked under the house and he pointed us toward a blue plastic bucket that contained the mash for the brewing process. Chickens were scurrying around. His mother heard us talking and looked down the stairs from the main level of the house. She looked startled to see us in her house, but was very hospitable and friendly. She waved us up the stairs.
We took off our shoes and entered. She offered us a seat at a small table, and she poured us each a cup of tea. She directed our attention to some military honors hanging on the wall. We had seen these in all of the homes that we had visited. Everyone's family was impacted by the war.
Chuong was able to take a break from brewing, and he came up to sit with us. He initiated conversation without a common language. He wrote on a scrap of paper "1971" and then pointed to himself. Wow, he was four years older than me. The Vietnamese certainly age well. He looks very youthful. Craig wrote down his birth year, and I wrote down mine. A friend of Chuong's entered the house and laughed with surprise when he saw the two of us sitting there. Chuong worked out some numbers by counting on his knuckles and then said something in Vietnamese to his friend. The friend knew a little English, and wrote "horse" on the piece of paper, pointing to Craig. He wrote "cat" and pointed to me. These were our signs in the Vietnamese zodiac.
Sometimes it is even more fun to communicate when you don't have a common language. It calls for creativity and gets down to the basics of the human condition.
Chuong showed us the military honors that the father he had never known had posthumously received. He pointed out some pictures of his mother when she was younger, and ran to one of the sleeping areas to retrieve a metal necklace that he had fashioned for his mother.
Through a kind of sign language, Chuong asked us how many children we have. We answered that we don't have any children. He looked solemn. Then he got a flicker in his eyes and he jumped up and dashed back to the sleeping area. He returned with a key. Though these houses have no way to be locked up, the family had a large armoire which had locking cabinet doors. He unlocked one and extracted a glass jar. There was a large gray mass in it, and the bottom half inch of the jar contained a clear liquid.
Chuong picked up the jar and poured the liquid out into three shot glasses, using his hand to hold back the gelatinous gray mass. This jar had probably once been full of clear liquid, but now it was down to the dregs. He gave us each a shot glass and the three of us toasted and drank it. It was much sweeter and more pleasant than we had anticipated. He tried to pour a second round, but there was only enough liquid for two shots. He insisted that Craig and I take it, and we toasted one another and knocked it back.
We had no idea what the gelatinous mass had been. At first it had looked like a lump of clay. Then upon further inspection, it looked like a preserved organ, like a bloated heart. Chuong indicated that this was going to provide strength, to remedy our...lack of children, if you know what I mean. We all got a good laugh but we were touched by the fact that he shared the last of this obviously precious and scarce family resource with us in an effort to help us. These villagers are beyond generous.
We knew that Chuong probably needed to get back to his brewing, so we thanked him for the hospitality and said our goodnights. We were so glad that we had come back to this friendly village.
When we got back to the guest house, Cuong poured us a cup of tea. Tables and small stools filled the center of the floor. There would be a lot of people eating here tonight. Mr. Giang poured rice wine into four shot glasses and we drank a toast. "Chuc suc khoe!" "We've just started," laughed Cuong. We even got the French tourists to do a toast.
Dinner was delicious: spring rolls, egg soup, fried tofu, fish with tomato, dill, and onion, green beans, and chicken with mushrooms and carrots.
Once our hostesses had served everyone, Mr. Giang convinced them to join us for a drink. They were always very proper and formally shook each of our hands as they smiled widely after drinking a shot. We had a lot of laughs and enjoyed the camaraderie. The cat that lives at the guest house hung around us and laid down under our table.
We thanked Cuong for bringing us back here; this certainly beat a night in noisy Yen Minh! We didn't stay up too late tonight, as it was a full house and we didn't want to disturb the other guests.
Dong Van market
Two women eat bananas at Dong Van market
Young girl at Dong Van Market
Scenery on the drive to Sa Phin
Woman plowing behind a water buffalo
Rice paddies at sunset
Chuong pours us rice wine in which has been soaking a mystery object
Dinner at the guest house: rice wine with the hostesses
Cuong and Steph
Rice wine with the hostesses
Mr. Giang and Craig toast