Our first night at the resort in Ha Giang we ordered a dinner of fried tofu with tomatoes sauteed spinach, and steamed rice.
They got us to the bus station alive and well and after a bit of confusion and
waiting around we got on the right bus to Ha Gaing and settled down for our 7
hour journey north. The seats were very comfortable and we enjoyed watching 3
Rambo movies in a row on the TV at the front of the bus while it swerved around
many bends and honked incessantly at oncoming traffic (if you are easily car
sick you may want to reconsider this journey). Now Ha Gaing is just the tip of
the ice berg. Our Lonely Planet guide book doesn't even mention Ha Gaing or the
place where we are heading, Meo Vac and Dong Van. All the information I have
about the area came from the NYT's article and Lonely Planet's online travel
forum. A guesthouse in Ha Gaing was recommended online called Truong Xuan ($10
per night), for anyone else traveling to this area we also highly recommend it.
It's on the outskirts of town with bungalows right along the river, its really
very peaceful and luckily it employs a great English speaking fellow named, Hue.
We let him know we wanted to go to Meo Vac and he took care of the rest. We
spent two nights in the bungalow to rest up for our next 6 hour bus journey to
Meo Vac. We have seen only two other Westerners, actually our first people we've
met from the USA! They are from Oregon motor-biking through the mountain passes
with a Vietnamese guide. They were also staying at the same resort in Ha Gaing
and apart from them we have not seen any other Western tourists. This is in
stark contrast from Hanoi and Cat Ba Island where backpackers like us are simply
everywhere. This has its pros and cons. A huge pro is that we feel like we're
finally experiencing traditional Vietnamese life without all the glamor of
tourist packages. A con is that its much harder to find our way, order food,
find a hotel, etc. because English speakers become more and more sparse. We've
found that even though we lack a common language the locals have been more than
kind to us, always waving and smiling and trying as hard as they can to
accommodate us and make us feel welcome.
Our first night at the resort in Ha Gaing we ordered a dinner of fried tofu with tomatoes sauteed spinach, and steamed rice. We had just dived in when we heard the strangest sound coming around the building. It kind of sounded like a child crying and Joel and I both perked our ears up to hear what was happening. The sound grew closer until it was upon us and turns out it was a chicken being carried by its wings to the chopping block. I kid you not they butchered that chicken 10 feet from where we were sitting and we heard its cries even after its head came off. I've never been more happy eating tofu than at that moment.
On the morning of our departure our host, Hue, called a taxi and took us to the bus station for our trip north to Meo Vac. Please google Dong Van and Meo Vac to see how far north we are! The travel forums and the article in the NYT let us know that this trip was well worth the hassle as the town is set high up in the most stunning mountain ranges the world has to offer. The road between Dong Van and Meo Vac is spectacular, its called the Ma Pi Leng pass and its professed beauty is what attracted us to these small towns. It was only recently that the Vietnamese government began to allow foreign tourists in the area and you actually have to purchase a $10 permit in Ha Gaing before you can come this far north. The region is made up mostly of ethnic minority groups such as the Hmong and Black Thai. They are so distinguishable because of their brightly colored clothing which is so beautiful.
We timed our trip perfectly to coincide with the Sunday markets that take place in both Dong Van and Meo Vac. We woke up early Sunday morning and headed to the market in Meo Vac. We first saw all the brightly colored clothing of the villagers and entered a market full of merchandise; livestock, clothing, produce, teas, meats, fish, etc. We bought this one type of bread, the best way I can describe it is like injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread that is fermented and slightly sour. Joel was immediately attracted to the traditional Hmong clothing and I was drawn to the bright skirts the women wore. We meandered through the market and decided to try and rent a motorbike for the trek to Dong Van's market about 20 kilometers away. This was not as easy as we thought it would be. In Hanoi and Cat Ba Island men are constantly asking you "motorbike for rent?" over and over and usually when you're not looking to rent one. We went downstairs to reception and tried our best to convey that we were looking to rent a motorbike. We think she understood what we were asking but she said "NO!" and pointed outside. We tried 2 other hotels with the same result. Defeated we went back to our hotel room and tried to come up with a game plan. My ingenious husband wrote down on a piece of paper in Vietnamese "I want to go to Dong Van, 100,000 VND, please help" thanks to our Vietnamese phrase book. We left our hotel and Joel approached the first group of men lounging around their motorbikes near the market and handed the piece of paper to a fellow. He read it and told his friends around him what it said and before we knew it they were talking loudly in Vietnamese and negotiating with each other who would be the one to lend us their motorbike. They wanted $15 dollars for the day but Joel wouldn't budge past $12 (Its only $5 a day in Hanoi). Finally one outspoken gentlemen gestured to us to get on his motorbike and instinct told us to get on. He drove us a short distance to a Yamaha repair shop and introduced us to the shops owner who agreed to lend us a motorbike for $12. I was so happy! I can't lie, I got nervous when our hotel couldn't help us and I thought to myself, what have we gotten ourselves into coming all this way if we can't even rent a motorbike to see the landscape? I should never have worried, Joel is my hero, he takes charge in every situation and he came through in this one as well.
Do I have to say that the Ma Pi Leng pass was incredible? Huge limestone peaks jutted out of the earth so so very high and the river ran through the gorge between the peaks creating a stunning landscape that these pictures do not do justice. It was hazy so the pictures unfortunately look washed out, but it was so beautiful, we can't believe a place like this exists. You could see the little houses of the Hmong here and there, literally on the slope of an enormous mountain with seemingly no road or path to get to it. We rode until we reached Dong Van and enjoyed their market which was arguably better because the town is situated higher in the mountains which creates a fantastic backdrop to the festivities. We broke down and Joel bought some traditional Hmong pants and I got a skirt and we are both very happy with our purchases; we really haven't bought every many items for ourselves as souvenirs yet so we were excited. After the market we headed to Lung Co, a village just 42 kilometers from the Chinese border! So technically we saw China but its as close as we'll get; visas for US citizens are way out of our budget. After sightseeing in Lung Co we hopped back on the motorbike to Dong Van to get some much needed sustenance. We had only eaten bananas and the bread from the market all day and it was nearing 5:00. We stopped at one of the only restaurants in the town and ordered fish soup and vegetable fried rice. Well we got the fish soup and some steamed spinach but we weren't really in a place to argue about what we ordered. We dove into the soup hungrily and shortly Joel and I looked up at each other. It was by far the worst thing we have ever tasted in our entire lives. It reminded us of the smell of the markets earlier in the day where the smell of the livestock, raw meat, fish, and humanity all combine to mingle into one pungently bad smell. Well that smell tasted exactly like our soup. Even the spinach was bad. We felt so terrible leaving all that uneaten food on the table but we paid and left as fast as our feet would carry us. It killed our appetite so we headed back to Meo Vac to call it a night.
I'm thankful for seeing the article in the New York Times, the trip was well worth the hassle and the harrowing bus journey that got us there. I hope these pictures can speak for some of our experiences and the magical beauty of that is Northern Vietnam.