11 January, 2011

My bit of Việt Nam. Part 1.

I'm still a little startled to be home again.  I'm not complaining, I've made a soft landing: it's the season for galettes des rois, those flaky puff-pastry discs stuffed with frangipane that satisfy your body as completely as any dessert possibly can.  Nostalgia and butter in one mouthful, with that delicate but pervasive almond scent to knock it out of the park.  I self-soothe with galette des rois.  I get galettes des rois pretending they're for the children, who do indeed covet the charming fève hidden inside each one.  But who am I fooling?

(Small pause to thoughtfully finish swallowing).

An airplane can carry your body halfway around the world in half a day, but your spirit gets lost somewhere in the slipstream.  We human beings generally benefit from a little more adjustment time.
Where to start with what we did in Vietnam? We navigated the long, skinny country by plane, train, automobile, boat, kayak, motorcycle and bike.  We went from the proper cold of the north to the southern Mekong warmth, with a intermezzo in the central region.  It is a country of contrasts; I suppose I should just plain begin at the beginning.

We landed in Hanoi. The grand, 1000 year old city of the north is a bit ramshackle but definitely human-scale, the old bits are just ideal for wandering, as long as you're willing to do a little weaving through the flow of foot and motorcycle traffic.  Having explored the city for a couple of days, we then took the northbound, overnight train to Lao Cai, a small city on the Chinese border, down the road from the celebrated, rice-terraced trekker's heaven around Sapa (Sapa itself suffers some of the aches and pains of overdevelopment, but the plush hotels can make for a nice respite).

Waking up in Vietnam means having a good shot at scoring the best, biggest bowl of pho (bo), which is a heady, aromatic beef broth dosed with rice noodles, fresh herbs, lime, and some thin slices of beef, which finish cooking in the bowl of broth. This is the true breakfast of champions, truly the national dish, and while it may seem counterintuitive to eat beef in the morning, you really have to give this an a.m. try once in your life. You'll be ready for pretty much anything the day throws at you.
From Sapa, we headed even further north to the remote, unspoiled reaches of Ha Giang Province and onward, through Meo Vac all the way to Dong Van.  Some parts seemed visually closer in spirit to the remoter parts of Central Asia than Southeast Asia: extraordinary, sweeping landscapes, with mountains that a child would draw: vertiginous, vertical. 

Much of the time, the road was virtually one lane, with a generous amount of hairpin turns. I got some serious vertigo a couple of times. At some points the fjords of Norway came to mind, at others parts of the American West, in some places all jutting granitic rock. We saw at least one river that came roaring out of and down a mountain, having been in that mountain chain for kilometers, racing through a network of caves.

We found ourselves at an open, formal-ish outdoor Communist Party musical celebration for Dong Van Geopark, which has been freshly, officially endorsed by UNESCO as a world geopark (one of just 77 worldwide). Some local Party prominent were onstage, but most of the townspeople chose to pay an entrance fee to the bustling local fair instead, which is a thinly disguised opportunity for more commerce in the form of clothing, foods, etc. On-stage at the fair, there was a guy juggling fire to the tune of the Blues Brothers. At both places we were the only non-Vietnamese, and proved to be a fairly compelling sideshow. The children drew attention and smiles everywhere. Couldn't tell you how many times they were photographed and petted, whole-heartedly embraced by men and women alike, no matter the age. 

We visited the gently decayed, pine-ringed palace of the Hmong King, who was installed and propped up by the French, and who functioned as the opium middle man (with his own kingdom of four northern districts) between France and China. Amazing story, though the kingdom lasted only two generations...ending with a ceremonial handshake with Ho Chi Minh. Some of the family who remained got cushy high level government positions, others, disappointed and angry, left for the diaspora.

We stumbled upon the two-day long initiation rites into manhood for a rather awed thirteen-year old of a tribal minority. By stumble I mean we drove by on a remote, precariously steep mountain pass, saw something colorful happening, got out, and then suddenly the masked shaman made me blush very, very deeply when he teasingly went after me, suggestively waving the gourd vegetable tied to his waist. All the watching women of the tribe, standing nearby, enjoyed this mightily. We all formally passed on best wishes to one another before continuing on our way. The little boy at the center of all this just looked solemn.

Still above 1400 m in elevation, we got out of the van to watch some guys hard at work hand-cranking a metal centrifuge to extract honey. They smiled broadly at our frank interest, and we were given honeycomb to chew on (a first for the kids, who shamelessly begged for more) and a teacupful of honey to dip our fingers into. It was very liquid. Hard work anywhere, this particular beekeeper had a tarp tent as he lives 250 kms away. This, perched upon a windswept rock, among the mountain wildflowers and beehives, was his home during the harvest.

I can now say I've held a whole cardamom pod for the first time (at home, I have what are labeled as "whole" cardamom, but are really just "pellets" from inside the ovalish pod).  The laughing girl who was selling them--a mere 10 dollars per kilo--gave one to me so it now ornaments my kitchen butcher block. We also have been chewing on peppery bits of cinnamon (good thing given all the garlic we were ingesting), torn from rolled cinnamon bark longer than my forearm.  Brought some of that back home too.

On our circuitous way back from the northernmost reaches, we remained lucky with the weather, which was dry and usually clear. The homestays were a highlight. The large thatched wooden home--at least the sort we stayed in--functions as more of a unheated windbreak than a house in any Western sense of the notion, I discovered. This first home was spartan but kept clean by our smiling hosts, with newsprint as wall decor (though I noticed a Britney Spears decal among the cute Japanese girl-stickers below the TV). We ate well (the delicious cooked pumpkin leaves were new to me), and slept upstairs, on the floor, under extremely heavy, dense bedding. Seriously, so heavy; I've no idea what was inside the bright (think Frida Kahlo Mexico kind of colors) velour duvet covers. We slept like rocks in the open upstairs room, but we certainly didn't sleep in: with the rising sun came a cacophony of animal sound, and with those thin walls and floors, we might as well have been in the middle of a zoo. A domestic zoo. I half-believed the chickens, pig, cat, horse and whatever else were just readying themselves to climb into my mosquito-screened bedding. Especially those cackling chickens.

After a tea which they kindly laid out for us in the morning sun, we walked a kilometer to Bac Ha, for the largest weekly market in the entire province, breakfast pho, more cacophony...and a livestock sale to boot. It was probably the most colorful market I have ever seen, packed with vibrantly clothed Flower Hmong, one of the fifty-some ethnic minorities in Vietnam (each of whom have their own distinctive culture, language and traditional dress). 

We learned how to make cellophane noodles.  We watched hemp being turned into thread, thread being made into cloth, cloth being dyed indigo...We tasted local goat, some amazing peppermint honey, some corn moonshine, and other potent brews.  I'll show you some pictures of these, another time.

Then there was the astonishing Phat Diem cathedral, so resolutely Far Eastern and Catholic (courtesy of the French) at the same time; Tam Coc, known by some as "Halong on the rice paddies", where the women row their boats with their feet past surreal limestone mountains; and, not to be missed, Halong Bay itself, the kind of place that makes you breathe deeply and rub your eyes to be sure it's all real, all that exquisitely beautiful.  That was where the kids went night squid fishing.

I don't think I should actually admit how many photos I took, but here are a few:
(A technical P.S.: Do you happen to know better quality--and free--video-making/uploading programs?  This Blogger/Picasa version takes several eternities, and in the process the images lose all their sharpness...plus, perhaps unrelated, I can't use any of the music on my iTunes.)


  1. What we do is: Make the video in Windows Movie Maker. Save as a movie file in high quality format (large). Load to YouTube. Embed in blog. Converting photos to video is always going to result in some loss of quality, but this is the best compromise we've come across.

  2. Whew! There's so much here, I hardly know what to say. All I can say is I'm so glad there's someone out there with such a grand sense of adventure.

    Can't wait to see some images.

  3. Thanks Susan, I'll try that when I put together the photos from central Vietnam.

    Hello Rose, well, images, honey! They're all in the video I painstakingly put together (see above--please!) and tucked into the post, right before the last paragraph where I complain about the quality of said video. There were just too many photos to post separately, and this after ruthless selection. I'm kind of not thrilled about the lack of sharpness, but don't know how to put a slideshow (like I have at the top of the blog) within a post...


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