Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Photo Delivery and the Long Haul Home--Bac Ha to Hanoi

Written in Hanoi, 11/15/2012
When last we spoke I had just dragged my muddy body into Bac Ha on the back of my muddy motorbike on the edge of the evening (not quite full dark).  Beaten but unbroken (nothing even badly bent really), we'd been through a grueling ride across the mountains from Xin Man in Ha Giang province.  Don't try that one with a bike you cherish.  The Little Horse is only now speaking to me in a civil tone again.

Bac Ha is a favorite spot of mine. . .I have favorite spots all over Viet Nam of course, but I've come here every trip since 2005 and will be surprised if I ever give it a miss. . .though I never stay long any more.  It's not the town itself, charming as it is, but the whole area surrounding.  Bac Ha lies in a high mountain valley (and the nights are cool even in warm months).  It's a town run by Vietnamese, but surrounded by "ethnic minorities" or mountain farmers, mainly Flower Hmong, but also (I think) some Black Tai. There are small roads through the mountains leading to even smaller little towns farther back from the highway. . .so it's a motorbike paradise of a sort. . .fun roads to ride, wonderful views across the mountains, and lots of interesting people doing a lot of things straight out of the middle ages. . .well. . .at least before the big machine age.  They farm with buffalo plows, hoes and mattocks, hand sickles, threshing boxes, and enthusiasm.  The young women will swing a hoe or a mattock and turn over the steep hillside fields by hand with a baby strapped to their backs, or clear brush with a machete. . .all day long.  They'll pack their day's pickings up (or down as the case may be) hillside trails too steep for a white guy to stand on, one foot at a time, as though there were nothing to it.  Their men are tall and straight (and often wear handsome black "Chinese" shirts and knee length trousers. . .or not of course, many wear stuff you'd find in Seattle instead.  The ladies though, right down to the toddlers wear incredible bright clothes, layers and layers of them, with relatively short skirts and leg wrappings from their ankles on up.  They live essentially outside in all weather (so an umbrella tucked under her arm is always part of a woman's clothing except on the most unambiguously sunny day).  Even their houses are very open air, with the gable ends of the roofs open to let out the cooking smoke.  What they can't carry themselves they pack on smart little ponies, about the size and stature of a Welsh pony, but maybe smarter and better on steep ground.

Much of the time you'll encounter them walking along the road, men, women, children, all carrying pack baskets (very nice ones, with fiber-padded shoulder straps) always talking and smiling and carrying on.  During the work day they'll probably be in the fields working the soil, planting or harvesting, but if not, they'll be higher up the mountains in the steep woodlands, picking wild food. . .often bamboo shoots, and greens I've no idea of.  They carve their own plows out of local wood by hand (and shoe them with hand forged  plowshares they buy in the town from an itinerant forge.  All told, they are  admirable, hard working people who manage to squeeze a surprisingly full life out of terribly steep mountainsides.

So Bac Ha wouldn't have to be a great place to draw me back.  I would go for the mountains and their people even if the town were no good.  Fortunately, that's not a problem.

This trip I was on a mission.  On my last visit here I walked out along a side-valley road and found some beautiful kids leaning on a porch railing on the hill just above the road.  I stopped and offered to take their photos and they agreed. . .and posed like models.  Beautiful kids, and one of them was simply astonishing. . .she was blonde and fair.  As I took the photos I had it in my mind that this was only the second or third blonde child I'd seen in Viet Nam.  Well, it was over in just a few moments and they scampered off and I walked on.
How's that for a lineup??

And they just get cuter. . .

And we have to get the baby brother in too. . .

 Fast forward to me at home months ago admiring those bright smiling kids in the pictures and then digging through the thousands of photos I've brought back since 2005, trying to find the others.  And I did.  I believe the correct exclamation is "WooHoo" or something like that.  To my complete delight I realized THEY WERE THE SAME KIDS.  Well. . .the blond girl was one of them and two or three of the others were in both sets of photos, simply a few years apart. Goodness.

So I was a little dense. . .but there they are again.
On further reflection it's not at all unreasonable.  I've walked out that side-valley road three or four times over the  years, it's pleasantly level and leads out into interesting farms eventually.  I've watched people reaping rice with hand sickles there and been invited to try it myself (it's easy to cut the bunches of grain, much trickier to twist one's stem around and tie it off neatly so the bundle lies intact to be picked up later).  So. . .confronted years back with a blonde kid (small, grubby faced and bare footed) playing with her friends, and all of them willing to be photographed for a moment at least. . .I of course took the pictures.  When it happened again, more or less the same, and certainly within thirty feet of the same place, just a few years later, you'd think I'd have remembered at once, but no.

So I rode into town, muddied and bloodied but unstopped. . .carrying five nice enlargements, laminated in plastic.   Not three sets.  Dang.  Sometimes I can be pretty dense.  No matter, I was on a mission, and in the near darkness stopped just short of where I thought I should be, at a small fork in the road.  People on a porch looked at my photos and pointed me on down the road, and a few hundred feet later I spotted the porch railing from the recent pictures.  But there was no one in sight and no one answered my hail.  H'mm.  Then a tiny little girl, six at most, with a three year old brother riding piggy back came out from behind a wood pile and came close enough to see what I was holding out.  I asked which house these people were from and she pointed to each individual and then to a nearby house, chattering all the while.  The chatter of course meant nothing to me. . .just that I was in the right place and I had three houses to visit.  I asked for her parents ("Bo, Me o' dau??) and she told me they weren't home, so I asked if she could take me to the other houses. . .and she did.

Well, by the time it was all over I'd been in all three homes, met all six parents, most of the siblings and what must have been a number of other kids, and a few grown up neighbors.  I'd been offered strong drink and tea (and declined both, I was falling down tired, not to mention dripping dusty mud).  The single set of photos eventually got distributed somehow, they all laughed and handed pictures all around (plastic laminate, a great idea) and shortly, I staggered back to the bike, to my hotel, up the stairs, and into a shower, all standing.  Then stripped and scrubbed the muddy mess and hung it all to dry under the fan for the night.  

And so. . .at ten seconds before six in the morning, as it always has, the loudspeaker on the mountain behind the hotel went "ping, ping, ping, ping and Radio Hanoi started our day with music and the news.  Hooray.
I got around, found breakfast in another little place with a young man who really wanted to practice English while he waited on tables (and I was the only early diner for a bit), so we had a good visit.  There was a little while to wait for a bike wash to open, so I dawdled over coffee and noodle soup then walked around the nearly deserted market (Bac Ha is a Saturday market I think. . .I've been there twice at the right time.  What a difference. . .some permanent stalls around the perimeter are open, people have fresh pork (still being chopped into salable portions) and a few ladies have fresh vegetables spread out for sale.  A small contingent of moonshiners sit and stand with their five gallon (20 liter?) plastic jugs full of white lightning (why carry the whole grain down the mountain. . .first distill it and THEN carry it down to town.  A hardware shop nearby sells smaller jugs in all sizes, pick your jug and fill it up.  Plan on a headache though, it's strong enough to run a motorbike on.
Supervising loading vegetables in the empty market square--Bac Ha

Darn it, there has to be a customer around here somewhere--fresh pork in the market every morning--Bac Ha

White lightning transaction--corn liquor distilled on the mountainsides--it's good enough to run a moto on, but better (?) for drinking,  I normally do not photograph the Hmong women here, they are photographed half to death on market days when busloads of tourists are brought in to shop and shoot.  This was done in stealth mode (shame on me) with the camera at waist level, composing the photo on a tilted swivel screen while I looked the other way.  I guess I got away with it this time. . .

The little mountain ponies carry packs on the mountain sides but also work well in harness.  They're incredibly smart and work to voice commands really well.  To watch one back up to dump a load of bricks or rock is a real treat. . .they'll throw themselves nearly over the top to move the load back, so much you'd think they were bucking in terror, but they'll also TURN RIGHT OR LEFT AS THEY BACK!!  Then they'll stop, the driver will cast off the breast band, the shafts will fly up and the load will dump. . .whereupon the pony, harness and all, will look around for something green to nosh!

The bike washed and the clutch cable taken in a turn or two, the room bill paid once again, passport retrieved and keys turned in, we slowed down at the gas station long enough to fill up. . .and left.  Mission, more or less, accomplished.

The rest of the day (yesterday now, Wednesday the 14th, was spent in the saddle and on the road.  It's a run I've made many times now. several times I've done it in a single day, though if anything is out of place it's too far for that, 340 km I think, though I haven't taped it off lately, or checked the odometer.  This year Hwy 70, the main route to the Northwestern Chinese border from Hanoi  is in excellent shape except for the traffic, which builds as you go south.  The road is wonderfully winding for a long ways, still hemmed in, though it's mainly level, by mountains on both sides.  There are wonderful old farmsteads to see and  all manner of interesting shops and workshops along the way, constant entertainment.  But it wasn't a day for stopping, it rained at first, foggy too while we were still on the mountain.  The little horse, clean and shiny just a bit ago (but still enjoying the fresh oil on her chain) simply hummed along at 50 kmh, pretty much her favorite speed, winding through the hills and carrying me back home to Hanoi.  There were some shocks along the way. . .there were three overturned trucks.  One was almost funny (and nobody was likely hurt much if at all).  A small dump truck was poodling along a country lane a few hundred feet off the highway with a big load of crushed rock. . .when the shoulder of the road gave way and down he came, into the dry rice paddy, spilling his whole load in a neat pile.  The other two were much grimmer, and there were likely fatalities involved.  They were both semis, still a new creature on these highways, and I fear they are not fully understood yet.  It's just my suspicion, but I'm sure they're routinely badly overloaded. . .and most likely loaded top heavy.  And, like most trucks here, they drive hard to make their schedules. Too hard, especially through towns.  The worst crashed at a corner in the town of Pho Rang, very close to the shop fronts.  We did not stop to be sure but there was probably structural damage to three buildings, and if there were any people there when it happened, they are not now.  It went down on the driver side, and there was a lot of cab damage too, so. . .altogether a grim scene, which was only made worse by the steady stream of diesel still draining from his tanks out onto the street and down the drainage.  The traffic had already tracked the fuel both ways down the road which was unnaturally slippery. . .and the whole town stank.  No doubt the asphalt will be ruined as well. . .I think diesel and asphalt do not do well together.

And there was a motorbike-car-truck crash farther south. . .clearly being investigated as a fatality. That's a terrible toll for a single day on 340 km of highway. . .and it makes it clear again how very important is defensive driving. . .and good luck.

But we rode through it all, never stopping but once for fuel and once to pay a speeding ticket!!  Going through Vinh Yen, about 80 km from home, they pulled us over for 52 in a 40 zone.  Oh my.  Those are just kilometers, but the numbers speak for themselves. . .it cost $35 ($700,000 VND). . .but interestingly, they didn't even flinch at my US driver's license.  H'mm.  Well, I was pacing the truck traffic through town, so no doubt the numbers are right (I never saw the radar gun though), and from the tall stack of receipts, and the long list in the cash book, I was far from the first. . .they'd made a good day of it, and obviously a lot of people hadn't had the cash with them (that's a lot of money here) and there was another large stack of paperwork, each sheet paper clipped to somebody's driver's license.  H'mm.  Lesson learned.

So, one more time we rode into Hanoi rush hour traffic in the dark, crusted with mud among the dry and neatly dressed commuters headed home for the night.  It was perhaps the worst crowd I've ever ridden in, completely jammed roadway--stop and go for many kilometers along the dike road with thousands of frustrated people making very interesting split second decisions. . .and then the desperate few blocks on side streets to the hotel.  Where they acted happy to see me. . .yet again.  You have to love this place. . .

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