Friday, May 1, 2015

Rice terraces and gentler mountains, Westward from Ha Giang

Written from Bac Ha, Lao Cai province, on the first day of May, 2015.  
It is important for you to know some of my less glorious history in order to properly enjoy this narrative.  I'll forget the year for the moment, it was a few years back, when I was younger, stronger and somewhat less cautious.  I'd spent the night in Ha Giang city, about a block from where I slept the night before last, in one of a number of hotels along a 1.5 km stretch of side street just across the river from the center of town.  It's a nice, easy sort of neighborhood and my landlord was helpful and informative, things i really appreciate in a hotelier.  He assured me in terms certain that the road through the mountains to Bac Ha was "good enough". . .and told me very precisely that it was 44 km from his door to the turnoff to that road and I should by no means go the long round about southern route I already knew about.  What he was talking about can be quickly seen on the map, from that sharp V where I turned off the highway this trip, I had previously always (sadly) continued on straight, far to the south, then a little to the west and finally up highway 70 to the turnoff to Bac Ha, riding most of three sides of a big rectangle (well, sort of) to arrive in Bac Ha from the south for heaven's sake.  Well.  I was all for a better route through the mountains.  It went really well as far as lunch at Vinh Quang (where I ate again yesterday) and on to Xin Man (also spelled Sin Man and Coc Pai, all the same town, though I think formally Sin Man is the district and Coc Pai is the actual town.  whatever).  In Xin Man then, I had to ask and eventually had to be lead out of town up the side of the mountain onto this alleged road to Bac Ha.  It went on for 8 km as a narrow but concrete surfaced "road".  Then there was a brief interlude of dreadful broken (not crushed) rock up a hillside for a few hundred feet, then more nice concrete road.  For a very short ways.  After that it was a Caterpillar track for the next 17 km (I didn't know that then, measured it on the map later).  It was a Caterpillar track straight up and down steep hills, "surfaced" with crusher run rock, chunks bigger than watermelon. . .and some both larger and smaller, mashed down somewhat by the passage of the Cat.  It was horrendous.  It was made far more interesting by the fog. . .we rode into the cloud base not too far out of Xin Man and didn't emerge. . .for a long time.  My glasses were misted over, so I took them off, which helped to  a degree, a different sort of blur ensued.  Afternoon was passing.  I had no idea of the distance covered, or the distance to go, since the pace was mostly more nearly walking speed than riding as the bike and I staggered along the rocky road.  It was goshawful and I was seriously contemplating bivouacking through the night in my rain coat with no food or water, not life threatening, but unpleasant.  We did not fall.  That at least, until almost to Bac Ha (we did make it alive just at dusk). . .but in a zone of red wet clay heaped up by the passage of dump trucks delivering the damnable stuff, we went down twice, losing a shoe the second time.  It was a major ordeal.  The bike was unharmed, though I'm sure her shock absorbers were sore for a week.  I was filthy with red clay and mixed mud, slightly bruised and had a little burn from the muffler on my bare ankle, but otherwise unharmed.  We did our business in Bac Ha (delivering photographs) and left by another way.  That was then.  I've held that memory in mind as a milestone never to be passed again until yesterday.  There is, you see, another route from Xin Man back to the south that would serve as an escape route if things went badly, and I'd heard rumors that the horrible Cat track had been finished and was a fine new road.  I'm inherently skeptical. . .not to say positively negative. . .so I wasn't ready to commit, but interested in another look.  The scenery around Bac Ha and the run up into Xin Man are both stupendous in their own, somewhat different ways and that mountain route, if you could see it for the fog, would no doubt be splendid.  Besides, that was quite a thumping I took last time and in the back of my mind a rematch seemed. . .well. . .like the mountain, it was there.  

So, this trip. . .We overnighted in Ha Giang, along with a great many Vietnamese youngsters who were completing their tour of Ha Giang province in veritable convoys of flagged motorbikes.  I posed for photos with pairs and couples and groups in front of the "Km Zero" milestone in the middle of town, waited too late and had a dreadful supper (should have taken the bike and ridden somewhere better), even left most of it on my plate and left.  Awful greasy pork and no veggies at all. . .Redeemed the situation on the way back to the hotel when I spotted a Banh Bao shop still sort of open, steaming tomorrow's buns.  She served me one of the hottest and freshest.  Oh lovely.  With iced soya milk (slightly sweetened, it's a lot like Mexican horchata!), it took the edge off the grease.  I'd left it too late to change money in the afternoon, and that needed doing, and there was an oil change for the horse as well as a tank of gas (we were precisely 1000 km from Hanoi when we pulled into Ha Giang city).  My riding pants were walking dust and there were socks and underwear that could benefit from a washing (I wash out my shirts every evening and wear them damp in the morning, so they do fine).  Anyway, what with one thing and another we were late getting out of the city, so I planned simply to ride to Xin Man and spend the night, ask around, have a look. . .and maybe go for the re-match.

So, with all that told, you'll no doubt not be surprised that the road has been completed.  It's super easy now, hills graded out, water crossings bridged, almost every inch, particularly the part that was horrible before, is finely paved.  There are kilometer markers every single kilometer, so you always know where you are.  Most amazing, in the time since I passed through in the fog, when I might have missed some homes in the distance.. . .since that time though, hundreds of homes have been built, fields marked out, terraces cut, fences built. . .in short, a howling wilderness has been turned to good use and many hundreds of people live here now.  On that first trip I saw no one at all except for a handful of children and a teacher outside a one room school.  They had to come from somewhere nearby of course, but they were very very few.  And so into Bac Ha on fine new road.  Actually, I deferred the arrival in Bac Ha, the day was so young, and rode instead up to Si Ma Cai which is a little confusing since it doesn't show by that name on the maps. . .again, it's a district name, but locally it's also the name of the little town.  The newness of the road continued all the way.  The old, really lovely 1-lane-and-a-bit road is gone, overwhelmed and straightened out.  I must have passed through the village of Can Cau twice, each direction, and missed it.  

This is a 2-page spread from my road atlas, the maps I use daily for travel all over the country (it doesn't include Lao or Kampuchea, so there I use the 1:2,000,000 road map of the whole region. . .and the phone).  I've marked out yesterday's route in blue and left the run into Bac Ha (circled) for you to see how it's labeled still (this is a current edition of the road atlas!!). .. .still shown as it was years ago. . .what a change

Rice terraces. . .built level and flooded for rice, not sloping like the terraces we saw over in Ha Giang, where the maize doesn't care that much if the ground is level or not.

They aren't the horrendous mountains of Ha Giang, but rough enough.  This is a lot of up and down walking or riding.  I prefer to ride. . .

Just pretty countryside, about half way to Xin Man from the turnoff

Where do you suppose the water comes from. . .sometimes it's obvious, a small stream running down a mountainside, or a pump drawing from a creek in the valley floor. . .but here??

When they're building the terraces for rice it's not uncommon for the terrace "step" to be higher than the width of the growing area it contains.  

I should have ridden across it just to say I'd done it. . .but then I'd have had to ride back and I might not have been able to find the nerve to do it again and then what?  Buy a farm on that side??  Discretion is the better part of valor.

Omigosh.  This one actually sags.  

They're pretty photos, but I suspect there's a lot to learn once I have time to sit and study what I've seen.  I always find more in the photo than I saw in real life.  I suppose that's a comment on my approach to life, but it works.

I can't imagine building these with a mattock or a hoe. . .I can hardly imagine doing annual maintenance on the dikes and terraces, let alone planting and transplanting and everything else it takes.  

Just for pretty. . .well. . .you can hunt through it and find all the signs of habitation and cultivation.  It's not an empty landscape.

My back aches just to look at it.  What an endeavor!

We're still at the tail end of the dry season here and the river is almost dry.  The hydroelectric plant is generating, but they certainly aren't spilling anything unnecessarily.

New terraces?  or just newly reworked?  Many and many a shovel full of dirt.

Dinner in Xin Man came with a gorgeous audience.  What a lovely little gal.  The small camera was having a hard time with the very dim light, so it's a very soft portrait.  

And so I tried the flash  Unfortunately, the flash arrangement on the camera uses a bright orange light for calculating the exposure some how. . .nearly blinded my kid.  So we have a sharp and detailed well exposed photograph of the back of a hand.  Sigh.
And now for an excuse. . .I loaded all the photos above in Xin Man last night where there was miraculously fast internet (in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the mountains in a slightly threadbare old hotel???  who'd have thought??)  Tonight in the relatively big tourist town of Bac Ha, surrounded by wifi that doesn't work, I'm trying to load photos through my magical telephone and getting almost nowhere. . .6 minutes and not quite one photo.  It's past bed time, so. . .you'll have to wait for today's photos until. . .I'm not sure.  Til we have better bandwidth!
That would be tonight, in Tuan Giao, on May 3rd.  We've come a long ways in the past two days, so I've some catching up to do.  These are all from the old destruction derby obstacle and endurance course from Xin Man to Bac Ha.  The road photo speaks for itself. . .

We are beginning to see lots of these massive rammed earth walls as we arrive in the Bac Ha area.  I think I understood that the walls are believed to make the house warmer in winter, and I'd believe they make it cooler in summer as well.  Clearly, once the roof is established, that's what matters most.  These walls only extend about 8 or 9 feet and the house is wide open to the underside of the roofing. . .a great dry storage area, often clear full of maize, dried on the cob.

This makes it really clear. . .we're not worried here about the birds flying through.

Dumb car. . .tried to be pushy and created a panic. . .took him twice as long as it should have.  Push a water buffalo, you have to be kidding me. . .

Sometimes I have to look down for the home steads.

The little working horses around Bac Ha are probably technically ponies, but they're hard working little guys.  They work to voice commands and they're a joy to watch.  They can haul about a ton and a half of gravel in the box and move it right along.  No brakes.  H'mm.  When they get where they're going the driver dismounts and undoes one snap on the breast band, which lets the shafts fly up to dump the load and let's the horse walk free.  So he wanders off to eat a snack while the driver shovels out the last.  When it's time to go again, he comes when called and backs himself into the shafts for hookup.  I've watched it more than once and it really works that way.  You should see them back up a load.  Again, on voice command, they throw themselves back against the breeching and heave the load back, going left or right as instructed.  Although abused horses are rare anywhere in Viet Nam, these mountain people take especially good care of theirs and they're always well fed and brushed and commonly trimmed very tidily.  

I took this for m'Lady wife, who admires these creatures, but he really is a gorgeous fellow.

Not massive adobe, it's actually a thin plaster of mud and straw on a bamboo lath lattice, just filling in between the columns and the plates.

Write your own story.


  1. Ken - what a treat to read your road diary again!

    The terraces: holy cow. All by hand? And are the risers concrete or stone or sheet pile or what? How do they stay up while holding up the saturated soil?

    A request: next time you cross a stream, grab a handful of sand and gravel and cobbles and take some close-ups. Maybe I saw something slate-like in the cutbank of the stream in one photo? I will study up on The Geology of Vietnam so I am ready for your next post.

    And really, thanks for writing this!


  2. Hi Matt. . .we'll see about dismounting and slipping and sliding down the stream bank to get your grab sample. Maybe yes, maybe no. For now. . .I'm in less interesting terrain, back down on the edge of the lowlands. A lot of Quaternary alluvium.