Bordering on the edge

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November 10th 2015
Published: November 12th 2015
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Well, I had to squeeze that last one out (of the way) was from my 'perfumed' garden...chooks, wet dogs, roosters, bodily waste.....not the real one in Beijing...but you've got to choose a location...and it's really all about the is a rearview mirror, so frustrating, trying to catch 'now'... and zing! slips right past you....

I just got back from a 3 day epic road trip with the boss and some of his old friends. Up to the most Northern part of Viet Nam, along the Chinese border. I'd been thinking how amazing a flight would be and then I got it....not airborne but driving, around the ribbon lip of vertical mountains. Another twist in the road and a heart stopping vista, a bit like Copper Canyon where the enormity of the scale just leaves your brain staggering. It has some of the highest passes in VN and one of the 'most dangerous' bits of road in the world....who gives these ratings? The crapola nature of the roads certainly doesn't help. Ranging in width from 0.8 to 1.3 vehicle's width, potholed, blind cornered, vertical switchbacks, endless streams of tiny motorbikes with enormous loads...almost blithely swerving away from our bus, off into ditches and drains, I'm sorta glad I've switched from bike to car! Every few kms we're brought to an almost complete stop, a vehicle coming the other way, the drivers edge past each other, easing ever closer to the abyss, tyres grappling for traction, mirrors almost kissing, then on with the show.

But lots and lots of roadworks and, perhaps surprisingly, shitloads of guardrails going up....every few kms along the road are piles of posts and rails...every few kms a couple of people bolting 5m lengths together, then digging holes, standing the assembly up, placing square wooden formwork, hand mixing concrete and barrowing it to the holes, a 5m length probably takes a couple of days to get done

But, back to the beginning. Before we left the house everyone pigged out on tables of food then....5 minutes down the road and out came more's like that seppo obsession with eating at the cinema, however, it was chestnuts and mandarins so I could hardly refuse. And it's the old psych 101 thing, how irritating is the open mouthed chewing, slapping of gums, stuffing so much food into one's gob and continuing to talk....

We drove for hours, stopping for snacks, breakfast, snacks, lunch, snacks, afternoon snacks....and endless roadside foodstalls. It's the perfect time to come up here, it's flower season, fields of little pink and white flowers, only found in this area, we stopped and frolicked, took crazy photos, lying, hiding, sitting, jumping, holding, gazing shyly at, posing get the picture?....then paid the old woman, who's field of flowers we had just trampled, a few dong...hmmmm. Everything is flower-oriented, and for a few hundred metres through this tiny village, the road is 20m wide, smooth bitumen, and 500 little mini busses like ours, cars, motorbikes, big coaches...everyone piling out and heading for the flowers, wedding parties photoshoots, kids, students, lovers, old people, tourists...I'm the only foreigner...again! out of 10,000 people.

And mobs of grubby kids, skin crawling filthy clothes, bath-time a rare concept, it's all incredibly poor...but the kids are learning fast, hanging around for handouts, one of our group digs out the packets of rice crackers and lollies, the kids are fighting like crazy, grabbing handfuls of whatever, stuffing into hidden pockets and going back in. Ha Giang is about the poorest province in VN and it looks it. But at the same time I see these little kids mucking about, playing silly games, laughing and having so much little kids everywhere....but as soon as they can walk they work, lines of little family groups out along the road, grandma, mum, 3 or 4 kids, all loaded up with bundles of firewood, cane, ferns, grasses in diminishing sized loads according to age.

By 10yo the girls have such a sad and weary look, wise beyond their years as they start to understand the life ahead of them, just like their long-suffering mothers and grandmothers before them...little chance at education, really hard work and endless childbearing......My boss is getting benevolent and wants to sponsor a school here, a great idea I said but I'd prefer a medical centre to give the women education and contraception... maybe a concept too far! The kids seem to outnumber the adults by 2 to 1.

People out along the road, where are they going?...there's nothing out here although the occasional track heads off up or down the mountain indicating someone lives there? Right out in the middle of nowhere there'll still be one solitary person, just walking along the road....this is a loong way from anywhere....or a group of 4 or 5 kids, just sitting by the side of the road...sometimes waving mournfully, sometimes jumping up and down and waving so enthusiastically....I've seen this before...Indonesia in the early 70' start waving, tourists start throwing coins/lollies etc...a few years later the kids are Demanding money!!

Stayed the night in Ha Giang city and left at 4.30am not much wine and to Meo Vac and the monthly market, a slow approach as we struggle through traffic...human, vehicular, bovine, swinine(?) A long wait, as per normal, in a long line of vehicles, bikes slipping through any gaps, farmers with cartloads of whatever, kids with enormous, beautiful buffalos, a truck has backed on an angle into the side of the roadside embankment as a makeshift loading dock, we wait as 20 kids haul their buffaloes up the bank and into the truck. Eventually we jump out and walk to the market. Every local man, woman and child is here, buying, selling and, of course, eating.

Up behind the market we discover the old king's palace, a wonderful building, and pretty comfortable for it's age...I think I could live here...for about a day!

These people invented Bling! Well, the women. They are all dressed quite distinctively in traditional clothes, there are 22 local minority groups, the H'Mong are the biggest group, and also the gaudiest, outfits with thousands of glittering sequins, in the sunlight a group of H'Mong women and girls is blindingly bright, and the colours of the clothing and the style are the indicators of which group they're part of. Our guide knows them all, quite a feat I reckon, we're not seeing all 22 of course, but maybe a dozen/ Green, red and black H'Mong, Tay, Nung, Day and the adorably named Lo Lo....hahaha.

Our guide only speaks in Vietnamese but I seem to be understanding some of this tour-guide esperanto?......

A typical local market, I've seen these all over, but always some local it's a flat bread baked on a hotplate, soaked in local honey, flower based everything, flower wine, different coloured flower flour powders, all manner of dried fruits, nuts and ?...We stock up. I bought a couple of bottles of honey, quite exy!...and a 2kg bag of local walnuts, known locally as "brain of dog"...why not "brain of human" I ask...

Our guide points out China from time to time, mountain ridgetops marking the actual frontier....btw I have a special pass to enter the frontier zone. We get to Ma Pi Leng, a little building perched on the edge of a 3,000 meter cliff, looking down to the pale, milky green river...the actual, right across from us on the other side of this enormous valley, is sign of life at all. One has to be thinking that there's little chance of an overland would take just too long to get by on these roads!....

The occasional big river, flowing pretty fast, great swirling currents that deter one from diving in. The big Lo river, beautiful. Down in the valleys, along the rivers, the land is terraced up the sides of the mountains as high as water can be directed. Further on the landscape changes as we drive through cedar forests, still glimpses of deep valleys and occasional little plots carved out of the trees.

Higher up, closer to the frontier, the mountains are sharp and jagged, black rocky inhospitably ugly and foreboding. sort of appropriate given the proximity of the dangerous Chinese. Little, ramshackle houses cling to pockets of shelter among the rocks, perched high up on these violent rock faces, elaborate stone walls,(?) every tiny pocket of soil between the outcrops is planted out with 1 or 2 corn or sunflower or cane, this has got to be barely subsistence dwelling...

Then we went to the big tower at Lung Cu, another leave-the-bus-and-walk deal, hundreds of people deserting their vehicles and flocking to this seriously nationalistic/patriotic monument, flaunting it's huge VN flag to the Chinese on the other side. A great monument and a great view...but what a of the good things about bus-with-guide....we get out and wander hour later we come back and the bus has found a park, turned around, and all ready to go again.....and maybe something to's been at least 20 minutes since our last snack stop....

On the way back we stopped at numerous food stalls and some of the group bought huge amounts of all sorts of stuff. I stuck with just the honey and walnuts....but the mandarins were tempting...really, really good....but I believe I can get pretty good ones at my local market.

Got back at 11.30pm, jumped on the bike and headed home, about 6 kms, I was feeling a tad stuffed...500m down the road and something felt funny, not just bus-lag, sure enough a flattish back tyre....a v slow, white knuckle, teeth clenching ride home......a very long but so fantastic 3 days...much better than Sa Pa.

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