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Published: October 22nd 2014
There are no words to adequately describe the amazing region around Ha Giang and Meo Vac except STUNNING... A land of incredible karsts, deep valleys lined with terraces, tiny wooden or mud houses scattered everywhere, brightly dressed ethnic women, waves and smiles from grubby happy children, water buffalos, a surprising amount of cows, ducks, chickens, cats, dogs, dusty towns, rock hard beds.... We had an amazing three days travelling along the couple of hundred kilometers of winding narrow road in this area.
No speed limits were broken - Tuin was a fabulous driver. He had a hard task as the roads were very busy and he never knew what was around the corner. Every motorbike and many of the cars drove straight down the centre of the road which accounted for a few gasps from Jerry sitting in the front. We saw two young ethnic women come off their scooters in front of us - one wobbled down the road with her scooter piled high with firewood - it was inevitable that she came off! The other young girl came around a sharp turn to confront our vehicle and a herd of cows that had surrounded us - she braked
sharply and was tossed onto the road. A bleeding face was the only obvious damage but it could have been much worse as skidded towards the drop - which on that part of the road was considerable. It was actually scary travelling on it at times - and we've plenty of past experience of terrible roads and bad drivers to compare it to.
We left Cao Bang after the parade of the bikers, who Tuin informed us, belonged to a club in Hanoi headed for the part of the trip we were really looking forward to. It was another spectacular trip and the advantages of having your own driver was being able to stop whenever you wanted. We certainly used that privilege that day - though we couldn't dissuade Tuin from driving backwards along the road to collect us if we wandered to far back down the road. He was fit, exercised whenever he could and went for early morning runs during the week with us, but couldn't seem to understand that we were happy to walk as well...
Again there was plenty of evidence of land slides and a bit of light early morning fog to add
to the smoke haze caused by the farmers burning off the stubble in their fields. The fog lifted and a blue sky sunny day was revealed. We started passing fields of aloe vera growing and later in the morning a lot of sugar cane. The cane was all tied to bamboo supports which were in turn attached to long bamboo rails running along the length of the fields. It made it all stand up very straight and in even rows which from a distance created patterns in the fields.
Tuin was stopping for our coffee breaks each morning but Jerry and I had given up drinking the molasses which passes for coffee here and were paying the cafe owners to provide the cups and water to add to our coffee sachets. Sometimes they took the money, sometimes they were happy that we had bought a packet of biscuits or such, and didn't charge us. We always paid for whatever Tuin had, as well as his lunch, of course. The closer we got to Meo Vac where we were spending the night, the scenery changed from the spectacular spiked shapes of the granite karsts to very barren and rocky infertile
country. There are seventeen different ethnic groups living in the region and they survive by growing their crops amidst the limestone rocks which cover this area known as the Dong Van Rock Plateau. The region was recognized by the UNESCO as one of the 77 geological parks in the world in 2010 an Dong Van has now become Vietnam’s first geological park. The majority of the plateau is over 1400 meters high and 80% of it is covered with just rocks. Corn seemed to be the only crop grown and the old stalks had been piled into triangular haystacks which scattered the rocky landscape.
We drove into dusty Meo Vac at around 1.30pm and Tuin chased as off to the market grounds immediately we arrived. The Sunday (that day) markets held here have become a tourist attraction for the limited tourists that visit the region and they were close to being finished for the day. We had decided to visit the Sa Phin markets next day which see very few tourists instead so weren't concerned about missing these in Meo Vac.
Before leaving Hanoi we had purchased big bags of bits to hand out to the people in
this region which is today the poorest area in Vietnam. We bought lots of useful things like small hand towels, shampoo, soap, washing powder, combs, toothbrushes and toys for the children. Armed with some of it we headed to the market area. It was actually finished and the ground was littered with food scraps etc. There were still a lot of people around the wooden bench tables eating noodle soup and drinking rice wine so we chose the old people and the families with babies and handed out some of the things.
The gratitude it was received with was sobering - they were all so appreciative and were shaking our hands vigorously, offering us cups of rive wine and really happy to see us. They were all dressed in traditional dress but it was quiet muted in comparison to the dress we saw last year in the highlands of China. Minority women in Meo Vac do not seem to wear a lot of colour. They mainly wore a black skirt, a purple or aqua blouse, blouse and a scarf around their heads, tied in different ways, depending on ethnicity. This is their main splash of color. Over the skirts
some wore wide long blue belts which hung in strips down their skirts and some were wearing long striped open vests. All had well worn feet encased in fabric shoes and very rough dirt ingrained hands. Many of the men were wearing simple loose black suits made of a linen like fabric.
We left and went back to the hotel that Tuin had indicated we were to stay in. No English was spoken which was to cause a problem next day when a different member of staff tried to make us pay for our room again which we had paid already on checkin. The hotel took more money off us so they could apply for the permits (which we needed to travel the next day and to stay in the hotel). We were given a fancy certificate in exchange which nobody asked to see over the next couple of days anyway.
All hotels in Vietnam collect your passport which has to be registered with the police each evening. As so much else in the country has changed we are surprised that the government still has this requirement today. Thankfully the loud speaker propaganda announcements over the town squares
each day that were so much a part of life in Vietnam when we first visited in 2001 are happening no longer. Today it probably all gets sent out via SMS as everybody here is as attached to their phones as we are in Australia.
We spent the late afternoon exploring the very dusty streets of the small town. We were also trying to find somewhere we could eat that night. Lunch had been an unappetising greasy lump of dough we had bought outside the market and apples we had bought from Hanoi. The fruit available in Meo Vac was of extremely poor quality. The main street was lined with tiny dark little shops with little variety. Everything was very dirty and the streets were filthy. We gave up on eating at any restaurant in the town when we saw one of the biggest cutting up a dog outside on the footpath. I know there is nothing wrong with it really but we had absolutely no desire to eat it...
We fid eventually find a very small supermarket and was able to buy some biscuits and yoghurt which tastes like sweetened Greek yoghurt. We've become addicted to it
now and it's our snack of choice each day. The hotel was clean with the usual shower over the toilet set up so common in Asia. But the beds.... We may as well have been sleeping on cement (I'm sure it actually was fabric covered cement) but I was able to beg another thin doona off the staff by pretending to be cold which helped the hip bones slightly.
Jerry had befriended a young kebab stall owner across the road and after mimicking pigs we took him at his word and enjoyed some pork kebabs heavily coated with chilli. I left Jerry there enjoying some rice wine (which helped him notice the hard bed less) and headed back to the warmth of the room. The temperature had dropped quite a few degrees as it got darker. Next morning we were up early and after Tuin sorted on the problem on reception for us we left the town behind us. The next twenty five kilometers were to be the highlight of our trip...
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