"It floats with water and flies with wind..."

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December 8th 2011
Published: December 11th 2011
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A H'mong Riddle: It has wings but no bone, it floats with water and flies with wind...?

After journeying by boat, bus and train from Vietnam’s natural wonder we arrived twenty hours later at Lao Cai in the North Mountains, close to the border with China. It was sometime around 5am and we were no longer mentally-equipped to deal with the customary interaction with local “entrepreneurs”. Further, we were not expecting to barter for the price of a bus ticket. The local bus, we believed to be 50,000 dong per person but we were quoted double that. The rogue conductor finally settled at a price of 70,000. Later a group of Asian tourists were ripped off at more than three times the price, but we did not care to fight their battles at that time in the morning, and with no other buses leaving for hours we could not risk being evicted from our warmed seats.

The journey started well, but that didn’t last long. “Fools”, I thought of the other foreigners having delighted the train and paid a small fortune for the tourist buses, mostly destined for neighbouring Sapa. But that didn’t last long either. Within five minutes I found myself snuggled up to a Vietnamese man double my age who mustn’t have encountered water or a toothbrush since the ‘90’s. Though what he lacked in personal hygiene he made up for in manners; removing his shoes, at least, before resting his filthy feet on my bag. Packed to bursting point, the bus chugged through the mountain passes for that impossibly long three hour journey. Five H’mong tribeswomen sat on the back seat, coughing and spluttering, punctuating their speech with the noisy eradications of phlegm (for which Chris has graciously given the moniker, “the soundtrack of Asia”). Being germ-phobic, I couldn’t bear it. I mummified my face in my Khmer “kroma” (multi-purpose scarf worn in Cambodia, for which I found a new use) under the pretence of being cold, and rubbed a healthy portion of tiger balm under my nose to overpower any unsavoury smells.

Throughout the journey I had felt so bad for Dad, having the budget to travel in relative “style” but instead choosing to spoil Chris and I during his trip, and “rough it” alongside us when finances dictated it so. Jumping off the bus in Bac Ha I saw that I have little to worry about with this ex-miner; he’d found the ride more amusing than anything else and rightly described it as “all part of the experience” and likened it to a Sex Pistols concert!

Other than the biting chill, my first impression of Bac Ha was with regard to its rustic and unpretentious appearance. We walked around looking for a hotel, from the small temple, through the empty market place which would be bustling the next day, and up a slight hill. A charismatic young lady gave us little choice in viewing a room at Ngan Ngan where we opted to stay for two nights despite being absolutely freezing in the room. From the metal furniture, to the high ceilings and tiled floors, everything about this hotel was conducive to being cold, but the staff were very friendly, the food good and they had hot chocolate on the menu, so it was decided that we would stay.

In our blog from Hoi An, I mentioned how we had been enjoying the respite from such hot weather. What is it they say about having your cake and eating it? In Bac Ha I was forced to wear two pairs of leggings, a vest, t-shirt, jumper, fleece and coat, then a hat and scarf besides! And I could still feel the cold! I even slept in three layers under double blankets... but then again, I’m still a little on the “soft” side. Securely wrapped and consequently doubled in size we began our walk to the neighbouring village of Ban Pho, which took us four hours in all, there and back again. Immediately, upon arrival in Bac Ha we saw more tribal women than we did Vietnamese locals, as our walk into the mountains took us past the homes of the Flower H’mong people. Easily distinguished by their colourful costumes, consisting of many fluorescent layers, elaborately embroidered and adorned with scores of large, silver earrings weighing heavily in elongated earlobes, protruding beneath almost psychedelic headscarves, the Flower H’mong people are an ethnic minority that live in high altitudes, cultivating produce such as dry rice and opium. They have a difficult relationship with the native Vietnamese and few rights are afforded to them by the government.

Although all the H’mong women we encountered were short of stature, many were far from dainty. From observing them it is clear they are hardy, hardworking and even a little coarse. They traipse up and down the mountains day after day, from their family homes (wood and clay structures balanced precariously on the hillside) to the market in the valley below at Bac Ha, loaded with wood or plants (or such) in large wicker baskets worn as though a backpack; or if they’re lucky, carrying only a bonny baby, usually disguised beneath several layers of scarves which act to secure the infant on the mothers back. Typically the Flower H’mong people have full, round faces and rosy-red cheeks, almost burnt and even leathery at times from over- exposure to the harsh wind. In their beautiful costumes with bulging skirts, to me, they resemble bell-shaped flowers hanging from the stem... perhaps that is how they acquired their name? I wouldn’t know...

Despite the mountains being shrouded in mist that day, we were afforded some great photo opportunities of people and also, at times, the luscious green landscape with its rolling hills and contoured rice paddies. Some of the H’mong people were understandably reluctant to have their photographs taken, so we endeavoured to be culturally sensitive; asking to take a photograph if we were within close proximity (usual with a gesture, overcoming the difficult language barriers) or otherwise monopolizing the range of our zoom lens to our ultimate benefit. Of the children we encountered, all bar none were curious and friendly, as children always are. One girl, a toddler, spotted us from below, and we spent a good five minutes or so (happily) replying to her relentless calls of “hello, hello, hello”!

The men of the Flower H’mong tribe are less gaudily clad, if costumed at all. They wear simple indigo over coats and unimaginative little caps. As we sat a while taking a breather and all that the view had to offer an elderly H’mong gentleman joined us in conversation... without a word of English, and us totally ignorant of his language. At his pauses we replied with the usual assumptions; “England”, “near Manchester United, Liverpool”, “Papa, baby”, “yes, cold, brrr”... I’m fairly confident that there was little to no comprehension of this conversation on behalf of either party involved, but nonetheless he bid us farewell seemingly happy with the exchange and we were happy to have met him, if not a little bewildered.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn for the Sunday market, the ultimate purpose of our visit to Bac Ha. Whereas the previous day we had been the only foreigners in town with the exception of one other party, a handful more had arrived in the night or the early morning. The market itself was inundated with tribe people, buying and selling. It took us a full three hours, from 7-10am, to make our way around the many stalls selling the traditional costumes, scarves and silver jewellery (primarily for the H’mong people and not the day-trippers). Whilst walking around I suddenly found myself accosted by a plump, old woman who had effectively lassoed me with a headscarf. I literally found myself in a head lock, nose in her armpit, whilst she fitted a scarf around my skull without so much as a warning! Out of politeness and nothing more Dad said that he would buy the scarf from the woman, but he had just spent his small change and the woman could not break his larger bill. We said that we would go and get some change and return to buy the scarves, and fully intended to. The old woman made a scene, ranting and raving, grabbing and pushing us. Bewildered, we left her to it, but not without difficulty as she would not let go on my arm. The woman from the stall opposite who we had just bought from shook her head to tell us not to worry about it, so we didn’t and continued around the market.

In the market place were a few stalls selling souvenirs, from which we bought beautiful hand embroidered items as well as some silver. The rest of the square was mostly occupied by tables displaying the carcasses of recently slaughtered animals, or holding bottles of local moonshine (flammable, by all accounts). Between stalls squatted men inhaling tobacco from bamboo bongs. Around the back was an area for livestock. On the hill were twenty or more buffalo ready for sale watched over by uninterested owners and small, casual groups. It became obvious to us at this point that what we were experiencing at the Bac Ha Market was as authentic as we could have hoped for; a social gathering for the H’mong people, the highlight of the week, almost ritual.

Lower, stood little girls and women holding strings tied around the necks of kittens and puppies.

After asking to take her photo, she obliged and posed, a slight smile on her face
I asked, but wasn’t allowed to buy one. In the same space a cock fight was taking place, over in the corner. Chris joined the masculine crowd to observe, he said it was brutal. As we made our way through the gathering, a pig, held by its hind legs and being forced into a sack, started to scream. It has to be the worst sound I’ve ever heard. It was time for me to get a move on.

On the far side of the market was a similar set up, only instead of buffalo it was horses for sale. We spent some time here, a great place for people watching, and then headed back to our hotel for some hot drinks. The original plan had been to look around the market early then perhaps go back to bed for a nap, but so intrigued had we been that we decided instead to go back to the market. Now, later in the day, more tourists had arrived on day trips from Sapa. More H’mong people had also arrived, so the market was full of activity. It was disappointing to see how some of the tourists treated the tribe people. Dad and I watched in awe as a man shoved his oversized camera lens just inches away from the nose of one unwilling woman. So enthralled was he in his shot that he tripped over his own feet. Once he had recovered his poise he looked up at us laughing, but did not get the response he was hoping for. I was embarrassed of him and felt ashamed. Likewise, walking through the food stalls in the covered market where the H’mongs were sitting down to lunch a middle aged white woman passed through demonstrating dramatically how disgusted she was by the food and the smells. I have to wonder why people like that travel (other than to give other foreigners a bad reputation).

The next day we prepared to leave for Sapa. The local bus was half empty when we got on, but it soon filled up. So much so that some people were literally hanging out of the door, clinging on to other passengers stood safely inside so as not to be ejected along the mountain pass. Hilariously, all of those standing in the aisle suddenly threw themselves to the ground, hiding from a stationary police car. The situation on the bus got a little uncomfortable when 50%!o(MISSING)f the passengers started throwing up into plastic bags then throwing them out of the window next to me like shot puts... It was a long ride to Lao Cai...

Answer: A dragonfly

Additional photos below
Photos: 94, Displayed: 30


11th December 2011

"the soundtrack of Asia", it's brilliant and sooo true!!!, it used to get on my nerves as well; that and the sound of millions of flip-flops rubbing the floor!
15th December 2011

yeah the flip flops get annoying too!
11th December 2011

Amazing Blog
Hey guys, I really enjoyed reading this blog, very well written. The pictures you have taken of the people are fantastic! Oh, and thanks for being respectful of the local people and asking to take a photo...it's infuriating when we see other tourists giving us a bad name. goatsontheroad
15th December 2011

Thanks for the kind words
12th December 2011

hi from Argentina
Your pictures are some of the best I have ever seen. I went to Vietnam and visited that area. What a place!!! And the people, yes, always the people, the best part of any trip. Hugs from Argentina.
15th December 2011

Hi Graciela
Yeah, Bac Ha was one of our favorites! Feels like a more authentic experience! Glad you liked the pictures
12th December 2011

Wonderful Blog
I've enjoyed reading your posts. I do wonder why you have dedicated only a sentence or two to the local bus experience. I've experienced that local bus to/from Bac Ha and it deserves at least a page. Not only did the locals all begin throwing up as soon as the bus began moving, but some of the local riders where...well,interesting. Lastly, thank you for showing consideration to your photographic subjects. I find that the majority of tourists are well behaved, but sometimes...
15th December 2011

Thanks Gil!
Amy is still trying to repress the memory I think!
14th December 2011

Stunning Photography
All these human-interest shots really floored me. Amazing photography!
15th December 2011

Saw your recent blog, Bhutan is also on our bucket list...amy wants it ticked off for her 30th birthday apparently! haha.
14th December 2011

Well done
15th December 2011

Thanks Dave!
We've been admiring some of your recent photos too! Some amazing shots!
9th January 2012

very colourful
Excellent blog and I have enjoyed reading it, excellent pictures. I also look at my Son's and see all his travels in yours. As I tell my son, Travel safe and enjoy your travels. regards Paul. MichaelnFaye's Dad
11th January 2012

Hi Paul
Yeah we closely follow your sons blog also, he takes some fantastic photos accompanied by some good writing! Thanks for you kind words & take care!

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