Life in Hanoi is great, but at times the reckless traffic, the penetrative noise, and the ghastly fumes just get to you and it’s time to get out of town.
One of my favourite escapes from the city is to head north and get up into the mountains. Perhaps run is a poor verb to use; chug may be more accurate, as my choice of travel is the overnight train. As a Westerner I never fit in the overnight sleeper bus seats and at times have experienced excruciatingly uncomfortable journeys; so I opt for the train. It takes twice as long and delivers you at a very early hour, but that’s the way I like it.
Dawn. Lao Cai train station. Just a couple of kilometres away from the Chinese border. This is not today’s destination, however, but instead there are mountains to climb. Well, a bus to catch to be more precise. It’s a frantic but efficient bus service that takes us up into the hills and to the famous mountain town of Sapa. It’s about an hour of uphill corkscrewing, accompanied by frequent horn blowing and overtaking best left to stuntmen. I prefer not to look ahead, as questions of one’s own mortality persist. Instead I choose the side view out of the bus. I get my first sightings of the rice terraces that depict this iconic landscape. The first of the local peoples of this region can be observed. Dao and Hmong people, traditionally garbed, starting their early morning roadside activities.
We finally arrive in Sapa, the frontier town, the capital of these Hoang Lien Son Mountains. Established as a French hill station in the 1920s and home to an assemblage of ethnic minorities, not classically indigenous, but migrants with a variety of histories. This region is some 3,000 metres (or more) above sea level. The famous Mt Fansipan takes the record as the highest mountain in Indochina, at 3,143 metres. The area is located approximately 300 km to the north of Hanoi but it feels like the proverbial million miles away.
On this trip I was very fortunate to be accompanied by a very good Vietnamese friend, Tue, who runs a business in Hanoi. Her family lives in Sapa and the produce for her business comes from the surrounding villages. Today we are going straight out to Ta Phin village to collect more supplies to take back to the city. It’s a 40-minute drive across the hills. Bumpy and beautiful. The scenery along the way is probably some of the best in the world. We slowly dip and rise through ancient wooden and smoky villages. Pigs and buffaloes wander freely. The odd dog sleeps on the warmest spot, in the middle of the road, while the rest are content to chase each other. There are huge patches of artichoke and orchid farms, some with their crops interspaced through the terraces within the forest. Sweet and smiling children run along roadside. Hmong girls in their incredibly colourful pleated and fanned skirts. Red Dao women with their iconic red and white head scarves. Hmong men carry archaic tools to their fields dressed all in black, long cloaks embroidered with silver are draped across their shoulders. This truly is another world.
We arrive in the absolute splendour of this antiquated village and slowly proceed through its centre. At times like these it is easy to feel like a Victorian explorer discovering unknown lands for the first time. However, I am aware I am on a well-trodden path as I am mildly accosted by the women of the village competing to sell me their embroidered wares. It’s all very cordial and we pass through the village in search of our acquaintance. On the outskirts, down by the river, we approach the humble abode of our lovely friend, Tan Ta May. She is a Red Dao medicine woman. This ethnic minority are renowned for their wisdom in regard to herbal and traditional medicine.
The Dao people emigrated from Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in China between the 18th and 19th centuries, due to various conflicts and famines. However, much of Dao history appears complex and mysterious. Often what I read in the few related textbooks I have found conflicts, quite strongly, with their oral history. Many of their stories are literally embedded in their complex embroideries that adorn their daily garb. Our friend May tells me the stories of how her people had to cross the mountains into Vietnam. Yellow and gold are representations of the mountains and the trees. Dangers are alluded to in the form of foot prints of wild animals. Snowflakes are included to demonstrate the extreme altitudes they had to endure. There is a particular emblem that holds my attention among this assemblage of symbols, a swastika. Its hideous misappropriation by the Nazi party holds no dark feelings for me, as I have spent time in India, where the symbol is frequent and diametric. Its original Sanskrit meaning is of good luck and well-being, yet I am a little surprised to see it here today carefully embroidered on the leg of a Red Dao woman’s trousers. I enquire as to its meaning. I am told it represents the tiger’s footprint in the snow.
I am a frequent visitor to this area now. Fascinated by these ancient lifestyles, eager to learn about the herbal medicines and take regular walks with May and Tue to forage for foods and gather treatments. After a day’s graft, a typical Vietnamese great feast, and of course a few rounds of homemade rice wine, it’s time for a bath. Another of the Red Dao’s specialities is their herbal bathing. A wooden tub filled with the hot brew from 72 plants and trees. I immerse myself into the dark brown steaming hot tub and slowly sink into the medicinal infusion. It’s a heady and steamy experience. As hot as one can bare, yet with windows open to views of rice terraces, verdant hills and water buffaloes; all accompanied by the babble of the adjacent stream; a simple paradise.
Grant J. Riley is a writer, photographer and freelance ecologist from the south-west of England.
He is the author of ‘A Journal from the End of Times’. www.lulu.com