I recently made two trips to Ha Giang Province, in the far north east of Vietnam. Both felt like taking trips back in time.
This mountainous region, which borders China, is starkly beautiful, but also very remote, and very poor. The economic growth in much of the rest of Vietnam, which this year pushed Vietnam officially into the ranks of middle-income countries, has not affected this frontier region.
Spectacular limestone mountains tower over narrow valleys. Every possible patch of land is used for cultivation, including corn that’s grown on steep, steep mountainsides.
Most people work the land, and many of them are from one of the 22 ethnic minorities who live in the region. Most don’t wear modern clothing – their striking traditional garments are also their work clothes, worn every day, and not finery put on for weddings and other special occasions.
You see splashes of bright colour – reds, greens, blues, pinks – in fields in the valleys and on mountainsides, where women toil. The men are much more sombrely dressed; men from the Hmong minority group, for example, wear black caps, black Chinese-style jackets with Mandarin collars and black trousers.
You don’s see much modern dress in the countryside, and you also don’t much 21st century, or even 20th century, technology.
There are few cars, and far fewer motorbikes than in other parts of Vietnam. Women walk home from the fields carrying their work knives made from a single piece of iron (curled at one end to form the handle) in wooden holders sitting on belts at the small of their backs. Men plough the fields using buffalo. Irrigation pipes that carry water overhead across roads are made of wood, and supported by spindly and knobbly wooden posts cut down from trees in the vicinity. .I did see a few mobile phones, though, which are very cheap to run in Vietnam.
To give an idea of cash incomes, corn wine is made by local farmers (and drunk by some to excess – alcohol abuse is a problem). Half a litre of corn wine (in a recycled plastic water bottle) bought in a restaurant cost 10,000 dong – about 50 cents. And that’s with the restaurant’s mark-up.
I saw women almost bent double under loads of firewood, carried on foot to sell in the local towns. Others could scarcely be seen under huge piles of greenery, which was probably being gathered as fodder for farm animals. Wood, piled teepee-style, was also on sale outside farm houses at the side of the road.
Many of those farm houses reminded me of small 19th century settlers cottages in Australia, consisting of one or two rooms with a veranda at the front and window on each side of the door.
Foreigners need a permit to travel in the province, which is obtained in the provincial capital of Ha Giang, about six or seven hours’ drive from Hanoi on Highway Two.
From there most of the small but increasing number of foreign visitors travel across the 575 square-kilometre Dong Van Stone Plateau to the town of Dong Van, which is only a few kilometres from the Chinese border.
Just last October the plateau was added to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Global Network of National Geoparks. One of its breathtaking sights is the Quan Ba Pass, about two hours’ drive from Ha Giang. It overlooks a valley ringed by eerily cone-shaped hills, two of which, according to the sign at the pass, are called the Fairy Bosoms.
In Dong Van the bustling Sunday market, to which people from the surrounding countryside flock to buy, sell and socialise, is almost medieval.
Women in their bright clothes, pannier style baskets on their backs, shop and chat to friends. The pannier baskets are also on sale, as are local vegetables (carried on foot by farmers for several hours to get to the market), brooms made from sheafs of dried rice, colourful fabric and trimmings for women’s clothes, packets of seeds and cheap household goods and clothes made in China.
One woman carries a big duck under her arm. Two men carry a live pig suspended from a pole, heading for the pig market in a street near the main market. Looming over the market is a limestone hill so steep it’s almost a wall.
Note: one of my trips to Ha Giang was with an independent motorbike tour guide, Michael Hue. To find out more about motorbike tours to Ha Giang and other regions of the north of Vietnam email him on firstname.lastname@example.org or check his website at http://motorbiketoursvietnam.com