Travel through time in Ha Giang

Limestone mountains near Dong Van

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.

Dong Van market

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 or check his website at 


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Wrapping up Christmas on Hang Chieu Street

Hang Chieu Street in Hanoi

By mid-November, as my home town of Melbourne headed into a long-awaited summer, here in Hanoi it was the turning point for more temperate weather. It was getting cool enough to sleep without the air conditioner or the fan running, and covered by a sheet.

It was a long, hot and sticky summer, but now in the north of Vietnam the short, cold and misty winter has started.

It’s welcome, after several months when the temperature rarely dropped below the high 20s and humidity hovered between 80 and 90 per cent. Now most nights a quilt is necessary, and it’s time to shop for Christmas presents and wrapping paper.

In Hanoi similar businesses cluster together along the same streets. There are TV streets, toy streets, musical instrument streets, plumbing supplies streets and coffee bean streets.

The commercial heart of Hanoi, in English the Old Quarter, is called the 36 Streets by Vietnamese, and each street is named after what was originally sold there. One street, Hang Chieu, is Mat Street, but these days the shops that line it sell decorations and other items for different festivals throughout the year. Right now it could be called Christmas Decoration Street.

At this time of year, Christmas wrapping paper, red and white Father Christmas costumes, silver and golden bells, plastic fir trees, glittery snowflakes, red and green paper lanterns and tinsel galore all spill out from the narrow open shop fronts and onto Hang Chieu.

No religious imagery though. Christmas in Hanoi is largely a secular celebration (although in total about 10 per cent of Vietnamese are Christians). For westerners a particularly incongruous sight in Hanoi last year was the huge Christmas tree outside Vincom Towers, one of the handful of shopping malls that have sprung up in Hanoi the past few years (but hopefully that will never replace the traditional shopping streets). This tree was constructed entirely of green Heineken beer bottles.

For my Christmas shopping I will avoid those of the 36 Streets that these days should be renamed Souvenir Streets, filled as they are with cheap lacquer bowls, T-shirts and chopstick sets.

Instead I will head for businesses that put Vietnam’s cultural heritage and handicrafts on display.

The 54 Traditions Gallery at 30 Hang Bun Street, just north of the Old Quarter, sells art, textiles, antiques and everyday artefacts created and used by Vietnam’s 53 minority people, as well as the majority Kinh people (

Craft Link, at 43 Van Mieu Street, is a fair-trade charity that is creating new markets for traditional artisans, selling beautiful crafts produced in villages across Vietnam.

Vietnam Quilts, at 13 Hang Bac Street, is also a fair-trade charity, selling hand-quilted bedspreads and other products made by women in remote villages in Cambodia and in Vietnam (

Then it’s off to Hang Chieu to buy wrapping paper and ribbon.

By the next time I visit Hang Chieu Street the Christmas trimmings will have been replaced by the sparkling gold and red decorations for Tet, the big new year festival in February.  Then it will be time to celebrate the Year of the Cat.

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Good night Vietnam

Street hammock.

I once took an early xe om (motorbike taxi) ride at about at 4.15 in the morning to catch a 5.15am bus out of Hanoi, and was surprised at how many people were up and about at that hour. By the time the bus was travelling out of the city the roads were already crowded with motorbikes and cars.

People in Hanoi go to sleep early, and wake up early. Despite the size of this city of 6.5 million people, many still live much closer to the traditional early to rise, early to bed pattern of the countryside. A lot of people are in bed by 9pm. By 11pm most streets are quiet.

And become noisy early. Even if you do not live on a street that’s crowded with tooting motorbikes by 6am, there are also the chickens to contend with. In my first home in Hanoi I lived in a street well away from through traffic. However crowing roosters woke me up at dawn, all of a couple of kilometres from the centre of town.

Then there is construction work. According to official statistics Vietnam’s GDP is growing at the second fastest rate in the world. after China, and in Hanoi buildings are springing up everywhere. Some foreigners complain about how their sleep is disrupted by construction work that starts at 6 in the morning and finishes at 10 or later at night, but stops in the middle of the day, when the relative peace and quiet is of no use to anyone.

Personally I thank my lucky stars that at 6 in the morning I am tucked up in bed in a clean, quiet dark room. It’s a much better deal than the construction workers get. They are already working at 6am, rest during the hottest part of the day, then go back to work, sometimes well into the evening: some construction sites are still hives of activity at 10pm. The workers eat their evening meal and sleep on the building site itself, in the temporary lean-tos that are their homes during that job, their laundry hanging up nearby.

Indeed, it’s not only construction workers who sleep in very different surrounds from what westerners expect at night, and have trouble sleeping without: a quiet, dark purpose-built room, warm in winter and cool in summer, curtains drawn, a comfy bed.

Glimpses into homes in Hanoi through open doorways often reveal wooden beds in the living room, covered by nothing more than a mat. People live and sleep in the same space.

Some of the flats I looked at when searching for a place to live had room configurations reflecting this pattern of living and sleeping. They had a larger combined living room and bedroom and a separate small kitchen, rather than the western combination of a kitchen-living room with a separate bedroom.

People also sleep where they work.

Lunchtime cat naps are standard. In most offices, including mine, workers eat their lunch and then retire to a quiet room or back to their desks to sleep for an hour or so. Many offices close between 11.30 am and 1.30pm. Lunch restaurants do a roaring trade between 11.30am and 12.30pm, but staff are packing up by 12.30pm or 1pm, before, I presume, their own naps.

People in other occupations snatch sleep where they can. At night I have seen people stretched out on the pavement, using their thin rubber sandals to cushion their heads. My guess is that they are night workers rather than homeless, as they don’t have any belongings with them. During the day market stallholders sleep in hammocks above their wares. Xe om drivers doze precariously on their motorbikes – usually head on the pillion and feet on the handlebars. Taxi drivers snooze in the driver’s seat of their cabs, ready for the next fare.

I often book taxi rides with an English-speaking cabbie named Quan. He starts his shift at 10 in the morning and finishes at 2 the next morning, six days a week – a 96-hour week (for which he makes 5,000,000 dong a month – about A$250). So it’s not surprising that when I go to meet him near my home at a pre-arranged time I often find him napping. I have also woken up other taxi drivers on occasion. I feel mean, figure they would rather have the fare than the shut-eye.



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The Kianh Foundation

In January, before I started this blog, I visited Hoi An in central Vietnam. It‘s an historic river port a few kilometres from the coast, just south of Da Nang and about midway between Hanoi and Saigon.

I stayed with Roe and Colin Schroeder, two Australians who are working as Australian Volunteer International volunteers for a foreign charity operating in Hoi An called the Kianh Foundation, which helps children with disabilities.

Hoi An is a town popular with foreign tourists, who flock to its World Heritage listed town centre. UNESCO says on its website  that it is “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century”.

The visitors also come for the many tailoring businesses that occupy the centuries-old buildings, along with tourist restaurants and souvenir shops selling silk scarves, lacquer bowls, embroidered table runners and ornamental chop sticks.

Not far beyond the this precinct – a couple of minutes’ walk from the most outlying tailoring shop – is the office for the Kianh Foundation. A couple more minutes takes the visitor to the town’s orphanage.

The Kianh Foundation established and runs an onsite special-education school for the children with disabilities who live there, where they receive an education that’s tailored to their abilities. The foundation also pays the wages of five of their carers, for services such as physiotherapy, speech therapy and dental care and for excursions and other social activities.

I visited the orphanage with Roe and Colin Schroeder, and found the school rooms for the children, some of whom have severe disabilities, to be a bright, sociable and cheerful hive of activity, and well stocked with books and toys.

Conditions were drastically different in 2001 when two English tourists visited the orphanage while on a holiday to Hoi An. They found the orphans with disabilities lying two or three to wooden beds in a dark room. The Kianh Foundation website says: “The children’s lives were lived out solely on the beds: they ate there; went to the toilet there. They never left the room. They had a small amount of food, no toys, no books, no games, no music. They just existed.”

The pair decided to set up the Kianh Foundation. One of the founders, Jackie Wrafter, is now the director of the charity and others have joined their efforts, in particular the Schroeders. They had also initially visited the orphanage while on holidays to Hoi An, in 2003. They have been returning regularly ever since, currently for 18 months on the Australian Volunteers International placements.

Now the charity is setting up a brand new day centre for disabled children in the nearby agricultural region of Dien Ban, so that its work can extend beyond the orphanage.

Roe Schroeder has for years trained the teachers for the school at the orphanage, and is now setting up the educational program for the day centre. Twenty children are already being helped, in temporary premises, with special education, physiotherapy and speech therapy. Roe is training three teachers and one teacher’s aid. Another Australian Volunteers International volunteer, a paediatric physiotherapist, is training an assistant physio and will shortly start training two graduate physios.

Colin Schroeder is the project manager for the centre’s permanent home, which will be purpose-built on land made available to the charity by the local authorities.

The Kianh Foundation website says Dien Ban was bombed heavily with dioxins during the war with the Americans and has the highest proportion of people with disabilities in the local province.

The dioxins were contained in herbicides including Agent Orange. This recent report from the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin outlines the extent of the problem in Vietnam.

For those in Hoi An on holidays a visit to the Kianh Foundation and the orphanage shows a side of Vietnam far removed from the souvenir shops and tourist cafes. The charity and its dedicated staff and volunteers work hard to enrich the lives of children who otherwise might have little chance for health, personal growth or joy in their lives.

Donating money to the charity helps it to continue and expand its work for children with disabilities The Kianh Foundation, which is a registered charity in Great Britain, depends on donations from individuals to carry on with its work. Donations to it really do make a difference in the lives of these children of Hoi An and Dien Ban.

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Hold the greens

Frozen yoghurt on bia hoi corner, Hanoi Old Quarter

This post is about the food I have eaten in Vietnam rather than about Vietnamese food in general. My food range is far more limited than the dishes Vietnam offers as I am a fairly squeamish eater in a country where just about every part of just about every animal is consumed. So I haven’t tried duck broth with congealed blood, for example, or snake, or dog, or those breakfast boiled eggs with the chick  cooked inside.

For a takeaway breakfast I prefer banh mi trung (literally bread egg). It’s a crusty bread roll filled with an omelette cooked while you wait, plus a smattering of picked vegetables, what appears to shredded dried fish, and chilli sauce. Not bad at all.

Bun cha is a common lunch dish. The main ingredients are barbecued pork and pork patties in a broth that’s sometimes served hot and sometimes cold, also often accompanied by fried spring rolls (nem). There’s usually a side-bowl heaped with lettuce and herbs. They add some green stuff to a dish that is otherwise meat and rice, but there’s a widespread view among foreigners that they make you sick. I have also been told that many locals have the same view, and certainly at the place I frequent many leave the greens bowls untouched. I regretfully decided to follow their lead since seeing bowls of the leftovers, potentially picked over by various sets of chopsticks, tipped into a big plastic bag for re-serving to other diners.

Pho bo (beef noodle soup) is a Hanoi specialty. There are supposed to be 24 ingredients in classic pho, including spices, although I would have trouble identifying that number in my pho haunt near work, where a bowl costs 17,000 dong (A$1). A restaurant chain here is called Pho 24, after the number of ingredients. It’s a much more upmarket venue for sampling pho -no squatting on small plastic stools at small plastic tables – and is also two or three times the price – all of 42,000 dong (A$2.50).

Its website  gives a rundown on pho and its ingredients. Did you know, for example, that one of those ingredients, star anise, contains shikimic acid, which is used in the production of  Tamiflu? Now you do.

Pho ga is the chicken version, which I sometimes have for lunch in the tiny restaurant across the road from my home. It’s like many such places in Hanoi: one dish is served, in a “restaurant” that’s actually a family’s front room and adjoining pavement. After lunch everything is packed away until the next day. This family’s pho ga always comes with tender chicken breast – no gristle, bone or fat. It’s a pick-me-up in a bowl, all for 15,000 dong (A85c), followed by iced tea for 1000 dong (A6c).

However, pho is a little on the bland side, like a lot of the food I have tried in Hanoi. The cuisine is “subtle”, say the guidebooks. Fortunately there are jars or bottles of chilli sauce on the tables in many places so some zing can be added that way.

Bun rieu dau phu is spicier. Bun rieu is a soup with rice noodles, crab meat, tomatoes and, in this version, fried tofu (dau phu). It’s reasonably hot already without the addition of extra chilli sauce – although I usually do add some. The place I go to serves shredded lettuce in a side dish, for the strong of stomach. I ate litres of the stuff in Hanoi’s short but chilly winter.

Dessert? Frozen yoghurt cafes are popping up all over the place. My favourite one, Yokool, is situated on one corner of a busy crossroads in the Old Quarter that’s known as bia hoi corner by foreigners. It’s named after the outdoor bars on the other three corners, which sell bia hoi (draught beer) and are very popular with backpackers. At Yokool you choose the frozen yoghurt (such as blackberry, blueberry or strawberry), which is piped into a tub, and then the toppings – nuts, sweets, chocolates and chopped fruit. Then sit in the window and watch all Hanoi go by.

To find out about the Hanoi dishes consumed by a far more adventurous eater check out the popular Sticky Rice food blog.

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Bathers crowd the pool at the Hotel La Thanh, July 2010

At a small lunchtime restaurant near my office, which sells noodle soup for a dollar, office workers sit on ancient plastic stools next to dingy walls that have not been painted in many years.

Yet the owners have just installed a brand spanking new plate-glass door and windows, plus an air conditioner, at the front of the establishment. In this hot, sticky summer they’ve got their priorities right.

It was even hotter than usual for several weeks during June and July; temperatures were in the high 30s and humidity was at 80 or 90 percent. The city is far from the ocean, so no sea breezes waft in at night.

Air-conditioned homes, restaurants and shops are welcome oases in the stifling heat, for those who can afford them.

The expatriate community is depleted as many head home for weeks or months, or choose this time to leave Hanoi permanently. It’s a good time to rent a place if you are a foreigner, as it’s a buyer’s market now.

Most local people stay put, don’t have air conditioners, and escape the heat at night by sitting outside their homes, in laneways and streets and in parks. There are also a few public swimming pools and many hotel pools are open to the public (the entry fee varies from about $1 to $10), and they are well patronised. In the evening men sit drinking bia hoi (draught beer) in establishments on street corners and in open-air bars and beer halls.

Ice-cream vendors wheel bicycles around with the ice-creams packed into an insulated box on the back. Motorbike riders deliver bags of ice from similar boxes to cafes, which often don’t have a fridge on the premises, for cold drinks.

New businesses and products pop up. Stalls appear on many streets selling sugarcane juice freshly squeezed on the spot by ferocious looking presses that chew up the cane.

Brightly printed cotton jackets designed to shield women motorbike riders from the sun are strung up on shop fronts across the city. Each one has a hood large enough to fit over a motorbike helmet, and also flaps attached to the cuffs of the sleeves to cover the rider’s hands as she grip the handlebars. Some women wear opera-style long gloves instead.

While I have not taken those precautions myself, I’m getting good mileage out of my $2 folding umbrella to ward off blazing sunshine as well as summer rain.

There have been regular downpours over the last couple of weeks, and on July 13 Hanoi experienced the first flood of the summer – but probably not the last. The rain bucketed down overnight, putting the streets, and the ground floors of many buildings, knee-deep in water. (See this video of the flood in my own neighbourhood on YouTube taken by a work colleague who lives nearby).

Flooding aside, the rain has given Hanoians a welcome break from the extreme summer heat, if not from the humidity.

For me, as well as the relief that comes from lower temperatures it has also been a pleasure to experience really drenching downpours after so many years of drought back in Australia. I luxuriate in the curtain of rain falling outside my window, water coursing down gutters, glistening wet surfaces and the lights reflecting off them at night, and the thunder of raindrops on the roof.

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A real estate agent recently asked me how I found living in Hanoi. I told him it was certainly an interesting place, but I found bargaining difficult: I was just not used to doing it. I was all at sea in the land of no fixed prices.

He smiled. In Vietnam when you buy something, he told me, you get the highest starting price if you show up in a four-wheel-driver, less if you arrive on a motorbike, less if it’s a bicycle and less again if you walk to the business.

It’s so different from what I am used to in Australia, where just about everything has a set price. You know what things cost because the price is attached to the product on a sticker or a tag. You shop around if you want to by comparing those prices, not by bidding down the price in each transaction. The fact that prices are attached to most products also mean they don‘t vary too much between businesses. So easy.

Not in Vietnam. For example, the price I have been charged for paracetamol has ranged from 6000 to 20,000 dong – in pharmacies, by pharmacists or their assistants wearing their white-coat trappings of respectability.

Apart from the few supermarkets, most businesses don’t have even nominal price tags on their wares.

The real-estate agent’s rule of thumb probably does not apply to westerners either, who are all assumed to be rich. We are likely to be given the “four-wheel-drive” price even if we show up on foot. Indeed westerners are pretty well all rich in a country where US$200 a month is a good wage, and many earn US$100 or less. And the westerners living here on western wages are fantastically wealthy by local standards.

Not only does the asking price vary, and is often higher for westerners, but also, because price tags are so few and far between, it’s hard to gain an idea of the price for which a vendor is prepared to sell his or her goods or services.

Some vendors, particularly of fruit or vegetables, can be quite aggressive too, in an effort to sell more of the product to me, which adds another wrinkle to a process that is so seamless at home. Not only do you negotiate over price but also amount.

From my point of view this is tiresome, but I can also see the point of view of the vendors, particularly the ones who work on the streets. Each works in all weather, plying her wares from the two heavy baskets suspended from a bamboo pole slung over her shoulder, and would make very little money each day. According to an online exhibition at the Women’s Museum in Hanoi these women are working on the street because they can’t get jobs in their village or because earnings there are so low.

If I agree to buy a kilo of oranges for more than the price a street vendor needs to make a profit, she tries very hard to sell me two kilos. This may mean, I think, that she can afford some meat for dinner, for example.

I also think sometimes, when buying from a tenacious trader, that it’s no surprise that this country has seen off so many foreign armed forces. There’s a steely persistence here in many daily pursuits!

Not all drive such a hard bargain though. I once even had a shopkeeper knock down the price for me. I had agreed to pay the 180,000 dong she asked for a bag – that’s about $10.50, and the bag would have cost me $40 or more in Australia. I didn’t bargain, and after the deal was closed the shopkeeper reduced the price herself by 10,000 dong. She must have taken pity on me.

Although I am still a hopeless bargainer I have developed a few shopping strategies.

My approach where the price varies so much for a standard product, such as the paracetamol in those pharmacies, is simply not to return to the places that charge more.

I do bargain sometimes, and think of it as practice for times when there’s more of an imperative to haggle over the price, such as if I need to buy a big ticket item, and for the weekly shop for fruit and vegetables when I don’t want to regularly pay too much over the odds. The other day, for example, I bought a length of 150-centimetre wide silk with a beautiful 1950s-retro pattern for 80,000 dong a metre rather than the 90,000 asked for. Not much of a reduction but I got in some practice – and even at the higher price it’s all of $A5.50 metre.

I have also taken enough motorbike taxis to have an idea of prices and bargain if I know the price is way too high. I still pay more than a local person, but by only a dollar or so. I don’t want to spend the time getting the price down further – and that dollar means a lot more to the driver than it does to me.

Even if I was a better bargainer, that awareness of the value of a dollar to the vendor would make me reluctant to get too serious about regular bargaining. The cobbler who works near my office, on a stretch of roadside pavement under an offcut of tarpaulin amid heat, dust and petrol fumes, charges me 50,000 dong to re-heel a pair of shoes. I suspect that this is double what he charges other customers – I have seen 25,000 dong change hands. However, it would be a hard life working on a city pavement so I don’t mind throwing some extra money his way – and after all, for expert repairs I am paying all of $3 rather than $1.50.

I also take note of a very good piece of advice I heard recently: “If the price seems reasonable to you, forget what others are paying.”

However bargaining is a story that’s different for everyone, and it doesn’t have any particular conclusion. There are more views in these two discussions on the New Hanoian website:

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