Off the track (and off road!) in Northern Vietnam

Trip Start Oct 01, 2006
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Trip End Apr 06, 2007


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Where I stayed
Ninh Bihn Hotel

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Well I wanted to get off the beaten track, and I did - literally and metaphorically, as the only way to access some of the place I've come back from are on foot or mortorbike!  The people there don't see many tourists, and so you aren't regarded as an opportunity to make a lot of money and it's amazing the warmth with which I was received by people, some of whom had so little to give, but would offer what they had.

Most of the time it was just me and my driver Khanh, who picked me up from my Ninh Binh hotel on Friday morning.  We headed out of Ninh Binh by the horrible Highway 1 but soon escaped into the countryside.  Very soon we stopped to watch some people harvesting pineapples, Pretty much most of the farm work (not to mention road building and house building) is done by hand.  Machines are apparently used about 10% of the time, and animals about 10% of the time, but in the fields you see a lot of men and women doing back breaking work by hand.  We stopped and chatted with the farmers, or at least Khanh did, and very quickly were offered two pineapples for free and to come in for lunch to eat, from what I can gather, the family dog (yes they do eat dogs here).  We declined and headed on our way towards Kho Muong, where we would be staying for the night.  We passed fields and fields of rice, cleverly irrigated from the river at one point by bamboo water wheels.  We stopped at a village before heading off the main road and bought some food for dinner.  As it had been raining the market was deserted so we headed to the house of one of the stall holders to be some pork and bought a few vegetables from the only lady left in the market.  We made a couple of other stops, the last one for bananas, and I waited on the bike whilst Khanh went to buy the fruit.  School had just kicked out and the 'funny white lady on the motorbike' was a bit of a spectacle for the local kids!  Girls seemed to not want to come passed me alone, and when they came passed in their groups would do so giggling.  The boys were a bit braver and would shout 'hello' and 'Thank you' at me! 

About 25k from the village we turned off a surfaced road and took a small road into the hills.  As we went on the road got progressively more muddy and difficult to travel on, so progress was pretty slow, and at times a bit hairy - but not as scary as the main roads in the towns!  We passed lots of houses along the side of the road on the way and Children would wave to us and shout 'Sin Chau' (Hello - that's the phonetic spelling!).  We'd also stop if Khanh thought there was anything worth pointing out.  At one stop we watched some people make sugar from sugar cane, and Khanh made a lady weaving under her house give me a bit of demonstration. We arrived in Kho Mung, a village inhabited by White Thai 'minority' people in the early evening.  I was pleased to see that Thomas, from Germany, who'd also been staying in my hotel  was at the homestay we'd be staying at - I didn't think my Vietnamese would get me very far all evening, and sometimes I wasn't sure how much my guide really understood.  The homestay was, as you would imagine from the name, somebodies house, which is essentially two rooms, a living/dining/sleeping room and a kitchen with an open fire but no chimney.  Under the house were all kinds of animals and the toilet was a hole in the ground away from the house and next to the buffalo stable - not a place you want to make a wrong turn into in the night!  We sat and had tea (green tea and a social convention here) and I watched out the window as the lady of the house fetched a chicken and tied it's legs together.  This, I concluded, was part of the dinner. A few minutes later a bowl of blood appeared and sure enough for dinner we had chicken - but I have to say she must have been a very tough old bird!  Well, at least it wasn't the dog!  With dinner the local fire water was served, made from Manioc, a root vegetable that seems to be pretty staple here for eating and drinking!

We slept on the floor of the main room of the house, but were made very comfortable with mattresses, blankets and a mosquito net each.  In the morning I was woken up at about 4 by the rooster beneath the house talking to his 3 other mates in the village but managed to drown him out with my MP3 player and get a bit more sleep!  After breakfast Khanh showed me around the rest of the village and we visited some of his friends, who I gather he stays with sometimes on other tours.  The village had made ingenious use of water, using it to make machines to grind rice (albeit slowly) and to make electricity, courtesy of some turbines made in China. Apparently they produce enough electricity to power a television or 4 light bulbs.  One or two houses in the village appeared to have a TV, and you'd see kids sitting outside watching through the open windows. 

On leaving the village we had a a few more kilometres on some of the dodgy roads, passing more villages and a local wedding party in progress before heading back onto a paved road to the town of Mai Chou.  Again we stopped at some points of interest including a chopstick 'factory' and some more weaving before arriving in Mai Chou.  Mai Chou is a bit more 'on the track' and indeed we saw 2 tourist groups there, but nothing compared to towns like Hoi An.  It also seemed a popular spot for young people from Hanoi for the weekend.  As it was a place more people came (partly because it's also a lot more accessible!) there were quite a few guesthouses, which again consisted of one big room that you would share, with your own mattress and mosquito net.  This time, however there were showers and western toilets!  Great!  After a shower Khanh showed me around the local village, again stopping to see weaving and people making toothpicks from bamboo, and we returned to the guesthouse for dinner. Thomas had also come to Mai Chou as had Kim, from Holland, who was also doing a tour from my guesthouse in Ninh Binh.  The three of us had dinner and more local firewater (this time rice wine) before deciding to see where the sounds of drumming we could hear was coming from.  We could see dancers and musicians in one of the stilt house so went up the stairs to peer through the window (as a lot of locals were doing!).  We were soon invited in to the party, held by some White Thai people - some local, some visiting from Hanoi, and were given some of their local tipple, straw wine (drank communaly by all the family, including the two year old, through bamboo straws!).  It was then onto more of the rice wine, which we were guaranteed wouldn't give us a hangover!  The dancers seemed to be doing the rounds of the village and we saw them perform again to a group of tourists, and then much later in the street to the Vietnamese tourists from Hanoi.

Yesterday morning it was an early start to head to another village where a Sunday market was held, to which lots of local ethnic minorities visited.  The market sold pretty much everything, from traditional wear (which lots of the shoppers and stall holders were wearing), modern toys and clothes, turbines to make electricity and meat, both dead and alive!  We visited a friend of Khanh so I got the opportunity to wear a 'Blue H'mong' skirt.  We also visited a village of H'mong people near the market.  Here it was obvious that the people had very little, and we often offered hot water, maybe flavoured with bark, instead of tea, as they couldn't afford tea.  The houses were very basic and had mud floors.   As they do not have land for rice fields the staple diet is magnoc or corn, cobs from which seemed to be discarded everywhere. Walking between the houses it was easy to imagine that chance of staying healthy in these conditions were probably very slim.  One of the houses which invited us was headed by a guy with 6 children. I was greated so warmly by the head of the household it was really touching, and we were given what seemed like just hot water to drink which I decided to avoid doing, as I have no idea of the source and if it had been boiled!  One of the girls had been cut, accidentally, by a kinfe being used by her sister and so her sister was having to carry her because of her bandaged foot.  I offered the contents of my first aid kit, which I'd left back at the motorbike for her, as I couldn't see how they could keep the wound dressed and clean.  The head of the household gave me some paper they make from bamboo, which is used for cleaning things rather than writing on.  I felt guilty taking something from people who had nothing!  On return to the bike I found that my first aid kit must have fallen out and left behind in one of the guesthouses so I felt terrible and asked Khanh if we could go to the small pharmacy in the town to buy some more things for her.  The total costs for the bandages and the antiseptic was 10,000 dong, about 30p.  But for them that's also the cost of a kilo of rice, and choices like food or medicine very difficult to make. 

After leaving the village we drove to another village of reselted Muong and Thai people, who had been displaced, from what I can gather by either the creation or expansion of a lake we past on the way.  This 'new village' seemed a lot more affluent, but the local people can earn money from the fish they can catch in the water.  Here, if you can't grow rice, you need another way to feed your family.

After lunch it was the long motorcycle ride back to Ninh Binh.  On my return Khanh took me to a friend's coffee shop.  A little boy was playing outside so I said 'hello' in Vietnamese.  I wish I could have photographed his response as he couldn't believe that the 'white giant' could speak Vietnamese!  Very funny!  He then ran back and forth outside the coffee shop but gave me a very wide birth and at one point put his hands over his eyes!  We also got the photographs I'd taken of the children in the H'mong village printed so that Khanh could take them back to them, as unlike some of the other villagers in the homestay village who had obviously been sent photos by tourists, this family didn't have any pictures on their walls (I guess because they don't have homestays and therefore not so many tourists visit).  Khanh will be back there today and it's really nice to think that the children might have their first photographs of themselves by now! 
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