There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Thursday, 29 March 2012

Trekking from Sa Pa (2), Ta Van to Ban Den: Part 6 of Vietnam North to South 5

Back to Part 4
Walking the Muong Hoa Valley:Sa Pa to Ta Van

On to Part 6
Those more familiar with OS maps might note that red indicates a (largely) metalled road of any size.
Tracks shown in yellow are footpaths or concrete strips for motorcycles.

I did not feel at my best the next morning, but I was up early and we sat in the yard ready for breakfast. Eventually Der surfaced, gave me a conspiratorial smile, and started on his daily chores. There was no sign of Minh.

A little later Der went off on an errand taking Nhu with him on his motorbike – something that looks terrifying to us, but seems second nature to most Vietnamese.

Der and Nhu go off on an errand
Ta Van

We went in and sat by the fire in the kitchen, the scruffy little cat choosing to sit on Lynne’s foot.

Der returned, chopped up some pork and put it in a pot over the fire, and still there was no sign of Minh. Eventually he appeared looking like a man who had come a distant third in a drinking competition he had never wanted to enter. Der – who seemed to do most of the cooking – made some pancakes.

We sat outside at the ‘normal’ sized table, drank tea and ate pancakes spread with something sweet which may or may not have been jam. Outside the Hmong women gathered like vultures, awaiting the first tourists of the morning.

Waiting for th first tourists of the morning
Ta Van

Breakfast over, we shook hands with Der, gave grandma an opportunity for a last giggle, and set off. We felt privileged to have become part of their family for the day.

Our plan was for a half day walk to the Dao hamlet of Giang Tu Chai and then down to Hoa Su Pan 2 where a car would pick us up and take us to our next homestay in Ban Dem, the chief settlement of Ban Ho village.

A Vietnamese ‘village’ is actually an administrative area, sometimes quite large, comprising several settlements described as ‘hamlets’. Usually they have individual names, but in some villages, like Su Pan, they are known as Hoa Su Pan 1, Hoa Su Pan 2, etc. Sometimes, as in Ta Van, the village and the largest settlement have the same name, while in others, like Ban Ho, there is no settlement of that name.

Again we had a choice of routes. The easier way involved walking along the valley and approaching Giang Tu Chai from below, the more demanding led up the valley side and approached the hamlet from above. Again we settled for the easy route.

We walked back through Ta Van, down to the river….

Down to the River at Ta Van

…..and then up the other side of the valley, from where we could look back to where we had stayed.

Looking back at Ta Van across the valley

We were now back on the metalled road from Sa Pa, and we followed it through an area renowned for its ancient carved boulders. A small museum attempted to explain some of the carvings, but the meanings of most, assuming they have any, are yet to be decoded. Sadly the museum contained only photographs as most of the boulders have been removed for study in Hanoi. Two remain lying in the grass outside. I found it difficult to pick out the carvings from the marks left by several million years of weathering.

Leaving the road we descended back into the valley through the hamlet of Giang Ta Chai (not to be confused with Giang Tu Chai).  It is a Hmong settlement which, unusually, has several Christian families and a church. The French ruled Indo-China for over a hundred years before independence in 1954 so there are many Vietnamese Christians – more specifically Catholics - but most live in the urban centres. There are few churches in the countryside and even fewer in the ethnic minority villages of the northern highlands.

Giang Ta Chai Church

Easter was ten days away, but the banner reads The Church of Giang Ta Chai, Happy Christmas.

We crossed a metal suspension bridge built beside an older rattan bridge. Beneath the bridge a bored Vietnamese guide was watching two westerners who had clearly come on a fishing holiday. I have difficulty working up any enthusiasm for fishing as a participation sport, but as a spectator sport its tedium is surely without parallel. The guide had my sympathy.

On the far side we found tables and chairs lurking beneath a thatch-roofed enclosure and took the opportunity for a well-earned cup of tea. Relaxing for a moment we had time to notice that although there was still complete cloud cover, it was starting to warm up down in the valley bottom.

Just over the river is a thatch roofed tea house
while below the bridge is a man on a fishing holiday

The earlier wide path along the river had narrowed to one passible only by pedestrians and motorcycles, but it was flat and easy going. After a kilometre or so we took a rough track rising along the valley side.

It was a good steady climb, sufficient to bring out a sweat and raise the heart rate. Regular visitors to this blog will know that I may be over-weight and over-sixty, but I do regularly put on a pair of walking boots and am no stranger to rough paths and modest gradients. Such walking, though, is not one of Lynne’s hobbies and she soon started to flag and as she flagged she started to complain. Long before we reached the top she was voicing the opinion that it was all a plot to kill her, and that Minh and I were doing it deliberately.

Lynne struggles upwards

With effort and appropriate encouragement we made it to Giang Tu Chai, a collection of ramshackle wooden houses perched on the valley side. It was the only hamlet we visited that had no motorcycle access and, as far as we could see, no electricity.

Giang Tu Chai

We entered one of the houses, a large single room dwelling with a wattle partition dividing what Minh called the ‘front room’ from the kitchen. The only light came through the open door and the gaps in the walls.

The ‘front room’ was more like a farm shed than a living room. In one corner a man was making one of the large baskets local women carry on their backs. He did not look particularly pleased to see us and soon put down his work, picked up his pipe and went outside for a smoke.

Minh seemed on better terms with the old woman – presumably the man’s mother or mother-in-law – who squatted in the kitchen cooking lunch. Except for the flames of her fire, she seemed to be working entirely in the dark, though my flash photograph rather spoils the effect. A cat sat by the fire staring at her as she stirred some green leaves in a pot.

Squatting by the fire cooking lunch

She chatted with Minh while we let our eyes accustom to the light so we could get a proper view of a life which cannot have changed for a hundred years or more. Almost all Dao women still wear the traditional red headdress, but lower down in the valley most of them seemed on nodding terms with the twenty-first century, somewhere up that valley side we had walked out of the modern world and into an older and harsher environment.

Eventually we realised we had intruded for long enough, and had to tear ourselves away. As we left, the old lady scuttled from her kitchen and introduced us to her pile of handicrafts. She may have been Dao but she had the same stock as all the Hmong women. Now, though, seemed the right time for a token purchase.

Even Lynne had to admit that the effort of getting there had been worthwhile, but now we had to get back. Our ascent had been a steady rise along the valley side, but our next path dropped straight down to a suspension bridge we could see far below.

Minh with the bridge down below

The descent was, by any standards, steep and slippery; my walking poles would have been useful but they were in a cupboard on the other side of the world. Occasionally we needed our hands to climb down rocky sections or had to grab at convenient plants to prevent an over-precipitous descent. Neither of us found it easy and Minh’s trainers were giving him less grip than would have been comfortable.

Struggling down

Long before we reached the bridge Lynne was telling anyone who would listen that she was going to die. There was no one to listen except Minh and me, and we ignored her. According to her diary ‘I was now so tired I could barely put one foot in front of another. I was getting close to despair, my feet hurt, my legs hurt, I’d had enough.’ She does so go on. 

We got there in the end – to Lynne’s great relief. She posed with Minh for a photograph on the bridge looking ‘fine and smiley.’

Posing on the bridge 'fine and smiley'

Then it dawned on her that to be picked up by a car we had to reach a road and that meant ascending the other side of the valley. It was not a long ascent and a nice, simple concrete path of moderate steepness led straight up the valley side. Minh and I strode upwards and let Lynne proceed at her own pace. I paused to take a photograph of her, ‘Smile,’ I said cheerfully. Lynne however did not have the will. Her diary says ‘I did feel that if I were to drop down dead in the next few moments David should have a last photo to remember me by. I couldn’t raise my head,  I was that tired as I crawled up the slope, but I summoned all my final energy to raise two fingers at the cruel bastard who thought this was some idea of fun!’

Two fingered salute

She made it, still alive and complaining, and Minh phoned for the car.

A tiny old man had followed us up the path. Minh and I were sitting on a boulder when he reached the top and I was flicking through the pictures on my camera. Attracted by the bleeping he came over to have a look. He seemed fascinated by the electronic magic. ‘He says he’s 89,’ Minh said as the old man squatted down to have a better look. My one-year-old grandson can manage that manoeuvre, but I lost such suppleness many years ago. The old man inspected the camera with interest, marvelled briefly at my digital watch and then, as if to prove he really was from another age, opened and closed a zip on Minh’s rucksack as if he was seeing one for the first time. When our car arrived he straightened up with complete ease, while I struggled upright from my boulder.

Electronic magic
We were driven further down the road and found ourselves enveloped in thick mist while the temperature plummeted. After a few miles we took the narrow side road descending steeply towards Ban Dem, the main settlement of Ban Ho ‘village’.

‘Ban Ho is lower and warmer,’ Minh had told us, and he was right. Once we were below the mist the temperature rose pleasantly into the low twenties. The tarmac ran out on the edge of the village so we strolled into the centre where we had a late lunch of  pho bo, noodle soup with beef. Coriander is the usual herb in pho, but on this occasion the soup was strongly flavoured with mint. As I slurped my noodles, I heard the distinctive and not entirely unfamiliar rumble of my grandmother rotating in her grave. A Vietnamese village café was one thing, but to eat beef with mint sauce was clearly a step beyond civilization.

Our home for the night was at the farthest and highest point of the village, which Lynne saw as the straw beyond the last straw.

Our hosts, Mr & Mrs Ut, were an elderly Tay couple who were clearly important within the village. Their large wooden house, set in a substantial garden, was a manorial hall compared with Der’s modest residence. The kitchen, though much larger than at Ta Van, had a similar packed earth floor and an open fire. There was little in the way of kitchen appliances except the usual two ring gas burner.
The Ut's house
Ban Dem

Downstairs was open at the front and had as many tables and chairs as a restaurant. At the back was a curtained off sleeping alcove and a television. The huge single room upstairs was reached by an outside wooden staircase. A dozen mattresses had been laid out on the floor, two of them had been covered with sheets for us. There were stairs up to the gallery where there were more mattresses, one of which was for Minh.

There was a shower room on the back wall and while we made use of that Minh walked back into town to buy some bamboo tips for dinner.

Minh hepls Mrs Ut in the kitchen

There was a carp pond beside the house and large fish could be seen patrolling its milky depths. A little further away was a similar pond on a slightly lower level. A narrow concrete channel fed water from one pond to the other and over it had been erected a sturdy wooden hut. Breeze blocks on either side of the channel provided a place to squat and waste was swept away by the rushing water. As toilets go it was simple and effective and as fragrant as any toilet anywhere. There were carp in the upper pond, carp and crap in the lower pond but nature seemed easily capable of dealing with this low level of pollution. More worrying was the narrow and uneven path between the ponds, but thankfully that was lit at night.

The path between the ponds

Lynne went for a nap and I pottered around for what was left of the afternoon. When she returned we were offered a cup of tea and cakes of banana pounded and boiled in sticky rice and stored in banana leaves. They tasted as appetizing as they looked and neither of us persevered beyond the first bite.

Banana and sticky rice

Dinner was again at 6 o’clock when the sun set. We ate with Minh and the Uts seated at a ‘normal’ table on the terrace. It was basically the same meal as our previous dinner and the two lunches before, but this time with fried bamboo tips rather than cabbage. There were also a large pile of boiled bamboo fronds. These were to be dipped into a paste of pounded herbs collected by Mrs Ut herself. ‘It’s very bitter,’ Minh warned us.  He was right, we both found it too bitter to be enjoyable and judging from the way Minh avoided them he agreed. Mr and Mrs Ut, though, took a different view, slapping the fronds into the paste with vigour and chomping them up with obvious relish. Between them they demolished the whole huge bowl but only picked at the beef and chicken.

Mr Ut also produced a water bottle full of rice wine, a gentler fruitier distillation than Der’s. Glasses were filled, clinked and emptied and then refilled. Minh informed us that, on doctor’s orders, Mr Ut would drink only three glasses as he had a stomach problem but we were free to carry on. After the previous night’s excesses this seemed a good time to call a halt.

Lynne went to bed soon after dinner complaining of sore legs, sore feet, sore everything. Minh and I sat and chatted while the Uts watched television with their granddaughter who had turned up around five o’clock and had been doing homework ever since.

Back to Part 4
Walking the Muong Hoa Valley:Sa Pa to Ta Van

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