A lonely journey in the Northeast
For some time, I have wanted to immerse myself in nature and daily life in the Northeast. I travel there accompanied only by a tourist map I bought in Ha Giang and my own courage.
Quan Ba – Heaven’s Gate and the Twins Mountain
It’s more than 40km from Ha Giang city to Quan Ba. I start the journey after a good nap. The sun and wind meet harmoniously at sharp bendsin the crooked mountain passes. During Tet holiday, the mountain people wearbeautiful, colorful traditional costumes. Girls in traditional dressesand boys wearing berets gather at the market or visit houses on foot or by motorbike. There’s a comfortable, informal atmosphere as they serve simple dishes washed down with corn wine. They chat happily and the boys flirt with the pink-cheeked girls.
Quan Ba (Heaven’s Gate),1500m above sea level,used to be designated a “self-governing area” of the Meo ethnic group. From the gate, we can see the Twins mountain amongthe white mountain range,surrounded by magnificent terraced fields. I stay in a house of the H’Mong ethnic group on the mountain pass from Quan Ba to Dong Van. Theplot is divided into areas for variousmembers of the family:the wooden house is for the father, Phu, 54 years old; nearby stands the house of the mother and two daughters. The construction was subsidised by the government. I stay in the mother’s house. Their Tet meals are full of specially prepared pork, which has been marinated in spices since 28th December – a full lunar month. The home-made dish is delicious, if a little salty. In the evening, they let me sleep on the small bed while the three of them sleep on a thick cushion. We are all kept awake by their niece crying and coughing.
In the following morning, I pay for the scarf I bought the previous night and give their kids lucky Tet money. I thank them for their hospitality and continue my journey.
Dong Van, where the rocks grow bigger
I continue riding through the sharp bendsof the mountain road. Sometimes I shout to listen to the echoes from the mountains and forests or hum pop songs to dispel my loneliness. My next destination is Dong Van. Here, people say “Live among the rocks and die among the rocks.” Dong Van is an astonishingly beautiful but harsh natural environment. Onthe roadside or mountainside, rocks are used to make solid but picturesque walls to protect the houses. It makes an appealing image.
Building houses on the rocky plateau is a sophisticated art. Firstly, local people have to blast away the rocks with explosives to create space, and then blast underground to start the foundations. Some houses are made of wood, some of soil and straw. These traditional structures of the H’Mong people display the unique culture of this mountainous region. The houses are carefully constructed by skilled artisans. They can hold heat. Although the weather conditions outside are extreme, they maintain a comfortable temperature in both winter and summer. Building a house is also a chance for people to help each other. They share a meal when the construction is finished.
I choose to stay in a local house overlooking the rocky valley. A zigzag road runs to the mountain slope, then down to the valley,vanishing in the far distance. The house owners are a young couple, born in 1992. They feed more than 10 hives of mint bees in the garden. Pointing to their peach and plum trees, the young owner smiles and says that these trees will bloom brightly within 10 days. I’m sorry I won’t have a chance to see this place filled with white and pink flowers.
I enjoy a Tet meal with them, along with some of their H’Mong relatives and friends. I cannot understand their stories, told in a mixture of H’Mong and Vietnamese, but I can feel the happiness in every cup of wine and their smiling eyes. I ask the owner about his child, who has a cold. He says that “my child will be fine. He doesn’t need any medicine.” I worry how long it will take the child to recover in such a cold, windy, foggy place. When night falls, I fit my relatively huge body into a narrow bed. I fall into a deep sleep against the background noises of the child coughing and the trees rustling in the mountains.
Sailing a raft across Nho Que river
Saying farewell to the little house in the rugged rocks, I have the opportunity to welcome the sunrise in the morning dew on Happiness street. The colder the road to Ma Pi Leng is, the hotter the way down to Meo Vac and To Du feels.
At noon, I stop by a small roadside restaurant in front of Nhiem river, which flows between Ha Giang and Cao Bang. I am lucky enough to be invited for lunch by two sisters from the Giay ethnic group. From this place, I have two options for my next leg: riding 130km back to Ha Giang, or following the road past Que Sang to Na Pinh and taking the raft across Nho Que river to enjoy it in its most charming season. Naturally, this lone travelertakes the second option.
It’s only 7km from the national road to Na Pinh village. However, in the scorching sunshine, crossing the rugged red earth road is a torture. As soon as I arrive in the village, I realize that the river is dry during this season and I’ll have to travel another 20km to take the raft to Cao Bang. I’m worried by the 20km of road ahead, but I have no reason to go back.
I feel totally exhausted, my eyes filled with dust and my hands numb on the handlebars, when the turquoise river appears ahead. I can’t help exclaiming to myself, “Fantastic! Wonderful!” All my tiredness is swept away and replaced by the sublime feeling that my tortuous journey hasbeen worthwhile.
The father and son from the Nung ethnic group who sail the raft have 10 years’ experience crossing the river. Made from thirteen bamboo poles, the raftflows gently across. I cannot describe my excitement and satisfaction in words - my dream has come true. I resolve to find the right words to tell my friends when I get home, but the powerful emotions overwhelm any specific memories.
I get off the raft and wander for a while.The sun is setting behind the mountain and the darkness spreading over the trails makes me worry that I might not be able to find accommodation, and will have to return to the old road.That would be dangerous for both me and my motorbike.
Fortunately, I am able to stay with a family whose father is a teacher at the schoolnearby. This is the last and also the happiest night of my entire journey.We gather around a simple meal with unlimited wine. The wine soaks into my tired body after a long day struggling with crooked mountain roads. I fall into a sound sleep.
Back to the Gam river
On the last morning of my journey, I wake up as the sun spreads its first rays through the old house. I gratefully accept a small breakfast from the homeowner and promise to return. I say goodbye andbegin the last leg of the journey. I pass by Bao Lac, Bao Lam, Cao Bang and then Bac Me. Enjoying the challenge of riding alone ontwistingroads with a cliff on one side and the blue Gam river on the other side, I breathe the cold air and soak up the sweet flavor of the morning sunshine. Then, when the sun rises higher, I look up to the sky and smile with satisfaction and simple joy.
It has been truly said that traveling is not just about traveling, but also develops the character.
- To travel to Ha Giang, visitors can take a bus from 21:00 – 22:00 every day at My Dinh or Giap Bat station for 300,000 – 500,000VND/person. After that, you can hire a motorbike from Ha Giang city to ride to other attractions such as Lung Cu, Dong Van, Xin Man and Hoang Su Phi. Rental price: 200,000 – 300,000VND/day.
- The most challenging experience in Ha Giang is the narrow, zigzag paths. Therefore, you are advised to be very careful when traveling along these roads.
- Temperaturesin these mountainous areas may be very low in winter and very high in summer. Visitors should bring warm clothes or sunscreen.
Text and photos: Doan Manh / vntravelive.com