Ha Giang Part 3: Meo Vac to Ha Giang

2 motorbikes, 6 days, 350 km driven, endless mountains climbed, 2 exhausted backpackers.

Beautiful as it was, we were ready to hand back in our bikes and have a little R&R in Hanoi. DSC01896

From Meo Vac, we rode to Du Gia, which was in itself a spectacular ride, with mountains jutting out at very steep angles, different from what we had seen before. Du Gia is lower in altitude than what we had been at, so it was starting to get warmer ( around 23 degrees probably) instead of the 15-20 degrees that we had been used to for most of the loop. This is where we had our waterfall adventure (read previous post for more on that) and spent the night on a mattress on the floor of another homestay.

 

 

Homestays are pretty much the only option on the loop. Essentially people have parts of their homes converted into dorm style rooms, or private rooms. They offer “family dinner” where all the guests can eat together and the food was the same everywhere we went: spring rolls, some sort of fatty meat, a leafy green thing, eggs, some potato, maybe tofu or beans, and a big bowl of rice.  All very, very oily.

158338369

The other thing that they have in common, at least the ones we stayed at, was someone blasting karaoke. Either in the house, or next door. Every – single – one. (except our mud hut). Nothing lowers your spirits more than trying to sleep while some off pitch Vietnamese man tries to do his best Mariah Carey impression. Ear plugs do nothing. On our last night it was right below us,  and it shook the floor and the walls. There was no avoiding it. So we joined in and sang a duet trying to read the Vietnamese words as they scrolled across the screen. Our off key voices joining in preventing travelers from sleeping.

And then there are the termites. If the karaoke doesn’t keep you up, then the gnawing of little bugs eating away at the wooden structure you’re sleeping on will. One day those karaoke reverberations are going to shake the termite ridden structure just enough and it will collapse. Try not to think of that when you’re going to sleep in it. 155023864

The Vietnamese also seem to have a liking for rock hard beds. You’re basically sleeping on styrofoam. You can stand on it and you don’t even sink in the slightest.

The ride back from Du Gia to Ha Giang was a rough one. Most people will back track and not complete the loop fully, but we were gung ho to do so. It was a mistake. A very rough and dusty road filled with big dump trucks was how we ended the loop. 70 km took us 6 hours and we arrived back in Ha Giang looking like dusty, exhausted, ghosts.

 

Overall, the loop was filled with amazing experiences, beautiful views and tons of excitement and stories. We want to give a realistic idea of what we’re doing, and that means including some stories of the more difficult things we experience.

As I write this though, we are treating ourselves to a nice hotel in Hanoi, with a real bed that you can sink into, and a bathroom not filled with spiders and other people’s hair. It’s the simple things in life.

 

The Road Not Taken

“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Well Robert Frost, we should have listened to you. And we probably would have, had we seen the path…

We arrived in Du Gia, a small town nestled in a valley surrounded by high peaks, in early afternoon. After finding a homestay, they asked if we wanted to see the waterfall. “Sure!” we said, and one of the locals hopped on his motorbike and showed us the way, bumping along dirt/rock paths at the high speed that only locals can do. We tried our best to keep up. He showed us to a waterfall,  which was quite nice; crystal clear waters, nice little swimming area, and mimed to us to climb up the hill. “Big!” he said, indicating that there was a bigger waterfall, should we only just climb up the hill.

DSC01930

 

So after a short time at the easily reached waterfall we decided to see this “big” waterfall. So we hiked up the hill. Not just any hill, a zig-zag of probably 30 degree incline for about 500 m. No waterfall in sight. It must be further. So we continued on this bulldozed path higher and higher into the mountains.

DSC01957

Soon the bulldozed path turns to more of a mud and dirt path, but it continues, and thus so do we, climbing higher and higher.  You may be thinking “didn’t they realize they were getting further away from the water?”. Yes. Yes we did, but with these mountains you never know whats around the corner and it could be the biggest waterfall ever.

DSC01956.JPG

So around more corners we went, “maybe it’s around the next one…”. We passed a few houses/farms high in the hills, and the children would come and wave. We now carry candy with us for these moments. So after the first bunch of kids (notice the toddler with the baby carrier on her back) we continued on for the elusive waterfall. We didn’t hike all this way not to find it.

About 1.5 km later we came to another bunch of kids. This one had an older boy, maybe 10 years old. We tried our best to say “waterfall” in Vietnamese- he couldn’t read the translation- and eventually he got it. He said, follow him, and away we went, further and further away from our motorbikes at the first waterfall. We’re now at least 5 km in and at the top of a mountain. Eventually he leads us to a small stream with a measly waterfall and motions that we can keep climbing.

We’ve now hiked for about 1.5 hours to try and find this thing, and the path is quite treacherous and looks to get even more so. We cut our losses and give the kids jelly beans for their accompaniment. We eat some ourselves for nourishment to start the journey back down the mountain.

We are almost back to the start when about half way up the initial hill we notice a small path off the main one that we hadn’t seen before. It goes right beside the river. We walk maybe 100m and there it is. The “big” waterfall. Literally upstream maybe 200m from where we were initially.

DSC01981
This is the path we missed, and the path we took.

We jumped in to wash of fthe mud and sweat from our trek through the mountains, chalking the whole thing up to a good workout and a good story.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both”

Well, we did travel both, but lesson learned- keep your eyes peeled for where they diverge in the first place.

 

Down by the River

Imagine yourself walking on a thin, precarious path that hugs to the side of a steep cliff. There are loose rocks beneath your feet and segments of the trail that lay ahead have completely eroded. Your clothing is damp with sweat because of the strenuous climb. You glance around looking for something solid to grab to in case you slip but nothing substantial is near; you’re surrounded by grass and measly shrubs. Further ahead, just before the trail disappears around a bend, a small Vietnamese man in flip flops is eagerly waiting for you and waving for you to follow. Far below, at the base of the cliff, is a river and a massive hydroelectric dam. You begin thinking: “there’s no way this is legal”. You also think: “I need to start reevaluating my life choices”…

DSC01874

Let rewind to the beginning of this saga. Our homestay owner suggested we do a boat cruise (yes, boat cruise means something different to us too) along the gorgeous river that runs beside Meo Vac. There was some broken explanation about the dam and having to navigate around it. We didn’t pry much and decided to go on the exotic excursion. We motorbiked down to our meeting point which was beside the dam. There were two other couples: one French and the other German. A stout Vietnamese man emerged from a trail that snaked along the bank beside the dam. He didn’t speak a word of English but gestured for us to follow him. We began scaling the path which was rough but manageable. The trail significantly deteriorated. All of the pudgy, tall tourists (including us) started glancing at each other for reassurance that this wasn’t a stupid decision.

DSC01845

After a very dangerous trek we finally reached a small beach area. Pulled ashore was an old metal boat and beside it a squatting, middle aged, Vietnamese man. We all thought the same thing: “Boat cruise may be an overstatement”. The man seems to be in charge and distributed life jackets (safety first, of course). We herd onto the boat and begin our “boat cruise”. We’re instructed DSC01836not to move otherwise we could capsize. The boat ride is phenomenally beautiful. Think Grand Canyon but with more vegetation. After some time we are dropped at a tributary to the main river which has waterfalls and rapids. All the tourists explore, play and take pictures.

 

When it seems time to return home we are informed about a very rural village that we are going to trek to. No one objects and we follow our stout guide up on another trail. After another intense climb we enter a rural village. It felt like stepping back in time. A proper village with chickens, pigs, shacks, puppies, bees, mud huts, bamboo roofs, and a dilapidated state that can’t be faked. The children were too timid to even come to us.

Nearly 3 hours after departing everyone is itching to start making our way back. The guide seems to be stalling the visit and is having conversations on his tiny Nokia phone. At one point everyone was standing around just starring at him with a “what next?” feeling. Eventually, we made our way back to the river boat and floated down to the dam. As we approached the beach where we had set off from we noticed a group of people waiting for us. Once they were clear enough to distinguish we realized we were in trouble. A military style boat accompanied them and they were dressed in the classic Soviet – era attire (dark green and tan uniforms with large military hats and star emblems). A heated Vietnamese conversation ensued while we shuffled off the boat. Our driver looked indignant while our guide seemed sheepish. Now the covert attitude that our guide had relayed all seemed to make sense. There was tension in the air as we all stood on the river bank and listened to the tone of the conversion. Suddenly a phone call was made to someone who seemed important because as the phone was hung up we were allowed to leave. We scrambled our way back across the illegal route we had taken with one of the visitors falling face first into mud. At the motorbikes we were informed of the details: yes, we were engaging in illegal activity but someone knew a government official who gave us a free pass. Whew, what a “boat cruise”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ha Giang: Part 2- Quan Ba to Meo Vac

It’s becoming a routine, wake up, have some breakfast, pack our bags, strap them to our motorbikes, and hit the road. What’s not routine are the startling views that hit you with a punch around every corner (or maybe that’s the jolt of nerves when there’s another speeding motorbike coming at you).

 

 

 

With every curve in the road comes some beautiful new landscape that’s more gorgeous than the last. The winding roads lead you up and down mountains, through rice terraces, corn fields, villages and onto the high ledges of rock faces.

 

At one moment you’re driving through jungle like foliage and the next you’re looking out at a valley that extends for miles in every direction, with a green river snaking between the mountains.

 

 

 

For good reason, this is a UNESCO Global Geopark. It also is home to 17 ethnic minority groups (some of which you’ve already seen in the blog). Tourism is just starting in this area, only really having foreigners come for about 5 years now. I’m very happy that we’re getting to do it now because the more people find out about this beautiful place, the more it will change. You can already see some signs of change. We were stopped on the side of the mountain and some children were coming down on a bicycle. They stopped when they saw us and we attempted to have a conversation with one of the kids. He wasn’t interested, only saying “Mun hee” and rubbing his fingers together. In an instant, the innocence of the situation vanished. Luckily this is a rare thing, as all of the other children we have stopped and spoken to have been interesting, friendly and overall quite delightful.

 

 

A short post, but really, photos say it better than anything (and even they don’t do it justice).

 

DSC01643

 

 

 

 

The other side of the Mountain

Although the internet is a wealth of knowledge about where to go, what to do and see, there is something to be said about going out with no plan and seeing where the road takes you. With motorbikes at our disposal, cheap gas, and no plans, we left our bags at our hostel and started out on a road. It may seem like a strange thing to do but here you really never know what’s on the other side of the mountain.

 

High in the hills near Meo Vac are small villages nestled among jagged rock jutting out of the mountains at such angles it looks like they’re razors coming out of the earth. If it’s not hard enough to believe that they live here, then imagining FARMING here. It really depicts the resilience of humans. Corn, tea, herbs, and long leaves are grown and harvested, dried and carried for miles on the curvy mountain roads on the back of small, disfigured women. Cows, pigs and chickens can be found on the road, tied to something near the front door of their houses.

 

Our road of choice lead us to a H’mong village. Where the road ends is the entrance of a school. I think we happened to arrive shortly after school was let out. We caused a bit of a ruckus, two white people arriving on shiny, new motorbikes. The children were very shy, heavily starring from afar. Maybe one in 15 would wave back at us when we smiled and said “Hello!”. Small kids played with rocks on the road, trying to break them in two, or in the dirt in front of their homes. They wore traditional H’mong dress of brightly covered skirt and pants, and many of the children had World Vision jackets (so I am assuming they are sponsored by them).

 

Enamoured by their shyness we found a small shop, bought candy and went back to distribute the sugar. We know children can’t resist that. And such was our very own Halloween; Except we were the ones who looked funny and everyone stared at, and we were also the ones giving out candy.

 

With the candy the crowds grew bigger. Some were very open to taking candy from our hands, while others we had to place at their feet before they would touch it. Almost all of them were very hesitant to get their photos taken, either running away or turning their backs when I brought out my camera.

 

In the end I think we won them over, candy will do that. We smiled and waved as we sped off on our bikes, smiling that maybe our presence will give them something to talk about around the dinner table tonight. I’m sure we’ll be talking about it for many years to come.DSC01733

Quan Ba, Ha Giang (Part 1)

Dear Mom(s),

Sorry. We’ve decided to rent motorbikes and explore the Vietnamese countryside. It all started with a 6 hour bus ride from Hanoi, Vietnam. Winding our way through the mountainous terrain, the bus driver spent most of his time in the wrong lane. He beeped and flashed his high beams incessantly. Most of his focus seemed to be occupied by his Vietnamese Idol show or one of his two cell phones. At one point he had both phones…I’ll just skip the details, you get the idea. We made really good time though, beating Google’s predicted duration by 30 minutes even with a half hour dinner stop. Cheryl, Happy Birthday. We realize this likely isn’t the gift you were hoping for. The timing is totally coincidental.

Ha Giang is in northern rural Vietnam and has become a haven for motorcycle enthusiasts brave enough to travel its roads. The roads range from rough to treacherous. The landscape in this region is breathtakingly beautiful as you will see from the photos. Jagged cliff faces, rolling hills, steep mountains, lush jungle foliage, and fantastic views. We rented small (110cc) but adequate motorbikes. Leaving Ha Giang in our dust we made our way through the villages and hamlets that make up this region. It seemed our bus driver was not unique in his driving style. The local buses here are like battering rams that plow their way through everything. They have a specific honks, sounding similar to a turkey gobble. Their appearance is weathered, ragged, and worn. Often large portions of them are held together with cardboard and clear tape. When you hear that distant gobble, you find a shoulder to hide on until they pass.

As we ascended into this province, the temperature dropped and the air became clean and crisp. Wood stoves are used for heating here and the smoke leaves a nice smell. Everywhere you look are rice paddies with ducks, yaks and attentive farmers with a bamboo hats. Rivers snake through the jungle and trickle freshwater into the green fields. It looks like something out of a storybook.

After arriving in the town of Quan Ba we began looking for accommodation. When you get this rural the selection is limited; most towns will only offer home stays (a local family’s house). A home stay it is! We navigated a dirt path for 4km and finally reached our resting place. The home is situated at the end of a long, curvy driveway. It has large columns with a concrete foundation and is painted yellow. We are greeted by an elderly lady and what appears to be her grandson. They’re both dressed in traditional garb and the youngster is sporting a elaborately embroidered hat. Using Google translate (something we have relied heavily on) we managed to discuss the pricing and the boy’s mother shows us to our private room. The room is inside a mud hut which is situated at the top of a valley. The view is fantastic and is really a snapshot of all that is great with this place.

We are asked to join the family for dinner (for a small fee). We readily agree. Dinner consists of the whole gang – from grandma to baby – and the duck from the rice paddy. We gather around the table and begin with a cheers (sounds like “juicy quay” – Google says it means good health – we’ll take that). And then there are more “juicy quays”. And then more. We chase the rice liquor with spring rolls but they keep coming. We’re too Canadian to refuse the drinks so intoxication is our only option. For dessert we are served steamed peanuts and bananas. Greasy and full of peanuts and liquor we waddle back to our mud hut. It’s been a good day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Embrace the Confusion

A symphony of engines, humming a tune that crescendos as the light turns green and they speed on. Horns pierce the air like crashing cymbals. Exhaust fumes fill the air and mix with oriental spices leaving a specific aroma. A romantic way to look at the hectic, swarms of mopeds and motorbikes that makeup the streets of Hanoi.

Although it is sort of like a dance, watching them move about. Crisscrossing like square dancers, circle left, do-si-do and promenade, all moving somewhat seamlessly across intersections while dodging pedestrians, tour buses, taxi cabs, animals, and the onslaught of motorbikes coming from the other direction.

Mopeds are definitely the most popular and easiest way to get around. The streets are littered with them both on and off the roads. Motorbike parking takes up every sidewalk and storefront and in busy areas motorbike parking attendants will take your bike, squeeze it in somewhere and give you a tag like a coat check. DSC01369

Sound like something that you would want to try? Well, when in Vietnam! Our AirBnB had an old moped for rent for $5 a day so we figured that we’d try it and if it’s too crazy, no harm done. Mark set off on his own for a while to get the feel of the roads before coming back to put me on the back. It’s not uncommon to witness one or more passengers dangling off the back of one of these things. The most I’ve seen so far is 4 people. Everything from two girls sidesaddle, a toddler standing up squeezed in between parents, cellphones, chickens, balloons and this kid (below) calmly eating an ice cream cone.

It’s not actually so bad. You follow the swarms, and you almost feel safer on the bike than as a pedestrian (thanks to Mark’s great driving skills). Trying to cross the road walking is a feat in itself. Even if there is a “walk” sign at a traffic light, that doesn’t mean the traffic stops. It never stops. As you look out into the typhoon of mopeds, you briefly consider living out the rest of your existence on this side of the road. Finally you summon the courage to slowly step off the curb and meander into the street, letting the hoards of bikes swarm around you like water around rock. The pace is crucial, too fast and they don’t veer in time, too slow they honk and don’t veer at the right angle. When all else fails, wait for a local and go when they go; we’re talking full on human shield.

A welcome relief comes every weekend, where some of the streets in the Old Quarter get blocked off and it becomes a pedestrian centre, with performers, stalls and food vendors. What it also creates is an excellent opportunity for young kids to go up to those foreigners wandering about and practice their English.

We were approached by a woman with two girls, who wanted to practice their English skills. Aged 6 and 13, these girls chatted with us for about 15 minutes using a binder of English/Vietnamese phrases as a guide. It was a lot of fun, learning about them and telling them about ourselves. So much so that we walked around more to try and get approached again. We did, this time by 3 kids about 12 years old, who lived in small village about 45 minutes away from Hanoi. They said they come into the city every weekend to come and talk with tourists to practice their English skills. These kids were much more advanced than the last, being able to speak quite freely with no assistance. Besides practicing with strangers, my girl said she watched Tom and Jerry cartoons and Mr. Bean to learn English. Her aspiration was to become an English teacher and her dream was to study at Oxford University in England. An obviously bright girl, with great courage and ambition randomly speaking to strangers in a foreign tongue. I hope her dreams come true.DSC01431