Backpacking Northern Vietnam Part II – Bac Ha and the surrounding minority villages

January 29th, 2017


You might say we chose a less than optimal time of year to travel from China to Vietnam, because not only was the whole of China on the move, Vietnam also was amidst the New Year celebrations, which is more commonly known as TET. Since we have never been to Vietnam before and did not have any particular expectations, I have to admit we did not notice the effects of the holidays all that much. We might have been able to make more frequent use of public transportation instead of having to rely on private cars to go somewhere. But since neither of us speaks or reads Vietnamese, and the results of our online research suggested that especially the far North does not have a formally organized bus schedule yet, it might have been our vehicle of choice no matter what. That is also why we were greeted by a private driver the moment we made it over the border and entered Vietnam, which was fairly straight forward to organize: During the travel preparations we contacted one of the suggested (and tested) hotels in Bac Ha and the owner, Mr. Dong, turned out to be a very valuable contact in the Vietnamese hinterland. He confirmed that no buses would be serviced during the TET and offered to help us organize a car from the Chinese-Vietnamese border into Bac Ha. Admittedly not the cheapest way to take on the 90 minutes drive over narrow and winding country roads, but an earned luxury after the 5 hours train ride to get here. And indeed, we did not see a public bus until three days later when the holidays came to a slow end.

The first night we slept a few kilometer outside of Bac Ha in a rural homestay. Virtually all hotels in the main part of town were closed for the holidays anyway, and the cute Vietnamese family of four that took us in welcomed us into one of their newly renovated rooms. Although this wasn’t a standard hotel (or even hostel) room, it strikingly demonstrated how scarce the living conditions up in Northern Vietnam are. And yet, our room was clean and furnished with a matress on the floor and a thick blanket with two cushions. That was it – no other furniture. A tour around the house reveiled that the homestay owners had a similar bedroom, which they shared with their two children. The building’s roof was covered with palm leaves, the windows had no glass and the door to our room could only be closed with a small padlock. We shared a wet cell with the owners, which to our surprise had a western style toilet but no shower, just a tube that could be fitted onto the faucet.

Dinner with our local hosts in Bac Ha.

The cooking fire was built in an adjecent building, and was fueled with bamboo, which as we learned is not only the main building material but is used in almost every aspect of life as well. In the evening, our host family invited us to a generous dinner with them and we had the chance to meet other relatives that lived a few houses away and came over for the joint meal. Unlike many other Asian countries that we visited so far, where people tend to stay awake way after nightfall, bed time in Bac Ha came at around 11pm, and everyone retreated into their own homes/rooms. I didn’t expect to sleep well, because I was not aware that the temperatures would drop so steeply after dark, but have to admit that I had a chilly, but pleasant night.


Our hosts and the owners of the Highland Homestay.

The next day we planned to hire a trekking guide to explore the mountain ranges and small minority villages of this part of the country. Since the family with whom we stayed the first night drew their main income from tourism, we hoped that someone we already met would also be able to show us the hinterland. So when our young host (and father of the two curious kids) offered us his tour guide services, we gladly accepted. We set out early and took the steep mud trail up and into the hills. Thick clouds of early morning mist obscured our view and added an eery flair to the landscape. Sometimes the clouds would allow a few glimpses of the fields and valleys far below, while at other times we lost each other out of sight only meters apart.

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After an hour and a half of ascending and descending misty mountains, we arrived in the first small minority village. The harsh landscape and farming conditions have made water buffalos an indispensible help not only for farming, but as a general lifestock and family investment as well. They were the dominant sights in all the small villages we walked through. The people we met mostly kept to themselves and stayed in small group among themselves, with a clear distinction of gender roles. While the women tended after the children or stood together and chatted, the men played games or drank high volume corn liquor. As for the drinking, the way this worked was that one person would invite another one to raise their glass with them, drowning the liquor all in one shot and then shake hands. As guests we were asked to drink shots of the homemade booze together with the men, while the women stayed in the kitchen and mostly remained out of sight. I felt a little bit out of place among all the men, and I still wonder if they made an exception and allowed me to drink with them. Unfortunately, the men would not agree to shake hands with us unless we drank the whole glass in one draw. We tried our best to dodge the majority of the glasses going around, but ended up pretty tipsy when we continued our hike some time later.

Risky Business – Construction work in China

Summer Staples – Fresh Watermelon Juice with Mint

During the summer month, most local fruit markets all over the city offer watermelons either by the slice or as a whole. A 5 kg melon cost around 3 € and can be “squeezed” into three litres of juice. Chilled down with ice cubes and touched up with a few mint leaves its the perfect drink for your sunday breakfast.

Food Frenzy at Tairyo Tepanyaki

An afterwork friday night food frenzy at a tepanyaki restaurant in Sanlitun by definition makes you wish you had more than one stomach to fill – it’s just so good. Obviously, an All You Can Eat & Drink deal doesn’t help in preventing an overkill of fresh prawns, scallops, sashimi, lamb chops, steak, and all the other good stuff that is showcooked right in front of our taste buds. The saddest moment comes when the waitress announces the last round before closing time and you find yourself leaving the restaurant together with the staff.


Cheetah Scooters and Beijing Bellies

The Eastern Qing Tombs and Dowager Empress Cixi’s Final Resting Place

Sunday, 30th of April 2017


Strolling towards the tombs of one of the most powerful women of the Qing dynasty – the dowager empress Cixi.


Weekends are for daytripping – at the end of last month that motto brought us to the Eastern Qing Tombs in Zunhua, almost 130km northeast of the Jing in the province of Hebei. Since online research suggested that regular public transportation wasn’t an option we went to Qianmen to buy a bus ticket with one of the public tourism companies a day in advance. We must have scored two of the last tickets, because early the next morning when we entered the bus, almost all the seats were taken. Five hours later, when we finally arrived at the Qing Tombs, we definitly learned some lessons:

  • Always arrive some 30 minutes ahead of time if you want to have adjecent seats

    I’m not gonna translate that (go ahead and use the translator)

    in the bus (that one should go without saying, and it proved to be true once more);

  • Boiled eggs are a type of “fast food” snack in China and a fart-like smell that creeps through the centre aisle does not necessarily mean that somebody couldn’t restrain themselves;
  • No matter how innocent an intersection looks, you can be almost certain that traffic will jam for miles nonetheless (giving you the time to stretch your legs and buy some ice cream at a rural 小卖部);
  • If you didn’t think about “doing your business” before the trip, you better be prepared to pay 10 Kuai to use the roadside thunderbox for a No. 2.
  • Never trust that the bus driver knows the way – even after continously consulting his cell phone map, he chose a road that allowed only vehicles no taller than 2.9m (yes, a long distance bus is taller than that). Luckily, pragmatism wins, and ten minutes after being stuck here a

    Our bus driver didn’t agree with the hight limitation of the road he chose, so he asked the gatekeeper to lift it.

    chubby gatekeeper arrived to ramp up the steel barrier and let us pass.


Exploring the Qing Tombs

The burial site was too large to see it all in three hours, and we will definitly come here again with a rental car. Along the way many locals offered rural homestays for rent, so it might even be an option to make this a weekend trip. The imperial mausoleum complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and requires a whole day of sightseeing if you want to see it all. On the tomb grounds, shuttle buses and golf caddies transport visitors from one grave to the next.

Again, I have embarrassingly little to write about the historic significance of the Qing Tombs. In fact, I am still waiting to discover a tourist site in China that actually has meaningful descriptions that provide some background information about the place you are visiting. So instead of paraphrasing Wikipedia I trust that the images convey the grandeur and splendor of the Qing Tombs. Enjoy.

At the entrance to the expansive tomb grounds ponds with water lilies and marble bridges greet the visitors.

Three gates granting access to the necropolis of the Qing emperors. The left (eastern) gate is the entrance gate for the emperor, whereas the west gate was used by the ministers. The coffin was carried through the center gate.

The Eastern Qing Tombs.

Yu Tomb (Qian Long) Stone Tributes, representing an altar with an oven, two candle holders and two vases on it. It was used to worship the ancestors. During the Qing dynasty, the royal harem could go no further than here.

Yuling, the tomb of the Qianlong emperor is one of the most magnificient royal graves in Chinese history. A series of nine vaults separated by four solid marble doors, weighting 3 tons each, are located at a depth of 54 metres. In 1928 the underground palace was robbed by the warlord Sun Dianying.

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Down below in the Yuling tombs, all the walls, vaulted ceilings, and gates are covered with Buddhist imagery and more than 30,000 words of Tibetan scripture and Sanskrit.

Reenactment of a royal ceremony.

Marble bridges leading to the Xiao Tombs Tablet Tower. The double eave gablet roof covers the tablet on which Emperor Shun Zhi’s title is carved in three languages – Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese.

Cixi Tomb Small Tablet Tower.

Looking down from the Ming Tower of Cixi’s Tomb, the highest site of the mausoleum.

Below, the grave grounds span all the way to the mountains.