Backpacking Northern Vietnam IV – Three day motorbike tour to Meo Vac

29.01.2017 – 30.01.2017

So here is the fourth part of our travel documentary from Northern Vietnam at the beginning of this year (2017). In the last blog entry we were still discovering Bac Ha and the trekking routes around that small village with our local guide. We stayed one more night in “downtown” Bac Ha in the Ngan Nga hotel to discover the village a little more.

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The roadtrip, 31.01.2017 – 02.02.2017

A map of the route from Bac Ha to Ha Giang.

Since we were still travelling during the Vietnamese New Year, we had to be a little inventive to get all the way from Bac Ha further up north to Ha Giang. Again, Mr. Dong proved to be a very helpful contact who organized a private shuttle bus with driver in less than 24 hours before the trip. Drawing a linear line from one city to the other, the distance might be less than 80km. In this part of the world these units mean little though. First of all, there is no straight route connecting the one place with the other. There are very few streets passing through the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and even fewer that are accessible with anything else than a heavy-duty motorbike. Most of the streets are mere dirt paths with potholes the size of small swimming pools and our vehicle had to drive at under 30km/h average in order not to break down or get stuck in the muddy mess the spring rains caused. Needless to say there are no highways here, so it took us the better half of a day to make it up to Ha Giang. Once there, we took a room in the Cao Nguyen hotel and asked the receptionist to help us apply for a travel permit into the frontier regions of the north.

The travel permit officially allowing us to enter the frontier regions bordering Southern China.

Since it was only allowed fairly recently for foreigners to access the mountains bordering the People’s Republic of China we were thrilled to have the opportunity to visit. When it was time to rent a scooter for the roadtrip, the girl at the reception of our hotel was very helpful again, renting us her uncle’s motorbike for around 8€ per day. She made sure it had a comfortable seat that was large enough to fit two people plus backpack. Next, we went to a mobile phone store and tried to buy a SIM card with mobile data so we could access online maps during the trip. Unfortunately, they were sold out (or that is what we thought we understood the sales person said) and in the end the receptionist provided us with a mobile phone card. Right in front of our hotel a street market wound its way a kilometer up the road and we spent the evening before our trip buying fruit for the tour and discovering Ha Giang a little more. Very early the next morning we left most of our luggage with the hotel and only took one backpack with clothes for three days with us. Since we did not pay a deposit for the scooter, I guess this also served as a form of security for our return.


Photo documentary of our roadtrip from Ha Giang to Tam Son, over Yen Minh and Dong Van all the way up to Meo Vac and back.

 


The Vuong Palace and the past glory of the H’mong people

On the way to Dong Van we stopped by the Vuong Palace, a two-storey mansion built for the local H’mong king. In the 20th century, this old mansion was once home to an influential family headed by a powerful don. Up there in the mountains, where buildings tend to be small and practical, this structure takes a very special place in the landscape. The road winds down into the valley, so we expected to see the palace from a distance. But since it was built in a turbulent era and had to be protected from enemies, a small forest of trees was planted all around to hide it from view. Relatively speaking the place isn’t large and you would probably have overlooked it in any other context. In the mountain ranges of Ha Giang province though its quite a unique sight. Built in a Chinese courtyard style with a communal open-air space in the middle, the four “wings” on each side house more than 60 small rooms, some of which have secret passages that connect the whole structure. Some of the doorways were tiny, and even though the people who used to live here were probably smaller, I still have to wonder if they had to tuck in their heads to pass through like us.

With fresh snacks in our backpack we continued our roadtrip up north. The landscape became steeper still and the mountain road twisted and turned around the conical hills. Except for the occasional car we only encountered people on motor bikes or walking on foot alongside the street. I often asked myself what the people on the other bikes where doing today and what purpose they had driving or walking along this road that day. This being the only way through this region some of them might have traveled between the few larger villages, maybe from Tam Son to Yenh Min, or even farther up all the way to Dong Van to visit family. Some people obviously went grocery shopping, one couple even carrying a live chicken bound with a rope around its feet to the backseat of their motorbike. Every few hours the public mini bus would pass us by, speeding along the dirt round and announcing its arrival before every corner with a honk from its horn. That is what every one did to make sure they were not run over by oncoming traffic, so every time we made a turn – which was more often than not – we also sounded our horn. The best thing about doing this trip on a scooter rather than by public transportation was that we were free to stop whenever we felt like it. Since it was early in the year, it was still quite cold and my knees would freeze stiff when I sat too long on the bike. Even without that excuse to take a break every once in a while, it gave us the possibility to take in the landscape whenever we saw something interesting. Sometimes that would be a small stonepark long the street, or like in the pictures above a street market popped up on an intersection of the road. But most often it was simply the breathtaking views over the misty mountain ranges that made us hit the breaks and simply enjoy the nature.

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The Wild Wild West – Yungang Grottoes, Hanging Monastery & the Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda in Datong

Dragon Boat Festival 2017 – May 26th to May 29th

In May, an extended weekend during Chinese Dragon Boat Festival provided the opportunity for another roadtrip. Since we already been to Pingyao, we decided to discover the rest of Shanxi province and visit the city of Datong. Usually, an extra holiday has to be made up for with a working saturday, but luckily we had enough overtime (and understanding bosses) that we got four consecutive days to spend on the road. Friday evening Jelte went to Dongzhimen to pick up the car so that we could be on our way later that night in high hopes to dodge the majority of the holiday traffic. Although the streets of Beijing are always overcrowded with people, bikes, motorcycles, and cars, it actually payed off to make the extra effort and get started right after work, because we managed to arrive in Datong at around 1 am early the next morning and get some sleep in the Holiday Inn. Our sightseeing itinerary consisted of three major sights: first, the UNESCO World Heritage Sight of the Yungang Grottoes, the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China. Then the Hanging Monastery which was built into a cliff and is supported by long wooden stilts, and lastly the Yingxian Padoga, the world’s oldest and tallest wooden pagoda.


Big buddhas, carved caves &  ancient artists – The Yungang Grottoes 云岗石窟

During the Northern Wei dynasty Datong was declared their capital and buddhism was developed from a minority religion to a major following. In the course of this expansion, the construction of these buddhist caves commenced in 460 A.D. and continued for more than 65 years. It can be seperated in three building phases: while the first phase was led by the monch Tan Yao who led the contruction of the five biggest caves, the second wave is remarkable for its twin and triplet caves. The third phase focussed on smaller caves and niches in which statues of buddha and other religious entities reside.


Climbing a (formely) firebreathing mountain – The Datong Volcanic cluster 大同火山群景区简介

A lesson we learned well then was that a detour isn’t always a bad thing. If we had followed the navigational system’s advice and hadn’t missed our exit on the way to the Hanging Monastery we would probably never visited the Datong volcanoes. It seems to become kind of a theme of our travels that we visit (or in this case accidentily stumble upon) a national geopark of some sort (see for example our trip to Inner Mongolia and the Hexingten Stone Forest). Here, over an area of around 77 km2  a group of 17 cinder cones are the main geological marker. We are pretty sure we climbed to the top of Hei Shan (Black Hill), the largest of the volcano group at an altitude of 1430m. It was sourrounded with deep trenches, which fractured the landscape into several pieces and could best be seen from the top of the Black Hill. It’s foot was covered with ancient frozen lava debries, of which even the larger pieces weighted less than one would expect, because they are riddled with air veins.


The Hanging Monastery 悬空寺

With the Yungang caves we got lucky because we visited them on the working saturday before the Dragon Boat Festival. Unfortunately, the following sunday we went to the Hanging Monastery was already a holiday, so naturally the place was swarming with tourists. Still the buidlings clinging to the face of the mountain were an impressive sight and were worth the 1 hour wait to get in.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival 2017!!

One of the things I love most about traveling in China is that at most sights, supplies are still fairly cheap to buy. Since we lost some time on our detour to the volcanoes, we decided to get something to eat for lunch before entering the Hanging Monasteries. As I already mentioned we went there during Dragon Boat Festival, so the traditional thing to eat are Zongzi, which is sticky rice usually filled with dried dates wrapped in banana leaves and pressed into a triangular shape. They are then steamed and served warm or cold right out of the their leafy packages.


For the time of our trip, we made Datong our basecamp and returned there after each sightseeing trip. A surprising sitenote about the city is the fact that – much like Pingyao – Datong also has a massive and intact city wall that is beautifully lit up after sundown. Built in 1372, it has a total length of 6.5 km and although we didn’t find the entrance, we’ve seen people walk on top of it.


Sakyamuni Pagoda 佛宫寺释迦塔 – The world’s largest wooden pagoda

As part of the Fogong Temple, the Sakyamuni (or Muta) pagoda was built in 1056 in Yingxian County. It is the oldest and tallest existent fully wooden multi-storey building still standing in China, and the world. From the exterior, the pagoda seems to have only five stories and two sets of rooftop eaves for the first story, yet the pagoda’s interior reveals that it has nine stories in all. Unfortunately visitors are no longer allowed to climb the octagonal structure, so we had to make due with a look from the outside. However, the ground floor was opened to the public and contains a very tall sitting Buddha statue. Not yet under UNESCO World heritage protection, the pagoda is almost a thousand years old and reaches a hight of close to 70m.


After visiting the Sakyamuni pagoda, we decided to head back home to Beijing again. As we had to check the mobile app for directions, we stopped on a small parking lot next to the road. An ironic reminder of the current brick up of Beijing’s Hutong just happened to be parked there – a broken down bus turned into a restaurant.


 

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.