Saturday, January 30, 2016

Encounters with the "Highland People" of Vietnam

Greetings All,
Upon arriving in Hanoi we said goodbye to our guide Ngoc and met our new guide Zang for the cycling trip from Sapa in northern Vietnam to Laos.  We were also joined by two other cyclists, Richard from the US and Vincent from Australia.  I hope I can keep up with the guys on our next cycling adventure.  The next day Zang took us to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.  It's a massive structure but very plain, modeled after Lenin's tomb in Moscow.  CNN International ranked it as "the 6th ugliest building in the world" in 2012.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Being Monday, the tomb was closed so we couldn't see Ho Chi Minh's body.  He has been put on display just like Lenin in Moscow even though he wanted to be cremated.  We walked past the mustard-yellow presidential palace built by the French between 1900 and 1906.  Ho Chi Minh didn't want to live here, it was too lavish, so he lived in a much smaller house originally built to house French officers living in Hanoi.  Ho Chi Minh was a well-traveled man having lived and studied abroad for 30 years.  He learned about communism while in the USSR and brought it back to Vietnam.  After defeating the French in 1954 he became president of North Vietnam.  He never married and had no children.  We also visited the last house he lived in.  It was built on stilts just like the ones he lived in when he was in the jungle fighting with his men.  

We walked back to the van and drove to a Buddhist temple.  The Trấn Quốc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in the city, originally constructed in the sixth century during the reign of Emperor Lý Nam Đế.  On the grounds of Tran Quoc is a Bodhi tree taken as a cutting from the original tree in India under which the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment.  

Trấn Quốc Pagoda

Our last stop was the The Temple of Literature, a temple dedicated to Confucius and his sages and scholars.  The temple was built in 1070 at the time of King Lý Thánh Tông.  There are stone tablets mounted on stone turtles that contained the names of students written in Chinese characters that passed the exams.  At the back of the complex was a temple containing a statue of Confucius and his sages.  

Statue of Confucius

That night we took the sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai.  Once again we upgraded to a private compartment and were able to get some sleep.

Our Compartment on the Sleeper Train

We arrived in Lao Cai early the next morning and were met by our van and driver for the transfer to Sapa.  Soon we were on our bikes to tour some of the villages in this area.  The terrain is much more hilly in this part of Vietnam.  With all this climbing I really have my work cut out for me.  We passed through a village where a Black Hmong woman sat behind in old sewing machine.  She gave me a broad smile when I stopped to take her picture.

Black Hmong Woman

We also visited the home of another ethnic minority, the Red Dzao, in the village of Ta Van.  Inside the house an old woman sat next to a fire sewing with a small child behind.  People eek out a living growing rice and other vegetables and raising livestock.  This puts a lot of pressure on the surrounding forest which is cleared for farming and firewood.

Red Dzao Woman and Child

After spending one more day in Sapa cycling around the local villages we headed out on our bikes to climb over the Tram Ton Pass, at 2000 meters or 6562 feet, it is the highest road pass in Vietnam. We stopped briefly on top to snap a quick photo.

Peggy on the Tram Ton Pass

After lunch we had a second pass to cross.  Although not as high as the first, there were some steep sections to cycle up.  It was hot and the sweat was stinging my eyes.  I had to keep on stopping to wipe my face. 

Climbing a 10% Grade Section

It was a long ride into Lai Chau or so it seemed to me.  We had to climb up to the city where the van was waiting for us.  Just another mile to go...  We passed baby-blue high-rise administration buildings since this is the new capital of Lai Chau province.  Formerly known as Tam Duong, this isolated town was renamed Lai Chau when the decision was made to flood ‘old’ Lai Chau (now Muong Lay).  Finally after cycling 52 miles and 4500 feet of climbing we arrived at our hotel!

The next day was to be an easy day of cycling according to Zang but we ended up covering 56 miles and climbing 2400 feet to reach Muong Lay.   We started with a 9-mile descent.  There were some interesting hill tribe women along the way.  Zang, Vincent and Richard had stopped by a group of Black Hmong women selling mushrooms.  

Black Hmong Woman Selling Wild Mushrooms

One woman with a baby let me take her photo but when Vincent tried she covered the baby's face. 

Black Hmong Woman & Child

I took a photo of a woman and she was was not happy and threatened me with a sickle.  We continued down and passed a woman sitting in the road.  She was chanting over a bowl of rice and an egg.  We guessed she was making an offering and later Zang confirmed that she was making an offering to a ghost.  Could it be her child that was killed on this stretch of road?

Black Hmong Woman Making an Offering

After lunch it was another 19 miles on an undulating road to reach Muong Lay. We sat on the veranda at our hotel where the weather was pleasant.  It was hard to believe a cold front bringing snow to Sapa and rain here was on its way.

A big day of riding the next day...  As we set out it was raining lightly but not yet cold so we rode in shorts with rain jackets.  We crossed a bridge and started our 11-mile climb.  There was a billboard with a guy getting bit by a dog and having to go to the hospital for a shot - not the thing I wanted to see.  The climb was gradual,  mainly through forest and the occasional village.  It was a nice departure from the crowded roads we had been biking to this point.  We reached a plateau with a large village and actually had to descend before climbing again to the top.  There were Red Hmong women selling pineapples and ginger at the pass.

Red Hmong Women Selling Pineapples and Ginger

We descended to the town of Muong Cha for lunch.  On the way we passed a party with loud music, balloons and colorfully dressed Red Hmong women.  Zang told us it was a wedding celebration.  

Red Hmong Women

We had another 19 miles to go for our next break on mostly undulating road.  It rained off and on but we wanted to get in a metric century (100 km or 62 miles).  We had another pass to climb.  Fortunately it was only 2 and a half miles to the top.  We took a short break on top as there wasn't much to see.  Just another 8 miles to Dien Bien Phu.  It began to rain in earnest.  We were getting thoroughly soaked.  I was counting down the km instead of miles, they pass more quickly.  We had to ride through the crowded city streets to get to our hotel.  We made it, yippee!  Now to shower and clean all our wet cycling gear.  At least we have 2 nights here to let things dry out.  

Peggy at our Hotel in Dien Bien Phu

The Siberian cold front bringing unprecedented cold and snow to parts of Vietnam had finally reached us.  Today was a rest day so at least we didn't have to cycle in the rain.  Instead we went to the museum which had photos, life-like reenactments and artifacts from the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.  It was here the Vietnamese led by General Giap, who died only 3 years ago at the age of 102, defeated the French who vastly outgunned the Vietnamese.  On display was a bicycle used by the local people to haul 725 pounds of food and ordnance up the mountains to this site!

Bicycle Used to Haul Ordnance to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

After the museum visit we walked in the rain to the site of the main French bunker on a hill used during the 1954 battle.  This is where the French were defeated by the Viet Minh.  On top of the hill was a huge crater created when the Vietnamese dug a tunnel under the bunker and set off 1 ton of gun powder.  The explosion shocked the French out of the bunker thinking it was an earthquake and the Viet Minh took advantage, ending French colonial rule in Indochina.

Crater on Elaine 2 Hill

Our final stop was General Giap's bunker at Muong Phang, about 30 km outside of Dien Bien Phu.  It took us about an hour to drive there.  We were greeted by a young and friendly Black Thai woman.  She was bundled up against the cold but took off her hat so we could photograph her hair bun.

Black Thai Woman

We climbed up to the site where many bamboo huts stood.  One hut was General Giap's from which he conducted the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

General Giap's Hut

We walked across the street to the young Black Thai woman's house.  It was wooden and built on stilts.  She showed me how they wear their headscarves. 

Black Thai Headscarves

We went up to the second floor where an 100-year old woman sat by the fire. We were told she was the cook for General Giap, the man who led the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and who is still revered.  The Vietnamese defeated the French against enormous odds and became an independent country.  This woman has experienced a lot in her lifetime.  She has endured many years of war and hardships while living in very basic conditions without access to Western health care. 

General Giap's Cook

The young woman made us lunch.  She had grilled pork on skewers over the fire and removed the meat from the skewers.  A cat meowed loudly for it's share which it didn't get.  We looked at the portrait of General Giap in the living room before going downstairs where we had lunch.

Black Thai Woman Preparing Lunch

After spending 3 and a half weeks in Vietnam, we will cross the border into Laos tomorrow.  We have learned so much about a country that we were at war with a mere 43 years ago.  Today it seems hard to understand why we invaded a country who never did us no harm.  It's good to see all is forgiven and that the people of Vietnam have entered into a new phase of peace and prosperity.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Here is a map of our route:

1 comment:

Kenneth V. Gomez, Esq. said...

I feel like a slug!