Ha Giang province, 320 km north of Hanoi, conjures up images of the mystical. Towering mountain passes, endless valleys and wondrous colors depending on what time of the year you visit. The province shares a border with China, and is one of those ‘politically sensitive’ areas – making it relatively untouched by the sweep of mass tourism across the country. It has become known as Vietnam’s final frontier.
The bus came to a shuddering halt in Ha Giang, it was 4am. The darkness was thick and silent. We had stopped outside a motorbike shop, where a dim light bulb illuminated an imposing man standing outside. His head was bald, with just a little sign of a beard. He wore combat trousers, with heavy set military style black boots. He greeted us and inquired as to whether we needed a motorbike – as if he just happened to be standing there at this frigidly cold hour, rather than at a pre-arranged meeting.
Formal negotiations at such an un-Godly hour are often half-hearted at best – consisting mainly of grunts. We agreed to meet again at a more civilized time and he pointed us in the direction of the nearest hotel. I had envisioned a barrage of noise required to get anybody up, but was pleasantly surprised to see a young man asleep in the lobby. He groggily opened the door, pushed a key in our direction and quickly resumed his slumber.
A few hours later we walked back to the bike shop, hired a bike for three days and checked out of the hotel. I had read briefly about foreigners requiring a permit to travel in the area, but we didn’t hear or see anything so continued on. Minh Anh later translated that the man at the motorbike shop had said that as a foreigner and Vietnamese together we would definitely be stopped by the police.
I initially took Ha Giang for a tiny town – big enough for just the one horse. A dusty road filled we nothing of particular interest.The road out of town revealed a little more. A large square came into view – one of those empty squares that are commonly found in Vietnam – used for political reason but little else. Standard heroic statue included. We traveled along a river, that appeared to dissect the town, and out into the rice fields – a pale brown now in the winter months
We slowly began to climb. An initial target of Dong Van, at 145km, may have been ambitious – but we decided to see how it went. The road quickly became spectacular. Jagged peaks cut out through a thick haze that clung to the air. We flashed through tiny villages; the houses often battered looking wooded shacks. Children playing outside, their faces often smudged with dirt – but still capable of the most melting of smiles. Nearly all waved when they realized a foreigner was passing. One young child squatted in a field, his trousers around his ankles -relieving himself of his breakfast. He grinned happily, without the slightest sense of embarrassment as we passed – his frantic waves nearly knocking himself over.
We climbed up to Heavens Gate. Grand names such as this can sometimes be a little over blown – this was not one of those case. Mountains and valleys stretched in a all directions. Sunshine fighting through the hazy winter sky. One of those surreal and completely magical sights. We began to see signs, stating – ‘WARNING – FRONTIER AREA’. A little knot of nervous excitement hitting me every time. The words seemed wildly adventurous, even a little dangerous.
In Quan Ba we warmed our frozen bodies with welcome hot tea. The town was small, consisting mainly of just one main road. Shops and businesses clung to it, eager for any business that might come there way in such a desolate spot. Lying at the top of one of the rocky plateaus, the town had a feeling of being at the top of the world – maybe not even this world – but with the rocky towers ahead of us, we knew there was more to come.
‘Hello Tay (foreigner)’ came a cheeky whisper behind me. One of the braver children had made his way towards us – the rest standing further back giggling.
“Hello” I responded. This was enough and they all fell about laughing.
We stopped for lunch at a small road side stall. The scenery had been spectacular for the last four hours – and would only increase throughout the day. The world was always changing. Steep rocky climbs would be followed by dizzying descents into valleys filled with rice fields and pine forests – with the road eventually settling next to an emerald river that we followed for many miles.
As we climbed for what seemed the hundredth time of the day we entered a lunar landscape. A harsh, rocky scene -the green of the valley, seemingly a million miles away. The scenery had just gone up to 11. Tiny tracks led off the road and almost vertically up the mountainside – occasionally a lone, scruffy child would scurry easily up – to where exactly it wasn’t clear. As we climbed higher and higher the temperature dropped further. Vegetation began to be sparse. Giant boulders the size of small houses lay beside the road. I craned my neck up to the mountains above, but the tops were sometimes lost in the mist. It felt like we had entered a magical realm – a place of wizardry and dragons. A place that surely wasn’t part of our world.
We were cruising through the small town of Kim Minh when our first police came into view. The road forked in a Y shape. A policeman stood a both intersections. My stomach tightened a little, the was no way of avoiding them. As I swung the bike to the left I braced myself for the inevitable raise of the baton that the policeman carried. But as if magically, as I approached he took his phone out of his pocket and began to send a text message. His eyes were glued to the screen as we shot past. My pounding heart couldn’t believe its luck.
It was past 4 pm when we arrived exhausted in Dong Van. The constant battles to overtake the slow moving trucks, with a dizzying certain death plunge on the other side had taken it out of me. My brain creaked alarmingly in the last few miles. The simplest of operations involved total concentration.
We had been tipped off about a little home stay and made our way there. The outside reminded me of something from the Alamo – sturdy brownish mud walls – imposing but friendly. The inside was bare, but in natural way. We were shown a room. The door swung open to reveal was appeared to be a crack den – the floor was filthy, a soiled mattress lay to one side – a blanket haphazardly thrown off. Cigarette butts littered the floor. If you have seen Trainspotting you will get the picture. Had thee been a dead hooker in the corner I would have felt bad for her – but not at all surprised.
We found another hotel – cheaper and far less likely to contract a venereal disease from – but it too came with a problem. I was told that as a foreigner I would have to register with the local police. The charge for this was $10. I had reached the depths of exhaustion about an hour ago – but still was loathed to give in to such bureaucratic crap.
We went out for dinner and inquired at a few other hotels along the way – but received the same response. The final one however yielded a young girl who stated she was far too lazy to register me. I liked her immediately. We backtracked to our hotel and said we would be leaving – the man sat downstairs staring stupidly at the television.
“I will have to ask my wife” he shrugged without removing his eyes from the screen. We quickly grabbed our bags and made our way back down. The “man” of the house had not moved. One of my particular dislikes about Vietnamese society is the lack of equal distribution of responsibilities between the sexes. Women often work themselves into the ground – a job, the family, the food – while the men seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time doing very little. I was brought up by a single mother who took on every role imaginable for me, so I find it shameful how inactive some can be. I glared at him with complete disdain – but he didn’t notice – he was watching TV. Eventually the wife arrived – she wasn’t happy with us, but what could she do.
“It’s a five million VND ( $250) fine if you are caught” she warned us as we left. The temperature was dropping fast, all available clothes and a duvet bordering on the ridiculous provided only mild warmth. As is often the case in such a situation – coupled with exhaustion – the imagination begins to take over. Every car passing I was sure would be the police. Every car door I assumed was the end. I began rehearsing a cover story. Should I play stupid, or really stupid – but never got past, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know’. Sleep quickly took over.