The morning cold sliced through me. My fingers quickly froze while fumbling helplessly with the petrol cap. I stared with envy at the locals lining up with me – all of whom seemed to be wearing giant oven mitts that came up to the elbows. Their faces portraying the comfortable glow of people perfectly content with their hand warmth. I began to drool a little – evilly.
I would have attacked and most likely killed for such comfort. One became slightly separated from the herd. Dark thoughts consumed me. Regrettably I dragged my evil; envious eyes away and sped back to the hotel – my hands terribly cold.
A thin fog hung in the air as we made our way out of the town. We roared along the wide valley floor – mountains towering around us. The road shot out from the town in a perfectly straight line, and began to climb slowly and methodically towards the mountains that lay in our way. It was one of those moments in life you are quite sure something extraordinary is about to happen.
The Dong Van Pass, just a few km out of the town, is surely one of the great roads of the world. The 17 km road clings tightly to the mountains, an unimaginable drop on the other side into a sweeping blanket of mist – with jagged mountain peaks peering ghostly through as far as you can see. The mist, lighter in places, revealed the patchwork rice fields gathered around the river at the bottom of the valley. Visible, but so far it seemed like a different world.
It’s difficult to describe such a scene. I felt the same as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon – the human eye and brain struggle with something so vast and so spectacular. Even photography failed to capture the scene – like a ghostly apparition – reserved for those in the here and now.
Meo Vac lay at the end of the road – magically ringed on all sides by mountains. In the town we considered our onward options – coupled with the recently discovered news that we had lost the map. As the driver I refuted any blame for this.
A) Back track a little and take a road south from Kim Minh
B) Take the long circular route down to Bac Me. Road quality unknown.
We opted for it the latter – it would nicely complete our circular trip. The road on from Meo Vac climbed steeply – the motorbike groaning in reluctance. The road switching back and forth on itself as it gained altitude.
Then just a as we peaked, it swept down, and further down. Downwards would be general direction of the day – the hard work had been done. The rocky plateaus of the past 24 hours were replaced with green rolling hills. Plants and wildlife quickly returned. After the grueling mountain passes of the day before – filled with more life or death situations than was really necessary – it was nice to be able to relax more.
Villages became a regular site again – sporadically scattered along the road side. Scenes were often similar – laughing, smiling children who seemed thrilled to see us – juxtaposed with the tired, weary look on the faces of the adults – their eyes often hugging the floor as they carried their enormous bundles for miles and miles. The faces of the children often portrayed the kind of childhood innocence and simple happiness we don’t see too often in first world countries, with our cluttered lives. Yet it was the strained, steely faces of the adults that revealed the reality of life in the mountains. It is a life harder than most of us will ever know – and a level of poverty likewise.
Night was falling when we saw a sign declaring another 30km to our destination. I was tied and cold – and the bike was running out of petrol at an alarming rate. Roadside markers insisted on counting down every kilometer – stretching the relatively short distance to a mammoth battle of wills. Each kilometer seemed to slip by at an agonizingly slow pace. As I was beginning to lose faith in keeping my brain ticking over, we entered the small town of Bac Me. The first guest house we attempted to find appeared to not exist – despite the many signs that said otherwise. The second we stumbled upon came complete with four adorable puppies. Everybody was happy.
Bac Me is a pleasant little town – most of it clustered around a simple main high street running along the river. It was a town that seemed to hold some regional importance if the countless new government buildings lining the road was anything to go by. We ate a simple dinner of fried rice, with a few beers to toast our day. By 9pm most of the town was closed.
The next morning we ate a pate sandwich for breakfast, and walked through the towns market, which was wasn’t particular appealing unless you are looking for children’s clothing or kitchenware. We had a coffee at a small shop which wonderfully combined a café with an electrical shop. At the next table a man sat drinking a beer at 9am, while his son sat with sullen eyes next to him. They were tribal people, their clothes dark and simple. The wife stood a little further off, awkwardly balancing plastic bottles –perhaps pretending that the little money they have was not being squandered in such a way. It was a depressing sight. As if feeling the same, the owner poured his own beer away when the man left.
It was a short, leisurely drive down in Ha Giang. We stopped at will and walked down little paths leading into the forest. One path led us down to a stilt house where we were greeted by friendly smiling children, although the parents presented a much more reserved front. The next again led us to a large stilt house. A dog barked ferociously – an old man walked slowly out – stopping a little way off. His eyes fixed on us. Not threatening, not inquisitive – strangely empty.
We arrived back in Ha Giang at 4pm. Entering from the other side, the town showed it’s true size to us. It sprawled out but still yielded very little of interest. We found a little café were we warmed ourselves by the fire with a group of smiling ladies. All of the talk was of a local woman and her grizzly suicide. The whispers were she had owed billions of VND.
At 8pm we returned our bike, and the bus picked us up shortly after. As I laid my head down I could not have been happier, or more impressed with the past three days. Ha Giang has passed every imaginable expectation.
I’d been dosing for an hour or so when the bus stopped – as it had many times. A woman trundled nosily down the aisle and sat down opposite me. The bus had not even begun to move when she pulled out her cell phone.
She talked continuously for the next four hours. The lights had been turned off – people were trying to sleep. But still she cackled away satanically into her phone. On four separate occasions I asked her to stop – in both English and Vietnamese. The final two times I added some colorful language, and a tone I hoped would imply she was about to be beaten to death with said cell phone. She simply glared at me, and rolled onto her side – muttering into her phone. I can’t remember ever being so angry – it consumed me totally – churning menacingly into a giant ball of steaming hatred. I was putting the finishing touches to the plan of disposing of her body, when I fell asleep.
It was 4am when we rolled into Hanoi. I wasn’t sure how much sleep I had got. My brain lurched drunkenly from side to side – not quite sure what to make of the bleary night. As I walked past her she glared again me and muttered something under her breath.
“Fuck you” I snarled at her – rarely have I meant it so much. She looked suitably shocked. I allowed myself a small smile of victory as I trotted off the bus and into the jostling crowd, shouting “Taxi, taxi, taxi!”