Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Deeper into northwestern Vietnam

We continued our trip through the mountains with overnights in Dien Bien (aka Dien Bien Phu, site of the decisive Vietnamese battles against the French in 1954) and remote Lai Chau. Dien Bien hosts a museum dedicated to telling the story of the French war (from the Vietnamese perspective, of course). We were led through the museum by a young man who proudly explained the history of the battles. Afterward he led us up to one of the most important battle sights, A1 hill. There we were joined by a group of Vietnamese tourists who enjoyed taking pictures of us at a tank left over from the battle (turnabout is fair play). Interestingly, the only Western tourists we saw during our three-day drive from Mai Chau to Dien Bien to Lai Chau were French—we kept seeing the same 10 people at every stop!

Along the way the mountains were spectacular, impossible terraced fields filling some of the deep valleys.

The best part of the drive was seeing daily life take place on either side of the road. We observed many different ethnic groups (Hmong, Thai, Dzao) working in their fields, bagging raw rice, gathering bundles of sticks for firewood, tending animals, and selling produce at small markets lining the roadside. Since our driver rarely went over 25 miles an hour (owing to a combination of the road conditions and his undergearing), the scene unfolded over the course of the days as we passed each village.  

We bought a small basket from this family and asked to take their photo
At a few spots along the way we pulled over and took small paths a short distance to clusters of houses, many of which were on stilts. We were thrilled when we were allowed into the homes of local people to take a look around. (Imagine someone coming up to your house and asking to see inside.) We could never have done this without our guide, who was not shy about introducing himself and asking if we could enter. Many people spoke their local language but little Vietnamese, but Hieu was able to make the connection that allowed us to get at least a glimpse of local life. The homes consisted of one large room with distinct areas for cooking, sitting, and sleeping.

John and Hieu walking up the path to a random set of houses

We were invited in to visit
Family photos on the wall
The cooking center, aka kitchen

The sleeping area (3 double beds) was separated by curtains and mosquito nets

We were surprised to see formal furniture in the simple wood house

Rice stored in the rafters
A baby swings in its basket
The family pig

During our drive time Hieu chatted about all kinds of things, including Vietnamese traditional beliefs, which are still taken seriously by most Vietnamese (including Hieu):
--Ages 23, 26, and 28 are very bad times for a woman to get married.

--A girl born in a tiger year will undoubtedly be a difficult wife unless she is over age 37. Tiger women thus have a hard time marrying until they’re older.

--A person born in a dragon year (e.g., 2012) is a great match, is highly desirable as a spouse, and will have a very good life. Many people try hard to have a baby in a dragon year and to avoid bad years (like tiger years). This means that for some grades, schools are quite overcrowded, but for others there aren’t enough students to fill the classrooms. Hieu and his wife are going to try to "make a baby" next month so he/she will be born in a dragon year.

--Ages 37, 49, and 53 are very bad ages for everybody. Thus people feel the need to consult fortune tellers and do lots of other special things to get through those ages unscathed.

Make mine pho'
My favorite tidbit from Hieu is his assessment of rice vs. noodles (co’m vs. pho'): rice is like a wife, always around, part of your everyday life. Noodles, on the other hand, are something special that you have when you need a change of pace. And rice does in fact form the basis of most meals. Personally, I prefer noodles!
 A little more about Vietnamese food in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Anita, love the baby in the basket.
    Keep posting and don't eat too much Pho, they go straight to the hips!