Monday, November 7, 2011

Into the countryside: it's all about the rice

Vietnam’s mountainous northwest is famously beautiful, and when you see it in person it lives up to its reputation. The mountains come in gorgeous shapes, and the valleys are filled with beautiful rice paddies. They’re especially interesting at this time of year, when at some elevations the rice is being harvested. 

Huong Hieu, our guide. Just call him Hieu.
We’re on a 9-day trip to some of the highlights of Northwest—somewhat off the beaten path. Most tourists head straight to Sapa, the heart of the mountains 9 hours from Hanoi, for a couple of days. However, we’re on a 1,300-kilometer personal tour (just the two of us, plus our guide and driver) designed by our Hanoi tour agent, Tonkin Travel, that takes us to some of the main towns in the area—including Sapa--over the course of a week or so. (Hey, I just get up every day and find out what’s next!) The scenery is stunning.
Miles and miles of rice and other products drying alongside the road
But before we got to the pretty parts we had to drive (well, be driven) through the gloomy outskirts of Hanoi, where the air looks bad, made worse by burning of leftover rice straw in many of the fields we passed. The rice harvest is already finished in the delta, so the fields are muddy and the rice we see is spread along the sides of the road for drying.

In most places a machine separates the rice from the stalks

Opening the bridge for us so our boat could go through
Before long we were in the Red River valley, the air still bad, and we turned off the road to the village of Nho Quan, where we had lunch at a local place and then boarded a long, rudimentary motorboat for a soothing ride to the isolated village of Kenh Ga. As in many of the villages we have seen, there were lots of kids playing along the way, enjoying themselves on the paths by the river. Kids seem to be well loved and well taken care of in Vietnam. One group of kids had climbed into a small boat and were going to school. One of the girls was rowing the boat with her feet!

Mr. Driver talking to the cow...who soon ate a whole corncob

Some of the roads on our route are decent, but one stretch – 62 kilometers long – in Hoa Binh province was the worst road we’ve ever been on (topping even the horrible sections of road we drove in Costa Rica and Nicaragua). It took the driver (don’t know his name—our guide calls him Mr. Driver) over 3 hours to go the 38 miles, dodging potholes, trucks, more motorbikes, and all the agricultural products that are laid out in big rectangles on the sides of the roads for drying. Rice kernels. Peanuts. Tuber shavings. Corn.

It was made even worse by the fact that Mr. Driver, who is really good at maneuvering between obstacles, didn’t seem to know what the gears in his manual transmission Ford SUV were for. He had a strong aversion to first gear, always starting in second. That can ruin a transmission pretty quickly. He went immediately to fourth or fifth gear when we should have still been in second or third. Fifth gear at 35 miles an hour? As you can imagine, it was a brutal 3 hours!

The traditional dances were nice!
 But the reward at the end of the drive was the Mai Chau valley and the lovely villages of Poom Cong and Lat. We stayed in one of the villages for the night—not sure which one it was, since they were right next to each other. We slept in a traditional guest house on stilts, owned and operated by people from the white Thai ethnic group. These villages used to be fairly isolated but now are part of the tourist circuit—the villagers present ethnic dance and music performances after dinner. Still, they maintain many of their traditional features and are quite beautiful. Women keep up the weaving tradition.
Stilt houses, colorful skirts, and woven scarves

Loved sleeping on mats that had been laid out on the bamboo floor slats and hung with mosquito nets!

Grandma chews betel nut and watches the grandbaby
 Since the village was set at the edge of the rice fields, we were able to spend part of the next morning walking among the rice paddies and observing the many different activities associated with the harvest.
Harvesting the rice
The drive to our next overnight stop, Son La, was also amazing, but in a good way. The roads were good, and the scenery was spectacular. One of the best parts was seeing the huge number of people occupied in the harvest: water buffaloes pulling things, people bent over cutting the rice stalks, others gathered around the machines that separate the stalks from the rice, creating haystack-sized rice-stalk stacks, others spreading the rice kernels out on mats to dry, others sweeping up the stray kernels—it’s a real communal project and awesome to see.

Rice harvesting is a communal affair
I love water buffalo. Maybe because I was born in a buffalo year?

Along the way we had a chance to stop in a couple of many villages that are homes to the ethnic minorities who live in the area—Green Hmong, Black Thai, and Flower Hmong among them. The dress of and hairstyles of the women in these villages helped to identify them. One village was particularly nice—simple, quiet, reached by walking across a river on a bamboo bridge. The kids all wanted to say “Hello,” and the younger women in particular were very friendly and open to being photographed. Most older people whom I’ve asked to photograph have turned away. Not fans of the photo.

This rice hasn't been harvested yet
At our hotel in Son La we met some members of a U.S. military unit that goes around the world digging up remains of military personnel who are missing in action – from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to whatever. They’re staying in Son La for 5 weeks, trying to find the remains of MIA air force flyers who crashed in the area in the Vietnam War. The team leader is a 30-year-old from New Hope, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles from where we live! He was thrilled to talk to another American – he said he hasn’t seen any other Americans since he’s been in Son La and was thrilled to talk Real American to someone again.                 

Next: more mountains and minority peoples.

1 comment:

  1. I just found your blog and am reading to catch up. You're on an amazing journey. I'm loving reading about your adventures. We wife and I...just returned from Sicily. I was in Vietnam in 1965-66. I won't go back. Nothing for me to remember pleasantly. It is a beautiful place ...if they're not trying to kill you.