Into the North

At the end of the winding descend from Youngyang we are soaking wet and clad in mud, and my pants bear the proof of a recent tumble. We find our bearings in the sleepy Jianshui, where a cow is being prepped by an entire family. Call us both crazy, but for some reason the sight makes us very hungry. Jianshui’s specialty appears to be grilled stinky tofu dipped in fiery chilli sauce.

Is it me, or as we draw nearer the Vietnamese border the landscape shifts to steamy shades of green and brown, the colour of ripe jungle?
We’re picking up bananas from trees plantated alongside the street, and continue to grab every chance to express our newfound love for persimmon, fresh or dried. Our farewell nights in China are spent in dubious albeit jolly establishments.

Southern Chinese food continues to not disappoint.

As much as we’ve fallen in love with Yunnan we’re chuffed to cross into Vietnam. Lao Cai is our first border done on bicycle.

We roll into town as rowdy markets close. Leafy greens are spread around on floors, loud voices call out the remaining deals of veggies and fruit, and the air is alive with smells of raw meat and fried garlic. Breakfast the next day consists of two Vietnamese classics: bánh mì pâté (a sandwich of pork liver terrine, sweet and sour carrot and daikon pickles, fresh coriander, and a dash of heat coming from red peppers) and cà phê sua (coffee with sweetened condensed milk). As I bite into the freshly baked baguette, the crispy crust snaps and my body is invaded with pheromones. This thing may look like a French baguette on the outside, but the mix of rice and wheat flour makes it lighter and crispier than what the colonists left behind. The Vietnamese coffee, creamy and strong, with chocolaty accents is one of the key ingredients for the country’s economical revival. I can see myself becoming addicted to the 6 minutes it takes for the coffee to drip into the layer of condensed milk. Needless to say both the sandwich and the drink are love at first sight, much like jackfruit once was. And boy, are we happy to find out that even this one is in season!

Northern Vietnam is considered the country’s most beautiful and culturally diverse. 90% of the population are ethnic minorities, also known as ‘hill tribes’: the Hmong, the Tay, the Dao, the Nung, the Lo Lo, the Giay, and the Pu Peo among the 17 or so different groups. A large part of the region boasts 400 million years old karst formations, which prompted UNESCO to declare it a protected geopark. We decide to see as much of all these as it is possible. In Ha Giang City we rent a motorbike for around $10 per day, leave our stuff in a friendly hotel, and start the climb north.

We’re happy to be back in the saddle, even if we have to share only one motorbike. No longer consumed with the physicality of cycling, we can enjoy the steep roads and the hairpins. Humble villages line the QL4C, and kids, stirred by the throttle, come out of homes to wave at us and play. Since our cycling stint in China we’ve learned to pace ourselves better. We stop often, to engage in pointing and laughing with fruit hawkers and to sample their produce, or simply to smell the air infused in slowly drying cinnamon. Heaven’s Gate mountain pass drops down into the town of Tam Son, nestled in a valley where dozens of limestone ‘molehills’ scatter. Hyperventilating with the joy of riding, or perhaps acting a bit cocky, Jon temporarily forgets that we’re on a crappy bike, with crappy tyres and practically no brakes. A steep hairpin sends us grating the tarmac, but being the lucky bastards that we are, we are left almost unscathed (some scratches and a sprained ankle for Jon).

The landscape helps us to forget about the ugly episode. We stop often to just lay on the grass and sigh: this simple life transports me back to childhood. Lunch in Yen Minh. First, a bawl of pho, the ubiquitous Vietnamese street food. Please don’t call it soup, as it usually contains the entire history of the family who cooks it. But as heat has intensified, we feel like a second meal is in order. We drop by the open market to pick up some snacks and fruit (jackfruit, of course) and as fate has it, fresh rice flour noodles are just being prepared in the small restaurant that we happen to have parked our bike in front of. We both rejoice in the idea of a plate of bánh cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls), a favorite breakfast in the northern provinces.

A cup of coffee later, we’re back in the saddle for another half a day of green vistas and curly roads. Even the bivouac has a view. Jon’s feeling nostalgic about his KTM. Look at those roads, he says over and over. I know too well what he means. Soon, the limestone forests of Dong Van Plateau start showing up in the distance. At about 145 km out of Ha Giang town, we enter Dong Van town. Compared to the quiet valley, this place feel a bit touristic, but still lovely off season.

Let me stop for a minute to talk about Vietnamese food. Actually, there’s only one word necessary: sublime. There are humble snacks like meat skewers slathered in soy and spices, deep fried pastry stuffed with minced meat or pounded rice balls with black sesame paste.

There is of course the famous pho. An infinite variety of it: meat or no meat, clear or foggy broth, crunchy bits of veg and nuggets of fried garlic inside, fragrant coriander and mint chopped on top. Sometimes pho can be accompanied by side of bo la lot – seasoned ground beef wrapped in betel leaves, which sort of reminds us of Romanian/Turkish ‘dolma’ (or ‘sarmale’).

For snack or any meal for that matter, there are many kinds of rice preparations stuffed with protein steamed or baked in their very own eco-friendly packaging, like bánh cốm (green rice cake). Cheap, filling and pretty.

There are also the usual South-East Asian suspects – stir-fried dishes and steamed everything – but the Vietnamese cooks have a more tender approach. The ingredients are more subtle, the veg cooked delicately, the balance of raw and warm ingredients kept alive with bold chilies, lime and fresh herbs.

The third day debuts with cloudy skies as we stumble on a Sunday fair somewhere near Meo Vac. A totally local affair, I presume, as except for some curious stares, we are blissfully ignored to our own devices. H’mong people have gathered to build something that will probably serve the entire community. There’s food being shared and many kids scatter at the feet of their grannies, many of whom we’ve seen up on the curved, carrying impressive loads of firewood.

Sunday markets, weddings and events such this one, play a significant role in maintaining social relations. It’s not uncommon for attendees to start making their way on foot at the crack of night, together with cattle or produce, in order to arrive in the morning from their distant homes. This is a rough market schedule for the area:

Ha Giang town – Sunday market
Quyet Tien, Quan Ba (Tam Son) – Saturday market
Quan Ba – Sunday market
Coc Pai – Sunday market
Lung Phin – Sunday market
Hoang Su Phi – Sunday market
Sa Phin – every 6th day
Pho Cao – every 6th day
Pho Bang – every 6th day
Ma Le (Dong Van) – Saturday market
Dong Van – Sunday market
Khau Vai Love market (26th and 27th of the third month of the lunar calendar)
Meo Vac – the largest Sunday market in Ha Giang province

Shortly after Ma Pi Leng Pass, the rear brake gives in completely. By the time we push the bike closer to an electricity pole, it’s already pitch black. A young man comes out of the house to see what’s going on, and he is immediately immersed in Jon’s mechanics. While the bike is being taken apart, more people gather: the wife, two teen daughters, the father in law (I believe) who lives across the road. Everybody scrambles to hold flashlights, to find tools or bits that could be harvested to improvise a fix. Yet nothing works. Turning a deaf ear to our mumbled protests – mind you none of these people speak any language that we are familiar with – the young man makes it clear that we are to spend the night in his house, in his own bed even, while his wife and kids grab some blankets and go bunk across the street, at the in-laws. The bike is pushed carefully inside the house, which is a wide open space with a tiny room at one end, where a reed bed with a few blankets will be our bedroom. The place looks rather new. Except for a bench, no furniture leans against the bare walls, and the air smells like the herbs hanging from the ceiling. A plank is pulled where the entrance door should be, and we are alone. We’d feel like intruders, but we’re too tired to think.

In the morning we hug and hug everybody. We’ve resolved to push it to Ha Giang on the simplest and the shortest route back, which passes through a stark, rock-strewn limestone valley. The landscape continues to awe and some sections are not yet paved, which would normally make us giggle. A whole other ball game when you have no brakes.

Returning to Ha Giang feels like coming home. Energised by the early morning rush, we return to our favourite breakfast joint. As usual in Vietnam, people know where good food is, and luckily in Ha Giang so do we. The tiny family restaurant consists of a shaded room, separated by floor to ceiling wooden shutters, with a simple sign in front that says: ‘Bánh cuốn. Trứng vịt lộn. Bún’ (steamed rice rolls/ fertilized duck eggs/ noodles). The chef, a lovely middle-aged lady, is the reason we spend over a week in town.

We passed by the shop on our final morning and she was closed, just cleaning the floor and doing the prep. When she understood that we were about to leave, she insisted to cook us a good-bye meal, and she made it difficult for us to pay even! So she started the fire and placed on top a large steamer covered with a stretch of thin material. When water started to simmer, she ladled a white batter of rice flour and water and covered the pot. A few minutes later she took the lid off. The steam had created a delicate layer of rice flour pasta which our chef began to lift with a long flexible bamboo stick. The rice pasta was swiftly unfurled on a wooden board, sprinkled with a combination of minced pork, wood ear mushrooms, garlic, onions and peppers, then rolled, sliced in 10cm sections and served next to cinnamon-flavoured Vietnamese pork sausage in a light broth. To bring all the flavours together, a basket of fresh herbs (some looked like bean vine) and bawl of nước mắm sauce & red chilies were placed on the table. I’m telling you, Vietnam is going to be a difficult country to leave!

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