Among the H’mongs

It’s best leaving Hanoi at night, at least in monsoon season, when the days are heavy and close. The evenings are too, the heat never really leaving much, but the sun isn’t there to burn your neck. I had thought leaving the mundanity of London would provide so many new things to look at and think about that I wouldn’t be complaining about the weather most of the time. But I did, every time I wiped the stinging sweat from my eyes or soothed my raw neck with my clammy hand. Hanoi was so oppressively humid in July, with its thick veil of moisture and heavy streams of traffic, almost always mopeds, weaving across potholed roads in incomprehensible patterns.

I had read that it was cooler in the mountains in the Northwest, they even get snow in the winter, so I decided to catch a train there. We arrived at the station on Le Duan Street, my old school friend David and I, around 9pm. We were just back from a boozy boat trip around Halong Bay and my guts were wrenching with some bug or another I’d picked up a few days before. We were taking a sleeper train to Lao Cai, the usual stop on the way to the mountain town of Sa Pa: all luminous green rice paddies, we’d been told.

Weeds and grass stood tall beside the sleepers of rails that hummed with the heat of the day, huge beasts of train carriages staunchly fixed to them. A dozen or so Vietnamese and a few Westerners were already waiting on the low platforms. The guy who checked our tickets and brought us to the right train, leaving us for other lost looking tourists.

The rail system is owned by state-run Vietnam Railways and consists of old fashioned lines and trains that have seen better days. The main route, the North-South Railway, runs the 1,000 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The line was built under French colonial rule and opened in 1936, in what was then French Indochina. After the Vietnam War, which destroyed parts of the line, it was restored in 1976. The North-South line follows the coast the whole way down the skinny country, winding on for an epic 30 hours, making it one of the slowest train journeys in the world. We were heading northwest though, up the Hanoi-Lao Cai line, which the French built in 1906.

We had a while to wait yet, but left the long platform and climbed the steep steps of the bulky carriage to find our berths. The train was about ten carriages long and we squeezed past tiny Vietnamese and large Americans and searched in the wrong direction for a while before finding our cabin number on the stiff sliding door and forcing it open. I took the top bunk and startled a sizeable cockroach by throwing my rucksack on the mattress. The cabin was all grey plastic panels and four solid metal bunks with thin sheets of foam.

A couple poked their heads in the door: “Hallo! We sleep,” and lay down on one of the other bunks. Newlyweds, maybe. Soon after a family of four turned up too, checking their ticket against the door number. I opened my mouth to think of how to express that they must have the wrong cabin, but they all sat down on the one remaining bed. The kids looked up wide-eyed at us two whites, got bored of us, and started bouncing on the bunk.

The family left for the dining car after a while and the young couple seemed to motion that they wanted the room, so David and I followed the family down to the back restaurant car at the back of the train. It wasn’t too busy and no one was eating at that time. I bought a soft-drink and tried to gape out the window romantically, but it was just too dark to see anything. I had imagined it differently, gazing out at expansive rice fields and the odd flickering village, but the carriage was too bright, I couldn’t even say how fast we were going.

My disappointment was broken as a TV was switched on and music began to blare through its crackly speakers. The ubiquitous sound of karaoke: it wouldn’t be the Far East without it. Then singing came from behind me, a sort of love ballad from a weathered but clearly experienced voice, and I turned to see the dourest man I had ever seen with a battered old microphone held firmly before his mouth, wearing the uniform of a conductor. He walked slowly down the carriage, presumably enjoying the attention he had gathered, although not showing any emotion at all. The verse finished as he sat down and a beautiful young employee of the train, a woman in her early 20s, took up the next one, singing with the youthful naivety that her colleague could no longer muster.

After a few love duets between the two the train workers passed the microphone through the carriage. There were a few English language songs, but I passed on the offer. A Canadian man, with his two teenage daughters, sang four songs quite badly and annoyed the conductor, who was trying to tell him to share it with someone else. We left after a bit, sick of the Canadian.

When we got back to the cabin we knocked to make sure we didn’t interrupt our new friends, the couple, but found them asleep and the family of four huddled up together on their single bunk. Sleep came easily enough after I shooed away a few more cockroaches. The curtain was drawn so I could only think about what the view was like out of the window and fell asleep to rice fields shimmering in moonlight.

We arrived at Lao Cai train station around 5am, tired as hell; even the bouncing kids were groggy. We said our sleepy goodbyes to our cabin-mates and found the nearest door to the platform. There wasn’t much light yet and I noticed a chill: it was indeed cold up here in the mountains. I followed David to the exit and was too tired to question the first person who said he there to pick us up in his bus. Generally there’s always some hawk or another ready to pounce on tourists and claim he’s their driver, then charge for a bus trip you’ve already paid for. Maybe it was too early for the hawks, because he didn’t charge us in the end.

There didn’t seem much to Lao Cai; not at that time of the morning with my eyes fogged over and being shepherded to a spot of cracked tarmac in car park to wait for our bus. We were there as part of a tour and I didn’t really know much about the whole thing – one never seems to know what tour providers have planned; they’re all so used to just ushering people about and making sure you look where they point, that they wouldn’t think to tell you what you’ve signed up to, most of the time.

Waiting for the bus I hunched over and felt that churning in my gut that you get after a night with little sleep. I took a malaria pill with a little water. The air was much fresher than in Hanoi, where it could near choke you with the moisture, and I drew deep breaths to chase the pain of a malaria pill in an empty stomach.

The bus turned up after a while and we got in with 8 or so others, cramped with all our stuff – buses are always cramped in Vietnam – and spent the next hour or maybe less winding up mountain roads towards Sa Pa, about 40km away and a thousand metres higher.  The views were stunning to be sure and I coaxed myself out of my stupor to try and enjoy them. I hadn’t said hello to anyone else on the bus and frankly didn’t care to.

The hills were continuous as far as I could see which didn’t seem to fit with this flat country that I’d been getting used to. When we took corners I could see down into dramatic gorges which leapt below, filled with bamboo trees and dense jungle foliage. The road cut through the jungle in meandering S-shapes most of the way from Lao Cai to Sa Pa town. Little else touched the dense vegetation in those hills, in that relatively remote part of the country, other than the road we were on.

When we reached Sa Pa we were pointed towards the small office of a tour company. They seemed friendly enough and brought us up to a shower which was in a cabin a little up a hill. David and I took it in turns, one sitting outside with a couple of excitable dogs – there are dogs everywhere in Vietnam – while the other showered off the sticky sweat of a Vietnamese morning. Showers in Vietnam almost always host a variety of large spiders and insects clinging to the moist walls and shower curtains. They don’t tend to bother you too much, but it’s disconcerting to be naked around them.

There was a café halfway back down the hill where we were to have breakfast and meet the other people who were on the trek. It was a nice place, with an impressive view over the town. We were high up in the hills and surrounded by vast forests. The town slide down from the café into potholed streets and dilapidated houses; a clump of market stalls in a square and along the main street, and further down to the rice fields and steep valleys. Tourism had certainly left its mark on whatever sort of place this had been, but was probably the only thing which kept it going.

There was a trio of Americans: Chuck and Rambo seemed to be soldiers, in both physique and manner, and Marilyn one of their girlfriends – I couldn’t really tell which though; and Sunny, a Vietnamese/American, and her Armenian boyfriend Tavit. The Americans talked about some of the places they’d been to: Halong Bay, the old imperial city of Hue, and so on. The Vietnamese/American, Sunny, said she’d been in the country a few times, but she wanted to show her boyfriend where her family were from. “My grandparents moved to America before the war; I’m glad they didn’t stay here. It’s a pretty cool place, but so messed up too.”

After this we returned to the tourist office we all drank some bitter green tea and met our guide, Tan, a local and experienced tour hand in his late 20s. He was skinny but sturdy looking with a quiet charm and gentle manner. He told us we’d be trekking about 15km that day, but that the hills were very muddy and it would be slippery; we’d stay the night in a homestead and doing some more walking the next day. So we followed him down to a minibus which would take us to the starting point, just out of town.

Black H’mong’s, one of the regional ethnic groups, dressed in thick indigo dresses with colourful embroidered armbands, and wearing knee-high socks with sandals, flocked around us and offered all sorts of trinkets. Some offered stitched purses and wrist-bands, others flimsy handbags and postcards. They were all women, from 10 year olds up to that indeterminable age that all Vietnamese women eventually reach, and carried umbrellas which they used as walking sticks when it wasn’t raining. I didn’t know if all the men were working in the fields – I hardly saw anyone work in the rice paddies – or at home, but I saw few men around Sa Pa.

The minibus took us about five minutes out of town, down a road of loose rocks and precarious turns. We got out and started walking when the road became too narrow for the bus. It was only 7.30 and the rice fields gave off a phosphorescent glow, especially in the lifting mist of the morning. The green was quite spectacular, a shade I hadn’t quite seen before.

We started out along sludgy brown dirt-paths, covered in wet mud from the rains, and descended through hills and fields and climbed up the slippery paths and past streams of pure mountain water. There were villages dotted around the hills, most of which we walked past. Tan told us that there are eight different groupings of languages and fifty-two dialects in the region and that people tend to stay in their own communities and generally don’t marry outside of their ethnic group. It was all very primitive in its own way. The people farmed and made textiles generally and in many ways the traditions of past times seemed to continue, although now most of the tourists were white, rather than rich Vietnamese from the cities.

I asked Tan did the government bother the people there much. He told me, “Now they build some schools and clinics. Maybe 65% of children go to middle school, maybe 40% to high school”. Only 1%, he added, go to university; most people don’t leave the area, although that’s starting to change. “Cause we have electricity pretty good up here now, and TV, the children see pictures of Hanoi, of all the motorbikes and the jobs, and they want to leave now.”

There was a road being hewn through a steep hill across the valley; Tan said the government were building it to improve transport in the area: “It’s good transport but it’s destroying the river below”, he pointed down to a mostly dry river bed, “and more people will want to leave for the city. But the government wants them to stay and farm, so they’ll send different Vietnamese here if our people leave.”

After a couple of hours trekking through the hills, the Black H’mong girls having followed us the whole time, much better on these muddy paths than even Chuck and Rambo, we stopped for lunch in a makeshift restaurant in small building with concrete walls, corrugated iron roof, and no doors. The girls waited outside for us, tacitly understanding not to bother tourists while they’re eating.

There were a dozen or so puppies hopping about the muddied concrete floor, no doubt there to charm tourists. It’s a strange thing about Vietnam, but one only ever sees puppies or ancient old hounds, nothing in between. The common assumption among travellers is that the old ones are breeders and the ones in between are dinner. That could well be so, but I don’t know how often dog meat is in one’s pho (or noodle soup). As with most lunches I had in the country, this one included some sort of ham-like meat, except greyer than ham and with a weaker taste. The meat is almost always indefinable in Vietnam and it’s rarely particularly memorable. The fruit, however, which accompanies most meals, is delicious: sweet bananas, juicy watermelons, and fresh dragonfruit.

When we left the make-shift restaurant the Black H’mong girls stirred from their boredom and surrounded us, chanting “Buy from me. Buy from me”, in the manner of the undead, coached and prompter by the ancient women, who stood on the sidelines. It was no real life for the kids, trekking around with tourists all day to sell some trinkets and kitsch, but I saw much worse in the cities, where kids as young ten or so sold drugs, stored under their hampers of counterfeit books. I heard stories too about brothels which specialised in kids under twelve. I wondered how many of these kids, many of whom will end up leaving Sa Pa, will move to Hanoi and find work in the drugs and sex trades.

We all bought a few things we didn’t want and walked further, the Black H’mongs following us still. The kids made little horses out of grass for us when we looked tired and ran up ahead of us at ease. We passed another kid, a boy, who was riding on a water buffalo up a steep hill. He coaxed it toward us and blocked our way along the path to impress us with his riding skills. Marilyn and someone else took photos and the kid thrashed his umbrella in front of his face, screaming “Money! Money!” and we all laughed. He seemed to encapsulate the problems that limited modernisation causes in such rural areas. He rode off proudly on his faithful buffalo.

When we arrived at the homestead it must have been about four in the afternoon. We met Gene, the man of the house, who spoke little English but was affable with the little he did. His wife was cooking for us and their four children quietly playing inside. The house was very open in design, basically a barn. The upper level was a sort of gallery, lined with sleeping mats and mosquito nets. I washed the thick layers of mud from my feet and lay down on my bed-mat to sleep for an hour in the smoky barn.


(Text: Copyright 2011 Christopher McAteer; Photos: Copyright 2011 David Anderson)