Trekking Viet Nam’s Countryside

Dark tidal caves in the Bay of Tonkin; bamboo longhouses built on stilts

For the 15 of us on the amfAR Trek Asia challenge in Viet Nam, our journey began on October 28 as we arrived at the Hotel Hong Ngoc, on the edge of Hanoi’s old quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake. The surrounding streets were hot, humid, and crowded—a riot of activity marked by narrow lanes crammed with food stall hawkers, itinerant vegetable and flower vendors, bicyclists, pedestrians, and the ubiquitous and noisy scooters, parked on any hint of a sidewalk. With few traffic lights and fewer still working, walking around to catch some sites our first day seemed a game of chicken.

We spent the first several days in Viet Nam learning about AmfAR’s TREAT Asia efforts in that nation and began the trek challenge on Sunday. Our first destination was Ha Long Bay in the famed Gulf of Tonkin, a three and a half hour trip southeast of Hanoi, where we spent several days on the Pearl of the Bay, a large, junk-style, diesel and sail-powered palace. We were joined on our excursion by Loc, our Vietnamese guide who stayed with us throughout our visit. A natural storyteller, Loc told us stories of his youth in a small, northern Viet Nam village, which included many happy memories but also the deaths of two brothers as the result of the long war with the United States. Only after spending a full week with him was I convinced that Loc meant it when he said he harbored no malice toward Americans.

The Pearl of the Bay, which served as our launching pad for kayaking, is a large, steady craft manned by an experienced captain—though alarmingly he steered with his feet! Before manning our kayaks, we chugged past the limestone pillars and thousands of islands left in wake when the sea’s shoreline receded during a cataclysmic geological event centuries ago. The classic scroll-painting scenery, awesome though also almost eerie under overcast skies, has earned Ha Long a World Heritage designation from the United Nations.

The kayaking, strenuous—to the point of exhaustion for this novice—allowed us entrée into dark tidal caves and enchanted “Bali Hai” scenery. On the second day, we reached a pristine beach sheltered by a massive rock face, where the water was an opaque aqua blue, warm and buoyant. That day ended with a Vietnamese meal prepared by the Pearl’s resourceful chef—freshly caught shrimp, crab, and a haddock-like whitefish.

Wednesday, as we prepared to leave Hanoi once again for the hiking portion of our trek, a typhoon that had threatened all week finally arrived—with wild rain showers, but no discernible impact on the capital’s street life. Undaunted ourselves, we traveled four hours southwest, into a mountainous region called Mai Chau.

At the tops of hills, when the clouds broke, we were favored with glimpses of lush green valleys terraced with rice paddies. Construction scars were evident along the road as deep gashes of red earth and sharp yellow stone contrasted with the forest jungle’s dense greenness; all of the colors we saw seemed intensified during this stretch of our trip.

The first trail we hiked was paved—it was the only road into Hang Kia, the village where we were headed—and motorbikes occasionally buzzed by. As we approached the village, some children spotted us and began squealing; we soon had the attention of bemused adult villagers. Vague signs of smoke appeared at the roofline of the longhouse where we would spend the night; close by a pair of water buffalo eyed us with the blankness of bovine contentment, as sounds of crowing roosters and snorting pigs hung in the heavy air.

Inside the longhouse, larger but otherwise much like the others in the village, the décor was spare and rugged. I needed to duck as I crossed the entryway but the soaring, pitched ceiling inside rose a good 20 feet. The house was made up of one large room with an adjoining smaller room for cooking. Just in front of the kitchen was a small space marked off by blankets hanging from ropes, where an old woman was busy embroidering an intricate pattern in blood red tone on indigo-colored cloth. Behind this woman, the family matriarch, a younger woman tended an infant holding tight to her chest. Both women were dressed in the traditional manner of the Flower H’mong people, one of Viet Nam’s many ethnic minorities. After a simple dinner, we all slept in the same large room.

By the next morning, the heavy rains had stopped, giving way to a light mist, as we headed out of the village on a trail mostly downhill that had its share of slippery stretches and sharp rock outcroppings.

We reached the valley floor after a 1,500-meter descent and entered a village populated by the White Tai ethnic minority. Their homes were built up on stilts, and were surrounded by rice that had reached ripeness in terraced paddies. There was no sound of machines; the harvest is all done by hand. The harvesting requires both men and women to work, with women in the fields and men hauling stalks out.

We traveled on through increasing heat on to a similar small village where we stayed with Mrs. Ong, whose house was perched up on a slight hill just above a rushing stream, surrounded by cribs for the animals and her neighbor’s houses. Elevated on a stilt platform, the interior floor was made up of split bamboo cut to lie flat in one layer and supported by larger beams spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. The bamboo strips themselves were less than a half-inch thick, but bamboo is surprisingly strong, far more than the equal of our weight.

After a delicious dinner, Mrs. Ong offered rice wine and told us stories about her life and her village.

The last full day of our trek was nearly our undoing as the sun beat down mercilessly. We passed a schoolhouse in which children were reciting their lessons, but their teacher quickly lost their attention as they began to wave to us. Before we knew it, we were invited inside for a serenade from the kids. We returned their hospitality by dazzling them with the instant glee that can come from digital photography.

Unfortunately, the day’s fun was over. What lay ahead was a trek that lasted most of the afternoon in 100-degree heat out of the valley where we had spent the previous several days. The chirps of thousands of cicada-like crickets seemed to more than a few of us to be heralding malarial madness. Just as I wondered whether I could climb further, we reached the peak—the rest was down hill, and in the shade, to boot.

That night, we stayed in another White Tai village longhouse, where we were treated to a performance that featured traditional dances from different ethnic tribes in the surrounding region. The dance troupe was young and initially a bit shy. But we cheered them on and their performance loosened up, becoming more lively. One bamboo dance involved women dodging poles clapped together by the men. As the women ended their dance, they came out and dragged a few of us, myself included, to join them. It took me just a few good hits to my shin before I moved to the music’s rhythm.

Rice wine was soon brought out and the dancers asked us to sing a traditional song from our homeland. You don’t wanna know what we chose.

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