Friday, April 15, 2011

Sapa: Home of the Mountain Mong people

Priest chooses from the fruit & veg stalls in the market, Sapa, northern Vietnam

Sapa was the coldest place I'd been in a long time. The overnight train from Hanoi pulled into the station at Lo Cai, an hour's drive from Sapa at 4.45am and we exited the train half asleep, where my bag was taken from me, as if matter of course, and delivered to a waiting bus, where the hauler demanded 50,000 vietnamese dong for his services. I said, wha??? Then I said, no way.

The driver of the van left it semi-full and took off again to the station waiting for another train, without telling us why we were sitting there, with the door open, freezing our semi-clad bodies off. Once full he drove like a maniac with his two companions up front having a highly spirited conversation while he sailed blithely around cliff corners, narrowly avoiding plummeting to our deaths over one precipice after the next. By the time we got to Sapa, I was cold and angry. So were the rest of the new arrivals. He dumped us in the middle of the town, refusing to even tell us where our respective hotels were, let alone take us to them. We all stumbled out and were immediately surrounded by a gaggle of brightly clad mountain people - which Mong clan I couldn't tell (there are Black Mong, Red Mong, Flower Mong but they perhaps should be called Multi Mong for the profusion of seriously eye shattering colours they were wearing. I was immediately surrounded and asked three questions, which I would hear repeatedly during my three days there: What's your name? Where you from? and Buy from me? after which they would pull out a selection of their handmade wares one after the other, of course after you have said the first 'no' of the day. I was in no mood for being pestered and was, unfortunately, not very gracious on my first meeting with the Mong people of Sapa.

My hotel was freezing but had an absolutely fantastic view over the staggeringly beautiful mountains surrounding the incredibly picturesque Sapa. I almost had the feeling I'd had in Greece years previously when I woke up in Santorini, went out on the balcony and looked down the tri-coloured cliffs that fell away hundreds of meters into the caldera, it was if a voice comes up in such moments of extreme witnessing of nature's visual wonders that almost warns you not to look, no mortal can survive such beauty... Sapa is like that, even at this time of year when the thousands of terraces the Mong have carved into the steep sides of the mountains have not yet been planted with the green shoots of rice, turning the region into a carved verdigris bowl for seven months of the year.

The Mong women, with their babies strapped to their backs, followed you everywhere, never for one minute desisting from their god-given task of extracting as much money from you as possible. It is insistent and wearing, but they are so incredibly charming, so full of guile and humour, so willing to open themselves, their faces cracking into huge smiles at any opportunity, that I must say I warmed to them, and they warmed me in those cold days in those misty mountains.

Sapa is the highest region of Vietnam, boasting the tallest mountain in South East Asia, Fansipan, at 10,312 feet it's called 'the roof of Indochina'. I hired a guide and we drove on motorbike up through the mist towards it, mountains spiking all around us and the freezing mists making it an unpleasant ride. I kept thinking 'frangipane', a confectioner's almond filling and trying to reconcile that with the black mountains gesticulating at the sky all around us. I tried to keep my fingers warm so that when I jumped off to take a picture (every three minutes like clockwork) I would have more than a frozen claw with which to maneuver my camera, my guide was a mine of information on the region, with it's 2,024 floral varieties and 327 faunal species.
View from my hotel, rightly named, The Sapa View
One of the Black Mong, who wear mainly black with highly coloured accents

I was invited to dine here in a market stall for lunch, one which the Mong women frequent. It was my very first taste of market food. A simple rice dish, it was fantastic.

A group of Mong on their way back from working in the rice terraces. They are incredibly hard working people, robust and very fit from their daily travail.

A Mong woman, eating a stick of raw sugar cane, carries her baby on her back
The amazing scenery around Sapa, looking up towards Fansipan, the highest mountain in SE Asia

Taken from a moving motorbike, two Mong children start the long walk to Sapa town from their village

I couldn't get over the sheer beauty of these people, and their children

Although I was initially irritated by the insistent harangue the Mong women put you through in their attempts to sell you things, I was worn down by their beauty and their sheer ebullience
Mong Man on his way from the rice terraces, Sapa.

The way home
Mong girl
A Black Mong woman and her baby
Colourful Mong woman against a typical Sapa backdrop

Red Mong women with their outrageous red head gear

Even the old women have something amazingly childlike about them
Tiny, strong and incredibly beautiful, I photographed this old woman a lot

View on the way to Cat Ba village, Sapa

Valley with river and rice terraces

Mong women outside the market, Sapa

An invitation to a market stall lunch, who could resist?
The clouds roll in over the black mountains, Sapa
A gaggle of Mong, Sapa market
Black Mong women in the Sapa market
A beautiful Mong woman
Colourful fruit and veg at the Sapa market
At first she wouldn't let me take her photo, but then she suddenly said ok
Lunchtime in the market

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hanoi Part I: Welcome to hell...

Street vendor, Hoan Kiem district, Ha Noi
Ah, what can I say about Hanoi that hasn’t been covered effectively in Dante’s Inferno? Hanoi is my idea of hell on earth where nothing came to redeem it from being a city at the edge of oblivion during my first stay there. I arrived at my hotel almost crying after an hour-long, knuckle-whitening ride into the city from the airport on a very straight road on which my driver narrowly missed every other car as he drove at break-neck speed, honking all those infuriating motorcyclists out of his way, narrowly missing everyone he passed. As we drove on, the city materialized around us, or should I say, buildings that were at one time French colonial in style but were now so dilapidated and distorted by multiple ornery additions and obscured by dense webs of black electric cables in such a sorry state as they stood alongside shanties, lean-tos with corrugated iron roofs, that they could better be described as ‘former’ buildings. Everything seemed to lean and sag, rusting and chipped, dowdy and downright dirty but interspersed with huge shining car showrooms where the rich can buy their transport. It seemed at first glance like hell, alright. The thing about hell, though, is it can be quite photogenic...

Various Vietnamese confectionary on sale in the old district
My hotel was slap-bang in the middle of the old district or Hoan Kiem as it’s called. Big mistake. It was like being taken on a speeding conveyor belt into a teeming hive of hornets where every sound was amplified for specific effect. My hotel was mediocre, and dissatisfied I looked at a number of rooms before finally going with the least offensive, quietest (ha! What a joke!) one available. Later, I ventured out onto the streets. There are no traffic lights in the old district. It’s a big free for all where traffic is coming from four directions and pedestrians are completely disregarded, at the bottom of the totem pole of driving hierarchy. You very literally take your life into your own hands when you venture out on the streets. But there are the inscrutable Vietnamese, deftly avoiding crashing into each other three times every minute while balancing a bale of hay on their heads and a carton of eggs under one arm, a baby (without a helmet) under the other, while they steer their motorbike with their bare feet. There is a (in my opinion completely unintelligible) law in Vietnam where everyone over sixteen years must wear a helmet, but under that age it is not required. So you often see children riding on motorcycles, standing behind the front bars, or on the laps of parents, helmetless and unharnessed, completely at the mercy of the driving skills of their parent, the oncoming traffic and blind luck...

Nothing seems to rattle these people. This, I was told by a guy I met on the road, is because they have a much more relaxed attitude to life. If something happens it is fate, they pray it won’t, but if it does… I don’t know if it’s that or just expediency (and the Vietnamese are the most expedient people I’ve ever met) where everything else, including the safety of their children, very literally falls by the wayside.

Within the chaos, though, little pockets of peace and sanctuary. I found a beautiful temple while I wandered around where a ceremony was in process.
The interior space of the temple with food laid out for the temple visitors
Food laid out like a medieval banquet in the interior of the temple
Among the myriad things...

Ceremony in local temple, old district, Hanoi

Two men present for the temple ceremony

Old bike inside temple

Because of the constant noise, the crazy driving and the bad air I can only take being outside for short periods. The old district is full of sections dedicated to various ancient guilds that set up there hundreds of years ago, so you have Silk Street and Metal Street, etc., each one starting with ‘Hang’ which means ‘market’, then followed by the type of market. As I wandered from the paper section (filled with coloured paper products, lanterns, paper dolls, etc) through the silk section, then the food section I came upon a street I wish I could have avoided, which I will call ‘Hang Dead Dog’. 

On tables all down this road were piled in neat rows were skinned, gutted, roasted dogs. It was the most sickening sight I’ve ever seen, and I’m not even a keen dog lover. Of course I’d already experienced in Thailand how miserable both dogs and cats lives are in Asia, and of course I knew about the Vietnamese obsession with dog flesh (it’s more expensive here than chicken), but there is nothing that can prepare you for the sight of all those little neatly stacked cooked mutts with their stiff little roasted legs pointing up towards doggy heaven.
Old woman at the window

lovely paper lanterns in the paper market
Lovely fish in the fish market

Lovely doggies in the Dog Market 
Man’s best friend, indeed. It would seem that to the Vietnamese nothing is sacred. Everything is just material which can be bought, sold, cooked, eaten. It is a  nonchalance to life and I’ve never experienced anything like it. I don’t want to get onto any high horse and make pronouncements about why eating one animal flesh is better than any other, but until you go to Hang Dead Dog you will not completely understand the argument. Anyway, I left disgusted. I later ate in a French/Vietnamese restaurant a vegetarian dish (pretty mediocre) because the thought of any animal flesh in between my teeth was completely repulsive.
Sack Hauler, Fruit Market
Rickshaws are alive and well in Hanoi

Street vendors, Hanoi
Hard-bitten tea-drinking rope vendor, Hanoi
Hanoi, where the French once designed the houses

Masks for sale in the mask market
Not looking too happy, a guard stands guard outside a government building
A man studies a supply list in a paint shop, Hanoi
Beautiful store owner, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

I used Hanoi as my base from which I travelled by train northwards to Sapa, a little village in the mountains where the ancient Hmong peoples live. When I returned to Hanoi after my expedition to Sapa I had a much warmer attitude to it. This could be as a result of familiarity or the thought of my impending departure; still, I couldn't imagine being in that city once the summer heat has settled in falling over the city like a giant duvet under which the pollution is well and truly sealed.