There is an extraordinary place way up in the northern mountains of Vietnam called Ha Giang. It is a big province of mountains beyond mountains, rivers, rice and corn terraces, cultivated valley farm lands, several ethnic minority tribal villages and views so dramatic that one feels “exposure” just looking out at the vastness. Mountains of 2400 meters or 7900 feet that rise up so steeply it seems some greater power pulled them up out of the earth like thick taffy. The narrow and twisty roads seem to hang off the slope sides spiraling higher and higher as they wrap themselves around the mountains.
We slept in a home stay first night in the foothills of Ha Giang. Our guide, 24 year old Khu, herself a member of the H’mong tribe, guided us through villages of black H’mong and Dao peoples .
We walk along rice paddies, through jungle, to a waterfall and visit another village that takes us into dark. We come home to a veritable feast of local dishes: banana blossom salad, pumpkin leaf with garlic, zucchini and yellow squash, ground pork wrapped in bamboo shoot petals (my personal favorite) morning glory greens, smoked sausage, fried fatty pork, beef with veggies, fish sauce with chilis and 2 scoops of rice. Khu tells us most seriously that taking only one scoop is unlucky. We are introduced to “happy water”. Our driver, Mr. Phon teaches us , “mort, ha, bai, gzo” (one, two three, drink) and we slug a shot of homemade rice wine. After 6 rounds, Steve is hailed as Vietnamese. And we are indeed happy.
We venture further into Ha Giang , through Heaven’s Gate, the highest point of this mountainous province, Meo Vac, Dong Van, small cities with outlying villages nestled in deep valleys or clinging to steep hillsides. The mountains are of limestone origin, the same karst as in Bai Tu Long Bay only earth bound. We watch families work the slopes, planting greens for their livestock and corn for themselves. Some of these folks are so poor, they have corn for every meal, sleep on corn husk mats and drink corn wine. We were invited into this family of five’s home; a small, dark hovel with dirt floor, unvented smoke and no windows; the only light is through the door opening.Young children are caretakers for younger children
Our guide Khu was a sweet young woman from Lao Cai, in the Sapa region of high mountains, and while she only finished 8th grade she learned English from tourists when she sold goods to them as a teenager. She also spoke Vietnamese and a common dialect of H’Mong. One day we trekked the Skyland Trail and came upon some noisy and colorful activity at a juncture in the path in front of us. Khu says ,”wedding” to us and after a few exchanged words and smiling invitational gestures we were asked to join in the wedding celebration. We were ushered in, to sit and eat sunflower seeds with them, pose and take pictures with them while awaiting the bride and groom. I was elated to not only be part of this H’Mong festivity but to be up close with the local people in their native finery. The area was decorated with a multicolored ruffled canopy large enough to cover a hundred people, tables covered with red cloths, food constantly being brought to the tables in readiness for the feast to come. We watched in awe as villagers came from near and far, some on foot, some on motor bike with gifts and one with a freshly killed pig.
Men and teenagers
They’d walk up to the donation table with their offerings, usually cash and have their gifts registered. It is culturally expected to give a donation to the new couple and is recorded so at future weddings a gift can be given in kind. Steve and I also donated and were recorded with date, amount and “Steve and Marian ❤️” which drew happy expressions and hand clasps all around. Now we were legitimate guests.
When the tables were overflowing with food, the bride and groom showed up. Sweet.
Then just as swiftly as we blended in, we got up, exited unobtrusively and continued on the path into town. What a morning…