Saturday, June 21, 2008


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The Lo Lo Tribe

Our driver, Zung knew a Lo Lo family and took us to visit them. The Lo Lo tribe is one of the smallest still in existence in the northern hill country, numbering just over three thousand. For our benefit, their teenage daughter spent half an hour putting on the tribe's traditional costume. Her father was one of the village elders.

As with other villagers, we found we could come unannounced and be welcomed into their home with tea and hospitality.

Raw Meat & Open Fire Kitchens

This is the kitchen in the Lo Lo family's home. The wife is making us a pot of hot water for tea. Typically, this is what is available for the people; possibly supplemented by a propane stove. That was also the kitchen facilities at the Ecolodge in Cao San where we stayed for three nights. There is no electricity, and that means no refrigeration. Typical in the countryside, we also visited a city which shuts off its electric power over the weekend.

This is a photo of the meat counter at the Sin Cheng Market. Meat is butchered and laid out on a table in the open air. Click on the photo to enlarge it. There was one instance in which our guide sent back a meat dish she felt smelled bad, but we commonly ate pork, beef and chicken that must have been purchased at market stalls such as this one. Judy's infectious disease doctor was aghast, and it is true that both of us had to go on Cipro within the first week of our trip. No lasting impact however!

Water Buffalo Tails

On the second day in Cao San, the Red Dao village we stayed in for three nights, Judy had a huge bruise on her elbow. We marked it with a pen to make sure it didn't get bigger, but it did recede -- until we were home a week, and it came back more black and blue and bigger than ever. She went to her primary care physician who thought it was a parasite. My best guess was a spider bite. She was referred to an infectious disease doc, who diagnosed it as a bruise but felt it should be drained and biopsied. He referred her to a hand surgeon to drain it, who concluded it would reabsorb on its own -- so just leave well enough alone. Judy realized that what had happened was she was hit by a water buffalo tail in the streets of Cao San. At the time she didn't think much about it, as it wasn't particularly painful. It was like being hit by an enthusiastic dog's tail. Such a different life: to commonly be in the proximity of water buffaloes!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hmong Captures

In Dong Van we were attending the market and in what looked like a soccer field, there was a public trial going on. Two men had kidnapped a local peasant girl from the Flower Hmong tribe, and sold her to a Chinese farmer. They got eight years in prison.

The Hmong, however, have a tradition in which they can "capture" a bride: all the friends of the prospective groom surround a girl when she is at the market and spirit her away on a horse. One book said it was largely a symbolic act, but to hear our guide tell it kidnapping was more descriptive. It required a larger bride price, but was done when the girl had spurned the boy, but the boy was from a relatively wealthy family. Our guide had not heard of a girl being returned to her family.

The Village

"Why are you walking?" the local people would ask, as our car was parked at the edge of the village. They couldn't understand such a thing since we had transportation, and they couldn't understand why we would want to visit them. On the other hand, we could do something unheard of in our own country: walk up to any house and be invited in for tea -- even though our guide didn't necessarily know the inhabitants. This was true with all the tribes we visited.

One of my favorites was the Black La Chi, who not only wear black, but dye their teeth black as a beauty treatment. They were, like many, initially shy but also curious about us and within minutes we were being followed by a dozen small children. One girl who was barely eleven years old, from this tribe, had in tow three smaller siblings. Her mother had gone off to Malaysia to earn money for the family -- for four years! It is common also to see the smallest toddlers and babies being carried by their sisters who were only a few years older than themselves.

We were invited into dirt rooms that were quite dark and smoke-filled with few or no windows. A cooking fire was usually in the middle of the room. As pictured here in a Phu La house the bed is on the right, looking more like a table -- with no padding or mattress, and an alter to the ancestors. The floor is packed dirt, the chairs are quite low, there is a handmade basket cradle hanging in the room. There are also modern improvements like filtered water, and a television. The size of this room was larger than most.

Often the family has a large metal basin for making corn whiskey. There is also something to grind corn, and in the rafters are large baskets for rice and dried corn still on the cobs for future planting. This Red Dao woman is mixing corn to ferment. she primarily makes here living by brewing corn whiskey. While in the Ecolodge I was toasted by our hosts: by the third shot my mouth was numb! Fortunately, they didn't pressure me to drink more; although they had many more shots themselves.

We stayed three nights at the Cao San Ecolodge where the mattresses were more padded, but still encased in plastic because of the probability of mildew damage. In the morning we awoke to roosters crowing, barking dogs, squealing pigs, and the clatter of bells on water buffalo. The sounds of traffic was noticeably missing -- in Cao San, even the absence of motorbikes. It was usually very misty, with clouds shrouding the mountain tops.
One day we got a hard rain for several hours. This was the home of the Red Dao tribe, and they were out rain or shine plowing and planting rice fields, often wearing a sheet of plastic for rain gear.

The Red Dao are also known for their embroidery, and Judy bought one of their outfits -- which took two years to complete! They also demonstrated a
batik made with beeswax, and let us each try.
Again, we were surrounded by shy but curious children who would hide when a camera was pointed at them but were equally anxious to see their digital image and broke out into self-conscious giggles. Unfortunately, many of these kids did not dress traditionally, and what with cell phones, electricity, TV and the Internet, these tribal cultures are likely to be largely lost within another generation. Electricity is coming to Cao San, although right now it is only a few hours each day with generators, and the Ecolodge is the party telephone line. If someone calls in, they must call back after the desired party is fetched from the village.
Another favorite village was called Tha, a traditional Tay tribal village with thatched roofs, and stilts. Traditionally, the livestock was kept on the ground level, and in this village we saw some of that. However, many people also use it as a room to thresh rice, store their motorbike or bicycle and other miscellaneous things like we would use an unfinished basement or garage. This village was lush with palm trees, and rice paddies. As we walked through streets not large enough for cars, we were passed by water buffalo being taken to the fields.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Market

When you first approach the market (we visited three), it is up into the mountains on a winding road. On the shoulders of the road are families walking to or coming from the market, sometimes herding water buffalo or cows; often wearing large baskets full of produce with horse hair straps. The mountains loom up in the background, and everywhere there isn't sheer rock is planted with corn. Generations of tribal people have hauled soil up between the rocks. We turn the final corner to a parking lot of motor bikes, and just beyond it is a cacophony of colorful sights and sounds.

The Flower Hmong people are dressed in their finest clothes, embroidered with lots of red and orange; and beaded fringe. Even though it is hot and humid the women wear several layers of clothing, including leggings, a skirt, an apron, scarf and perhaps a hat and a baby sling. Most also carry an umbrella for use against the sun as much as the rain. They are the predominant tribe at the Pha Long Market, twenty miles south of the Chinese border. However, there are others as well; and on our travels we interacted with almost twenty different tribes.

At the Quyet Tien Market we also saw Nung, Dao Lang Ten, B' oy, Tay, White Hmong, Dao, Mon and Green Hmong people. The men lack their counterpart's color, usually wearing black berets, or green pith helmets and thick green or indigo shirts.

At the edge of the market is a barber, set up in the outdoors with a chair and large mirror, under which is positioned his motor bike. Walking further along the roadway there are sellers of chillies, melons, leche nuts, beans, hand forged farm implements, and clothes. Plastic also is popular: pans, sandals, stools, buckets. Off to one side is the piglet market area, many squealing, all tethered by twine leads. There is also a section for cows, and water buffalo. We were told that due to Global Warming, the Northern Hill Country has become more severe with colder winters and hotter summers. The cows have become more valuable that water buffalo, as they are better able to adapt to these changes. There is meat for sale, chopped up on tables with no refrigeration: mostly pork since cows are too valuable (equal to the price of a motor bike).

Then there are the sounds: chickens, ducks, pigs, the horns of ice cream vendors, cowbells, and cicadas and frogs in the surrounding trees, as well as lots of motor bikes, some trucks and very few cars. Of course there are hundreds of people, all talking in several languages. We are the only Westerners present, but we are often greeted with "Hello!".

The Hmong men are sitting together and drinking corn whiskey. Our guide told of about them passing out on the road, and their wives dutifully hold an umbrella over them, shading them from the sun, until they are sober enough to walk home. This turned out to be no exaggeration, as we saw this scene half a dozen times. The wives consider this an honor, as it is evidence that their husbands are very popular, having been toasted until they are toast!

Back from the frontier

Its Saturday evening and we are about to catch the overnight train back to Hanoi. We weren't able to be in contact until now because the places we've stayed haven't had Internet connections, let alone electricity. We stayed three nights in a place where we took baths with a cup in a pan of hot water, that was brought to our room. We had electricity for a few hours every night with the use of a generator, and the hotel staff would use it for karaoke after we had gone to bed -- under our mosquito nets.

Each morning we would head out to a remote market or village and visit one of the almost twenty tribes we have been able to interact with. Among our experiences was watching a village "healer" (shaman) go into a trance beating a drum and burning rice paper to use the smoke to communicate with the spirits. He is pictured here, dressed in black with a black cloth over his face. This is in his home -- note the dirt floor, the alter and the pictures on the other wall. Before and after the ceremony we went into a smaller, windowless room with an open fire where he served us tea, and asked us how many day's walk it was to our house.

Pictured here is our guide, Thao showing our cook's wife and daughter a digital image she just took of them. Thao bought one of my cameras, and was almost as intend as I with her photography on this trip. We frequently took photos and the local people delighted in seeing their digital image on the backs of our cameras. They usually reacted with shyness and giggles. I gave away about 40 Polaroids, and as in other remote places, we would gather a crowd of the curious. People were initially cautious with us, and in the most remote market in Pha Long -- twenty miles from the Chinese border -- our guide, Thao was questioned by the police. We had a document with special permission to be there, but were the only "long noses" (Westerners) anywhere around.

We witnessed many scenes of rice paddies in various stages of growth, including muddy water buffaloes and farmers plowing water logged fields; followed by a line of H'mong women bending over at the waist planting new sprigs of rice. In the higher areas there was corn planted everywhere, including between the rocks on very steep mountain hillsides.

I must close so Judy can check her email!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hanoi Dispatch

Fourteen hours on China Airlines left us pretty exhausted. The leg room is for Asian people, not those they call "long noses" -- or long legged caucasians. My luggage also arrived on the right flight, but a day after us. Otherwise, no problem.

We have been in Hanoi now four days, taking day trips each day to villages outside of the city. We are going to small places where they don't often encounter foreigners. So when we walk through the village we are typically trailed by dozen young children. We are visiting various craftsmen like a master flute kite maker, where we spent three hours with him assembling a kite.

Today we visited with an old war veteran who lost his leg just below the hip. He was a spy, fighting the French and was captured and tortured twice. He was quite proud of the fact that he fed the French misinformation that they believed. His medals hung on the wall below an old photo of him in uniform. He is a master hat maker in a village where everyone makes the traditional conical hats seen all over the country. He is one of the only people who knows how to make a ceremonial version that is large, round and flat -- like his grandmother showed him how to make.

We also visited a settlement of 150 people who live in shacks that float along the Red River, which flows through Hanoi. They have a well from Unesco, but no other improvements. They power their televisions with car batteries, sleep in hammocks & mats on the floor, and cook with coal briquets. One woman, who served us a bitter tea, said that her husband had been killed in a border skirmish with the Chinese about twenty years ago, and she was forced to leave her village. She survives by collecting garbage. The village elder said he lost his land in the redistribution after the war.

In the flute kite village an old woman with teeth red from chewing beetlenut, peered at the back of my camera through her cateracs and suddenly realized she was looking at a picture of herself. With surprise she giggled and slapped me on the shoulder! People seem very willing to engage us, and are not shy about having their photo taken so they can see their digital image.

This is Judy in the conical hat making village. The woman pictured with her is exceptionally tiny, but it does illustrate that these are small people. They were facinated with Judy, and even without a translator, communicated how impressed they were with her height. Click on the image to get a better view.

Tomorrow we leave for the northern Hill Tribe country, where access to the Internet will likely be unavailable until we return to Hanoi on Sunday, June 2nd. We're enjoying the trip, although Judy is already on Cipro (from her cooking class). The people are great, and our guide, Thao, has delivered for us a very good off-the-beaten-track experience.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


MAY 19th: (MONDAY) Hanoi
Arrive in Hanoi at 10:35am. Transfer to hotel and day of leisure.

MAY 20th: (TUESDAY) Handicraft Villages
One day drive to flute-kite making village. Meet village's kite club members and learn skills to make special flute kites at temple of Kite Deity. Enjoy some village rice cakes with flute/kite craftsmen.: Tro, Troi, and Chay at Nguyen Huu Do's home. Spend two hours making Vietnam traditional toys: a paper scholar, stick fighter, fish-shaped lantern guided by Master Tho. Overnight in Hanoi.


Half day cooking tour starts by walking to the food market in Hanoi's Old Quarter, led by Ms. Anh Tuyet - the well known artisan who loves to preserve the essence of "native Hanoians" culture. Judy will be guided to select the ingredients for authentic Hanoi food. Back at the ancient house, Judy will learn to cook three typical dishes of Hanoi. Our host will have special deserts to sample from each season. Overnight in Hanoi.

Breakfast at hotel and transfer to Duong river bank for biking. Bike along the dyke, through ancient villages and picturesque rice paddies. Lunch at local cafe. Afternoon biking trip continues in Thuan Thanh, Ha Bac in the Buddhist pagodas area, visiting ancient pagodas: But Thap, Dau, Keo and the old wooden block painting village, Dong Ho with the Master Artist, Nguyen Dang Che. Transfer by bus back to Hanoi.

MAY 22nd: (THURSDAY) Hanoi
Explore life in Hanoi and its suburbes, visiting a family, the Old Quarter; and Tay Tuu, the biggest flower and vegetable village. Overnight in Hanoi.

MAY 23rd: (FRIDAY) Ha Giang
Drive to Hagiang by car, lunch en route. See Pathen ethnic group famous for barefoot walking on fire. Trek through village of Black Lachi. Soak in hot water stream, followed by homestay with a local dinner. Overnight in home at Viet Lam village.

MAY 24th: (SATURDAY) Ha Giang
Bike a 10k loop along the scenic road. Stop at many ethnic villages for chatting with the local people and taking photos. Visit the Museum of Ethnology. Overnight at Ha Giang mini hotel.

MAY 25th: (SUNDAY) Dong Van
Morning drive to the peak of Nui Con Tien mountain to take photos of Hagaing. Visit Quyet Tien market, home of the Hmong, Po Y Dao, and Tay ethnic minority peoples. Visit Cao village, and enjoy the architecture of a 1924 castle built by a local Lord. Overnight at a guest house.

MAY 26th: (MONDAY) Ha Giang
Visit Meo Vac market en route from Dong Van to the Lung Phin market. Then on to Yen Minh villages of the Day and Nung minority peoples. Overnight in Ha Giang mini hotel.

MAY 27th: (TUESDAY) Hoang Su Phi
Trekking 40k away from Hoang Su Phi. Overnight at Hoang Su Phi hotel.

MAY 28th: (WEDNESDAY) Sinman - Bac Ha
Jeep drive to Bac Ha. Overnight at Bac Ha hotel.

MAY 29th: (THURSDAY) Lung Khang Nhin - Cao Son
Morning car transfer to Lung Khau Nhin market. This must-see place is untouched for centuries. The Tay, Tuzi, Pazi, Hmong tribal peoples can be seen here. Transfer to Cao Son. Overnight in the Can Son Ecolodge.

MAY 30th: (FRIDAY) Ta Thang Market
Morning drive to Ta Thang market. With stunning views of mountains, and rivers, Ta Thang is said to be the rendevous for the Tay, Zao and Green Hmong tribes' cultural activities: folk music and dance performances. Walk to visit the Check Hmong's village Sicala. Overnight in Cao Son Ecolodge.

MAY 31st: (SATURDAY) Pha Long Market
Two hour scenic drive to Pha Long Market, one of two mountain markets in Northwest Vietnam, which have just been discovered in 2007, primarily populated by Black Zao and Tay tribal people. Drive to Lao Cai for night train back to Hanoi. Overnight in Hanoi.

JUNE 1st: (SUNDAY) Hanoi
Arrive by overnight train in Hanoi in the early morning. Check into hotel, and day of leisure.

JUNE 2nd: (MONDAY) Departure
Leave on China Airlines from Hanoi at 11:34am.