At the Edge of Vietnam – continued

So many impressions and experiences and so little time to share them – especially since I did not have any internet in the “Wild North”.

Here is the continuation to the first part (I had written it in Word) and copy it here now. There is more to follow – but we travelled all day and I am tired and exhausted and there is no way I can write this up now. I hope I will be able to catch up after the 25th when I will be having a break at the beach in Central Vietnam…

October 18th, 2012

This morning I decided to skip breakfast in the hotel – not to become too sentimental when parting with this homely place. We continued to Dong Van, the most northern place in Vietnam – a stone throw from the Chinese border. It took us 2-1/2 hours to cover the 42km of  meandering mountain passes – where sometimes the road seemed narrower than the car. But we were not in a hurry as our total road for the day was only about 100km.


We  passed lovely sceneries and many people, animals and motorbikes. Unfortunately on the whole trip it was always misty and my photos cannot do justice to the landscapes.


What happy little pigs!Farmers flailing the rice by hand…

…a village very near the border. Big Chinese influence on life there..…uniqute architecture for Vietnam……a woman spinning hemp – that’s what most of their clothings are made from……a local “petrol station”……black rock……endless mountain roads – we drove them all!

In Sa Phin we stopped at the interesting palace of  the White Hmong (a dominant local minority). The French had it build in 1901 to bribe the Hmong warlord (commanding 70,000 people) who had fought them for 15 years into cooperating with them. They even made him a General of the French Army :) That worked well – but after 1945 the warlord changed sides shortly before his death and his son started the liberation of the Ha Giang province from the French. These Vietnamese are not to be underestimated – Hmong or Kinh…

At the palace we stumbled onto a Hmong funeral. The relatives and friends gathered with food and music to mourn the deceased – who usually is displayed at his home for 11 days and all the time kept company by a relative, being fed a portion of sticky rice to his dead lips three times a day. One of my companions told me that the last few of the 11 days the house usually becomes quite “smelly”…

And the relatives and friends come from far and wide, meaning mountain villages accessible only on foot by trekking several hours…

…in the basket of the man to the left you see smoked corn. This is a present to the immediate family of the deceased. The corn beads are used for planting…this way securing a continuation of prosperous life for the deceased’s family.

Dong Van was the perfect place for lunch and the three of us got duly ripped of. We paid a hefty 280,000 Dong (21 Leva/DM, 14$) for less food than we paid 160,000 Dong for (in a better restaurant) yesterday. My Vietnamese guys told me that they, even without me, would have gotten creamed – as the locals know (by the car or the different accent) that they are like “foreigners” too. But their attitude is so fatalistic that they seem to find this quite normal and are not bothered about it. Funny people! The food, however, was impeccable. The lean pork slices as tasty as the “Schweinebraten” my mother used to cook in the old days and the kohlrabi leaf vegetable, dipped slightly in fish sauce, had nearly the full of taste as the roots. The fried, obviously home made, tofu was one of the best I ever had. Everything fresh (harvested or slaughtered the same day), nothing processed (OK, apart from the fish sauce) or whatever…by the way, here so close to the Chinese border people usually have soy sauce on the table. We had to order our fish sauce and chillies additionally…

…watch the floor (after people eating)…:)…the “central serving station”…

And my driver, a man in the know, obviously, told me that the opium from this area was the absolutely best inVietnam! Sadly the socialist government cracked down on them and now you have to go to other places, even more inaccessible, to find the same quality :)


After checking out Dong Van we continued to Meo Vac. A beautiful, beautiful landscape! After every bend you had new surprising, gorgeous views. And the fact that it was misty since we entered the North did not belittle the impressions. On the road we were several times overtaken by a Spanish guy doing the road to Meo Vac (26km) on foot, as we stopped many times to admire the landscape.

Here some more pics:

…Hmong girls walking about 10 miles from one place to the next (but not without their mobile phones!)…:)…farmers bringing dried plants home from the mountains…to be used as fuel for cooking the food…now, that’s a life!…boys on their afternoon task after school: to cut some elephant grass for the family buffaloes……the road continues…and continues……locals harvesting beans……and drying them…

For the first time on our trip we arrived in full daylight at our destination Meo Vac – only  3 pm! Unbelievable. Despite that the driver slowed down to a max of 20kmh for the last 5 km. Arriving is obviously not his strength! A “bustling place” as you can see:

…birds and cages on sale!……even a clothes department store…

…and a flower shop……these was the complete night action in the centre of this thriving town Meo Vac…and it finished by 9pm sharp…

The initial plan was to stay in a private home. But as the hotels of the last three nights had put a bit of strain on me I told the guide to put me up in the best available – provided they had WiFi.

Which they (claimed) they had. The room was big and clean, no spots on the walls, crisp towels (Bulgarian bathroom again but I don’t mind) and I felt like paradise. The price of 25$ was also acceptable. There was only one small difficulty: we could not produce the border permit that they required to accept guests. Now, last night in Qa Bang we had been told that this procedure was abandoned – but here they said that was only for one month and that it was in force again since August. Tired of going and finding the police in this place I ordered the hotel staff to arrange procedures for me and forked out 15$ for the pleasure. I hope the permit will give me a memorable (if expensive) souvenir by tomorrow morning :)

Well, here it is for whatever it may be good for:

Everything nice and dandy now. My boys set off to stay at the private house as the hotel was too expensive for them. Being an experienced Vietnamese, I immediately plugged in the fridge and turned on the boiler before unpacking my laptop to check my emails. Haha. “No connections available” was the friendly greeting. So, instead of relaxing I had to investigate matters. The fact that no one in the hotel speaks English did not really help.

As it turned out they have a router at the reception but its signal is too weak to reach my room. So to use the internet I should sit in the reception area (full with a load of noisy Chinese nouveau riche – I thought at first but they turned out to be Vietnamese group from Hanoi with money). F..k!!! I asked them to give me a different room closer to the router but was told that the rooms closer to the reception were “staff rooms”. Haha. This is the way the Vietnamese do it: they are always smiling and world champions in excuses. Too tired to call my guys to come and pick me up and find me a different place I gave in!

I went to buy some cold coke to have my stylish Cuba Libre. Back the reception I asked for a drinking glass and some ice. After some unsuccessful attempts of communicating the friendly and smiling lady in the end made a drawing on a piece of paper to verify if we were talking about the same thing. As I did not recognise her scribbling I drew a glass myself (Leonardo da Vinci could not have done it better). Obviously she had meant the same thing and a lot of giggling between the staff started. She assured me “room, room” – and here I am one hour still waiting…I did find a small glass in the bathroom now (that’s probably what she meant), which I thoroughly rinsed under hot water and wiped with some paper hankies. So, at least the drinking is secured…:)

My first attempt to sit at the reception and log onto the internet to publish this failed miserably. Because I stick out like a sore thumb here. End everyone tries to strike up a conversation in whatever foreign language of which he/she knows a few words or more. And everyone invites me to drink green tea with them – the regular social thing. The Vietnamese have no shame, it seems. They will ask you anything about yourself, no bars held. The usual questions (in this order): where do you come from, how old are you, how many children do you have (your age and social status has a certain implication as there is kind of a hierarchy which determines how they should address you (also in language terms) and where to put you in their universe. Then comes their bottomless nosiness: why are you here (me, personally, they usually ask if I am here to find a Vietnamese wife), what’s your profession, how much money do you make…and so on. One should not be offended by this. It’s part of their social culture. The main thing is to be polite (never RUDE!)…and I usually answer them in a joking way (which they seem to appreciate even if they don’t believe me exactly). Like, when they ask me if I want to find a local wife I tell them that my mission is to find a rich Vietnamese husband for my poor Bulgarian women and so on…:)

I will definitely need some time for the fun part on this blog getting from the travel descriptions into Vietnamese life details. Which, after all, brought me here :)

Tomorrow we will be driving endless mountain roads again to the “Ba Be” lake. I reckon another 10 hour drive. Sightseeing is not easy in such vast countries with basic infrastructures. Even when you do it in style. On this trip to the North I have not encountered another person travelling alone with his personal driver and guide (no wonder when I consider the price for this). Grand Luxury! On the other side I am seeing places off the beaten track that very few other tourists ever will and I “live” in a completely Vietnamese environment with direct contact to the people. That’s what I wanted and that’s what I am paying for: the real thing  (as far as it can be on such a short trip).

Here in this area life is very Chinese, so close to the border. Only one TV program (Chinese). Even the language is not true Vietnamese (or so I am told by my guys). Everything is more colourful and kitschy, the Chinese way. In some restaurants you have to order Vietnamese fish sauce as otherwise they only put soy sauce on the table. Even people’s faces look more Chinese (especially women’s, much less beautiful than the Vietnamese ladies).  And, in contrast to the greater Hanoi area, where all the motorbikes are Japanese, here they are all Chinese :)

OK, I was planning to visit the most Southern Chinese province (Yunan) as well, so I have no prejudice against Chinese, but due to the visa difficulties (and the rather steep Chinese prices nowadays) I have given up on the idea. I can find enough Chinese people in Sofia, around our super-huge market Ilientsi that supplies all of Bulgaria with cheap junk. China is too big a task to take on for me now, being here only for such a limited period of time.

One factor that drives me to this is that I do not see much beauty in China. It’s undoubtedly a country with an unfathomable heritage and old culture. But it is torn up between tradition and commerce. And I moved to Bulgaria to evade the commercial part of life. China and I, I have found out on this trip now, are not so extremely compatible. When I moved to Bulgaria it was a quest for real life. And when I look at myself now, 13 years later, this has not changed. I don’t need riches. I had plentiful in a different, previous, hard-working life – and they did not make me happy.


OK, I am in a transition period. The last 40 years or so (an incredible figure) centred mainly around two women.  Now I am “free” again. Whatever that means. For me it certainly does not mean to go back to money and to young women. It means to try and improve quality of life even further. My sole own choice now. And if I should encounter a woman along this way that is “compatible” with my view of life (chances like a “snowball in hell”?) I will go for it. If not? Who knows :) ))


… enough philosophy in the “Tonkin” mountains (that’s how the powers called this part of the world in the old days). Tomorrow is another day and I will now, after finishing my umpteenth drink, go to the reception to share all this baloney with you. Whether you want


Ein Gedanke zu “At the Edge of Vietnam – continued

  1. i am thinking your blog beats j.k.rowling, i am reading her new book, casual vacancy and am not captivated by it as by harry potter. but your reisetagebuch is very intersting. what a way to travel and see people and places. i envy you. go on with it. natascha

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