During my trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last November I got acquainted with a group of convivial Mong boys working on a labor contract. They had come from various villages scattered in Mường Lát, a remote mountainous district of Thanh Hóa province, central Vietnam.
They had been in Malaysia for a number of years and were prepared to return home for Lunar New Year (Tet) celebrations. The obvious thing for this curious foreigner in Hanoi to do was paying them a courtesy visit while they were back home.
Northern Vietnam’s winter cold and misty rain had set in early, so when late January rolled around, ideal travel weather had long been off the order of the day. Should we go just the same? Yes, was the enthusiastic response of some intrepid local Vietnamese friends who sought some distraction from the long holiday period with nothing much to do. A quick phone call to Mường Lát gave assurance that it hadn’t rained for days and the 90 kilometers from Quan Hóa to their district were quite passable, albeit with long stretches under construction.
When the day came and, the foreigner some reluctance pleaded with the others to reconsider. ‘No, it hasn’t rained for days in Mường Lát district,’ claimed our soon-to-be host. How would we get there? Going such a long distance over unsafe road in uncertain weather by motorbike was out of the question. Sensing that driving would be too difficult and not wanting to risk life, limb and friendship, two previously favorable taxi drivers begged off at the last minute. Miraculously, Hue, a taxi driver, agreed to take the four of us in his perky Matiz, at a premium price due to the distance and rough terrain. With the Lunar New Year holiday going with a swing, it was either meeting his conditions or not going at all.
We left Hà Đông at about 7:30 a.m. in a light foggy rain on the way to Hòa Bình province, the sky began to lighten and the drizzle ceased by the time we polished off some delicious phở bò at Phố Chăm, just past Hòa Bình city. The road started climbing and winding from Mai Châu, we continued traveling southward to Thanh Hóa province. Many country folk were enjoying the holiday respite, with well-dressed inhabitants riding on motorbikes, stopping for pictures or simply enjoying their rural fraternity.
Then came the turnoff at Hồi Xuân, Quan Hóa, we crossed a well-built bridge over the Mã River to take on the pièce de résistance—90 kilometers of winding, twisting, hairpin-curved road, much of it under reconstruction. The earlier phở had been digested and an eatery would have been a welcome sight. But, in these sparsely populated parts, no Lotteria, no BBQ, not even a cơm bình dân. Only the captivating scenery on which to feast the eyes.
20, 30, 40 kilometers—we advanced slowly through this limestone region marked by sinks, abrupt ridges, irregular protuberant rocks, caverns, and underground streams, interspersed with rice paddy terraces painstakingly extracted from an inhospitable terrain. No traffic bottlenecks, just the odd motorcycle puttering by here and there; locals, young and old, strolling along the road, many sporting the colorful traditional attire of the local ethnic communities.
Unbeknownst to our friend in Bản Keo Hươn, a fair stretch of road had been doused by local overnight precipitation from the stocky clouds of mist enshrouding the hills. Our crafty driver, a native of Thanh Hóa province, boldly pressed on through deep ruts in the mud and long stretches of recently graded but unfinished fill. Anxiety set in. No other travelers in four-wheelers had been seen for hours, it seemed. Then, on a particularly sloppy uphill stretch the car high-centered on a broad ridge of mud. With the four passengers chipping in to push, we were soon on our way again.
The sun emerged and bathed the hillsides and corniches with its glory, giving the mist a strong chase. Then it happened. A flat tire. Determined to move us on despite the setback, Huệ had a wheel off and the spare one in no time flat. No pun intended. Our friends were waiting another 20 kilometers down the road, another hour or so away.
Then we saw an oncoming car approaching. Its feisty driver slowed down, beckoned our driver to stop and congratulated him on his success thus far, saying that the worst was over, venturing a remark that it was worth a lot of money to brave this thoroughfare.
The unexplored expanses on either side of the road beckoned further exploration. Big signs informed us that we were in the border zone with Laos. Nary a foreign tourist in sight, not even a thrill-thirsty motorcycle hound. Endless stretches of gorgeous rogue landscape scarcely visited. Not a tourist amenity anywhere.
By 3:30 p.m. we pulled up in Nhi Sơn commune, relieved to be at our friend’s place, just off the road. A hearty welcome from him, his immediate family and large extended family awaited us, taken as they were with visitors from afar. We were treated to a delicious meal of rice and măng đắng (bitter bamboo shoots), a rare delicacy that even few locals enjoy. We shared our loaf of homemade bread, to the delight of our host and numerous persons who jostled around to get a closer look at this motley bunch from 300 km away stepping out of a very mud-spattered taxi.
We took time to relax and watch groups of local Mong youth, many bedecked in traditional costumes, out enjoying a traditional game that consisted simply of tossing a fabric ball back and forth between parallel rows. Not a cell phone, not a video game, just good old-fashioned socializing.
The hospitable inhabitants of Keo Hươn village offered to put us up for the night in their spartan homes. But it was decided to drive on a further 25 kilometers to Mường Lát town and bed down in a conventional guesthouse. We picked Sông Mã hotel, a brand new facility, spotlessly clean, with fresh linen and warm comforters. The presence of the first foreigner ever to register provoked some concern as the hotelier had no experience in handling such an event.
A hearty meal of stir-fried water buffalo shank, jellied ham, headcheese, scalded kale, fresh greens and steaming rice served up in a jiffy in an adjacent restaurant was quickly downed, the flavorful local food enhanced by shot glasses of heady homemade rice wine.
Morning came all too quickly. Although dense fog had descended during the night, a summary walking tour of the town was in order. By 7 o’clock, the local market appeared to be slowly reviving after the Tết lull. A disemboweled hog was flat out on the butcher’s table, divested of its head and about to be carved up for the local pork merchant.
The backtrack to Keo Hươn village was made more challenging by the thick gloom of the morning fog and utter disrepair of the road. We made it, and our new acquaintances came out to bid us farewell. We lingered to observe the progress of a nearby log-frame house construction and to watch a new set of boys and girls back at the simple game of ball exchange.
All too soon we were on the road for the trip back to Hanoi, reflecting on the friendliness of the local people, the stunning countryside in which they live, but saddened by their isolation and the lack of travelers that could be bringing in dollars to help alleviate their grinding poverty aggravated perennially by long periods of drought or violent outbursts of rain. Most of the nearby forests—the larder of these communities—have been all but gleaned bare.
Hopefully an entrepreneurial investor will soon see the potential and, in harmony with the wish for development expressed by Party Chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng during his two-day visit to Mường Lát in September 2011, help the province actively seek ways to promote tourism with the provision of such things as home stays, trekking paths, guides, local ethnic food outlets; and thus bring benefits to the colorful, shy and wonderfully down-to-earth populace of Mường Lát.
Another trip? Quite possibly. But by motorbike from Hanoi to Mai Châu the first day and then to Mường Lát the next morning. Do it when spring comes before the heavy rains of summer.
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