HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Dong Van to Meo Vac: Leaving Earth

Morning in Dong Van arrived with light rain and plenty of low clouds, which seems to be the default weather pattern of most of northern Vietnam. As we got breakfast the rain intensified, and since Meo Vac, our furthest stop from Ha Giang town, was only 22 km away, we decided to wait it out. The weather eventually improved and we rolled out.

The road climbed out of town and onto a more open stretch through the mountains. At least we thought it was more open. Thick mist had moved in, and we couldn't see more than 20 or 30 feet. Sheer rock walls rose to our right, while to the left corn fields stretched down the slopes towards what we assumed was a valley. There was almost no traffic, as we were entering one of the most remote areas of the country. As we drove along a momentary gap would open up in the clouds, giving us a brief glimpse of the scenery we were missing. The low clouds and mist were constantly shifting, pouring through openings between karsts and wrapping around mountains like natural veils. It was an incredible sight.

We noticed houses every now and then tucked into nooks on the hillside, often in seemingly impossible places, surrounded by corn. How did people decide to live in such an inhospitable place? We then hit a series of downhill switchbacks, and as soon as we reached the bottom the wind picked up. Even though we still couldn't see anything, we figured this had to mean we had reached the fabled Ma Li Peng pass, considered the most incredible stretch of road in Vietnam. Built a few decades ago, the pass was blasted into the side of the mountains that rise above the Nho Que river. There is no guardrail, just a series of concrete blocks painted with red stripes, spaced with plenty of room in between for a motorbike to go flying through on its way into the abyss. There is no shoulder, and at any given time you are no more than a few feet away from the steep edge.

The rain was picking up again so we stopped at a shelter on an overlook, where there was a memorial to the people who built the road. Visibility was improving, and the clouds finally gave up what they were trying to hide: the valley floor, with narrow, brown Nho Que coursing through it, a series of waterfalls rushing into it from above. Water vapor also cascaded down the mountainsides, constantly changing the view.

the amazing road slicing through the mountains
We caught a glimpse of the deep gorge the river runs through before carrying on to get out of the rain.

Entering Meo Vac's valley
After coasting downhill and passing evidence of fresh landslides we entered another valley, carpeted in corn fields, for the final blast into Meo Vac. I immediately noticed a similar theme in this town: as I've said this area of Vietnam is heavily populated by ethnic minority groups. The towns, though, are slowly being taken over by members of the Kinh majority, and it is clear who is prospering. The relatively bustling town centers are full of ethnic Vietnamese, with newer homes and businesses. The outskirts of all these towns, though, are full of ramshackle hovels and lucky if they have a paved road. This is where the minority groups have been pushed out to.

The weather was improving so we wandered around for a bit: a shirtless man was butchering a dog in front of the main market; children rode around in cheap little Tonka trucks; women prepared dinner; people looked on curiously; and a dog that was (fortunately) chained to a post tried to attack us. A woman waved us over to a stall to have some friend bananas.

With the rain gone we headed back to the Ma Li Peng to see if visibility had improved. It had. Words really can't do this scenery justice, so allow the pictures to speak for themselves. It didn't even seem like we were on Earth anymore.

We took a small, curving side road down into the valley. Men and women walked along with baskets of corn strapped to their backs, and children tended to herds of goats.
At the bottom an unsteady bridge spanned the Nho Que, and a sign indicated just how close China was.

We turned around and climbed back up, with a few hints of blue sky peeking through. Once again I couldn't help wondering how people lived in some of the huts along the way; it just seemed impossible given their location.
Minds thoroughly blown by the unbelievable way the earth had come together here, we returned to Meo Vac for the evening. The Ma Li Peng had more than lived up to the hype.

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