HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Yen Minh to Dong Van: On the border

Day two began with a cloudy, muggy morning. We had a breakfast of bun noodle soup with mystery meat at a hole in the wall where several men were drinking a noxious, yellow alcoholic drink. There isn't much of an economy in this remote part of Vietnam, and we quickly became used to seeing groups of men drinking and smoking pipe tobacco at all hours of the day. Unsure of what type of animal we had just put in our stomachs we collected the travel permits needed to continue further north, mounted Tobias and Gob, and rolled out towards Dong Van.

The road immediately climbed steeply out of Yen Minh's valley through a series of hairpins that led to an amazing field of rocky outcrops.

Ahead our route snaked into a narrow valley that looked something like the entrance to Mordor, especially with the low clouds.
At the other end of that valley the road climbed yet again, providing a great view over the ramshackle minority village we had just driven through.
At the top of this series of switchbacks we took a spur off the highway north towards a town called Pho Bang, right on the border with China. We reached the town four kilometers later, and decided to keep driving through it. On the other side was a huge sign proclaiming friendship between Vietnam and China (hahahahahaha), but there was no tangible sign of the border; the road simply kept going into the hills. We stopped at a cafe and noticed a few cars with Chinese license plates, and heard a person or two speaking Chinese. This scared us.
Are we in China?!
Packs of stray dogs wandered around snarling at each other, and a woman began throwing rocks at a chicken in front of a house. Then two kids wandered out of the house we were sitting in front of: the boy had a mouthful of wet rice and rotten teeth, and the girl was so young she couldn't stand without the help of a wall or a chair. Storm clouds were moving in from the south.
We let some rain pass, but as soon we mounted back up the bad weather returned. There were only 25 km remaining until Dong Van, so we donned our rain gear, covered our bags and drove into the wetness. A series of steep downhill switchbacks greeted us once we rejoined the main road, and with water pouring down the tarmac this made for tricky driving, even with our grippy tires. My brakes locked up at least once, sending me skidding along the road. It was absolutely pouring at this point, and I could barely focus on the scenery as I had to put all of my concentration into staying on the road. There were few guardrails, and as we drove up and over ridges and along valleys with karsts erupting from the ground all around I got a decent workout from using the brake and gear pedals so often. We reached scruffy Dong Van just as the rain was tapering off. The town had one main road and was surrounded by stunning mountains.

We found a guesthouse, hung our stuff up to dry, and went back out because the last few kilometers before entering town had been jaw-dropping, and now we would actually be able to get a good look with the late-afternoon weather improving.
limestone karsts and pinnacles

We had passed plenty of people walking along the road after two days, many of them dressed in the outfits of minority groups and trundling along with baskets full of harvested corn strapped to their backs. As you can probably see the geology of Ha Giang is not conducive to agriculture, and corn is more common than rice. I always made a point to wave at the children. It was interesting to see the differences in how they reacted. Some would look at us hesitantly, only to light up with a huge smile once we waved. Others went nuts as soon as they saw us, screaming 'hello!' and waving frantically. Then there were the ones whose faces seemed to be made of stone. They didn't look at us, they looked through us, their eyes vacant, as if they were already resigned to a lifetime of trudging along the highway, hunched over under the weight of a basket of corn. They seemed far more aged than they should have been. This was tough - in Saigon most kids look pretty happy, as they have KFC to eat and cinemas to go to. Kids in Ha Giang though, especially those that are members of the ethnic minority groups, probably don't have much of a future. They will live in the same home that their parents and grandparents did, growing their own food, remaining disconnected from the outside world.  

After taking in the incredible scenery for a bit we returned to Dong Van and settled in for the evening. We had covered 144 km since leaving Ha Giang town the previous day. A pretty small distance, but we had planned on a leisurely pace given the scenery and the layout of the road. The following day would take us over the Ma Li Peng pass, a staggering combination of human ingenuity and geologic fireworks that is hard to describe in words.

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