Thang was a sensitive young man. Probably the only Vietnamese I’d come across who admitted to liking the remote tribal people of Tonkin in northern Vietnam. “They have their own way, but most Vietnamese do not understand,” he grumbled.
Thang’s admission followed three days of bone-jarring agony in a Russian jeep, scuffing sheer mountain ledges and sliding down scree slopes. After a further 10-mile hike to sup tea with a tribal elder surrounded by children, pigs and chickens in a dusty, dark wattle and daub hut, Thang thoughtfully concluded: “These are good, simple people but Vietnamese and Chinese still think they are savages.”
“At Lao Cai, Tonkin territory is a wild country, occupied by independent tribes. The region is reported by travellers to be extremely rich in timber and minerals…(and) herds of elephants frequent the river banks. The tiger, buffalo, wild ox, rhinoceros, panther and bear roam the forests.”
As I stared out of the window of the minibus that wound around the peaks and valleys above Sapa, it was clear the panorama had changed dramatically since a British traveller penned those words in 1883. Where once the landscape had been cloaked in thick, dripping rain-forest and teeming with unpredictable fauna, it now looked like a rugged and spectacular series of hiker-friendly mountains. Not a forest in sight.
It’s the kind of place I half expected to see European hikers trekking down dale in their yellow latex walking gear with accompanying paraphernalia, preaching the glories of nature and ending the day in a friendly local boozer. Instead, the landscape was peppered with hardy hill people trudging around mountain slopes in clumsy hemp clothing that scratches wildly in the unbearable summer heat, and which fails to keep out the bitter cold and damp in the winter. Even without the rain forests, nature here is tough and has to be endured.
Sapa is a steep, alpine cluster of shop houses, with one badly paved main street that arcs down through town and out of sight into the sheer, dark valleys below. Crumbling old French mansions line the hill-tops, many almost totally destroyed by the weather and wars that have ravaged the landscape during the past 50 years.
Closer to town, however, some of the villas have had a recent facelift and look like clumsily beautiful European follies built as bright, pastel beacons against the austere mountains and monotony of China’s southern rim.
Vietnam’s Soviet-built trains tend to make rail travel an unpredictable and frustrating experience. They often stop for hours in the middle of paddy fields or in bleak run-down industrial sidings while the guards and drivers take time out for a tea break and a nap. The standard Hanoi – Haiphong journey into the Gulf of Tonkin can take from 3 to 5 hours to cover a mere 75 miles, while a tiny 50cc Honda motor scooter takes only two hours to cover the same distance.
If I’d felt claustrophobic in Hanoi, then the mid-night sleeper up to Lao Cai on the Chinese border had all the roomy luxury of the last helicopter out of Saigon . Actually sleeper is a misnomer because the six bunk beds in the compartment are designed for anything but a good night’s sleep. The beds are made of hard, morgue-like metallic trays, one above the other in a tiny, sweat-box of a room with no fresh air and one small hand-fan whirring about on the ceiling. The concession of a tiny brown-stained pillow given grudgingly by the guard looked a dead cert for a head lice infestation.
Hanoi is a city of the high water mark. The capital of floods, under siege from the nearby Red River that flows above it and which is scarcely kept at bay by crumbling, inadequate dikes that burst every few months. Throughout the year, as the river breaches the city walls, foul water rises out of Hanoi’s overflowing wretched underbelly and through the town like a Biblical deluge.
Rats, snakes and other subterranean vermin are flushed out of the sewers and thrown about on the filthy tide past the old colonnaded entrances of the grand French colonial villas and the crumbling Vietnamese shop houses. When the waters eventually subside, the filthy, blackened streets are littered with rat corpses lying on broken pavements and in congealed gutters. Meanwhile, the punch-drunk survivors cluster in sodden, panic-stricken hordes at the drains desperate to flee back to the forbidding underworld they inhabit.
Back on the half drowned streets the stoic Hanoians roll down their trousers, push back the water-logged sandbags that cover the entrances to their homes and once again go about their business with their usual nonchalant mania. Within moments of the deluge stopping, motorbikes carrying trees, dead animals, live animals, mountains of packed ice, whole families, scythe through the receding waters drenching everyone in their wake. Hanoi is the only city in the world where you get soaked after the rains stop.