Dangerous driving in Lao Cai, north of Sapa #4

“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.

The local Hmong and Black Tai people depend on one crop of maize and rice for a year’s food, living lives unchanged for centuries with few modern conveniences such as electricity.  After a long, difficult day planting, collecting firewood and hunting small game, the men drink away their luckless lives by downing huge amounts of home brewed rice wine, which tastes like scalding meths fermented in ancient wooden barrels. The women bemoan their misfortune corralling their inquisitive, feral toddlers, scattered livestock and largely drunken menfolk.

The Hmong are traditionally a slash and burn culture, hunter gatherers and farmers moving from one spot to the next every few years, hacking the forest down as they go.  By the new century they’d obviously done a good job, but they can’t be solely to blame for the destruction wreaked around Tonkin; after all they’ve been there for 300 years.  The wars caused more harm in the southern highlands, but not so much in Tonkin.  So why had the forests disappeared now?

Until a few years ago, rain-forests covered huge swathes of Indochina from northern Thailand and Burma across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the Gulf of Tonkin.  Along with the Hmong and Dzao, other contributing factors adding to the environmental destruction have included inept government, ignorant lowland settlers and rapacious entrepreneurs and smugglers eager to exploit precious timber.  In Vietnam, these forests were still fairly extensive in the 1950s, and the area was renowned for its big game hunting among French officials and colonial officers.  Tigers were so numerous they were considered pests, and French legionnaires living here would only leave their wooden stockades in pairs for fear of being attacked.

These days large animals in Tonkin have almost been hunted to extinction and, according to a conservationist friend from Hanoi, it was the post war years that were particularly catastrophic for the larger animals roaming the northern and central highlands.

“There were a lot of guns around after 1975, people were poor and hungry.  Also population pressures in the lowlands meant the Government introduced resettlement programmes into the mountains, especially among political undesirables.  These people had no knowledge of their environment.” she said.

“People started to cut down the forests and the large animals like the elephants suddenly lost their traditional grounds.  As the forest was cut back the elephants were becoming increasingly conspicuous.  The poachers moved in.  Today any animals wanting to stay alive have probably fled to Laos.”  She wasn’t being flippant.

And poachers still roam the few forests left with little impediment.  Such is the reward for tracking down the few tigers, bears and elephants that still live in the remaining clumps of forest that gangs of men are shipped up from the lowlands especially to hunt them.

Ivory from elephants can fetch $2,000 in China and much more in Japan; bears are valued for their paws, which are fermented in rice alcohol; tigers’ penises are still prized as aphrodisiacs by the Chinese and Japanese.  Poor Vietnamese lowland farmers, like their Hmong counterparts, earn less than $200 a year and have a family to support; they have few positive opinions when it comes to animal rights.

Cutting short my reverie, our guide, an earnest young man called Thang, told me we’d arrived at our destination. Thang was a young, sensitive fellow; the model of politeness.  He spoke immaculate English, a smattering of French, Hmong and Dzao and he even knew a little Black Tai.  He was an extreme rarity among the Vietnamese and a fortunate find; very few Vietnamese would dream of learning a tribal language, for them these highland peoples are nothing more than primitive savages.  Thang, however, spoke of the tribes with almost patriarchal wistfulness.  At least with him they had a sympathetic ear and he was clearly eager to show them off to us.

He’d organised a decrepit old Russian jeep that made me uncomfortably aware of all the pot-holes and pitfalls on the trail ahead (it couldn’t be classed as a road).  Also the exhaust was bent upwards, driving fumes into the rear of the jeep; I would travel in a speechless haze of carbon monoxide.  And once out of Sapa, the trail deteriorated quickly into a stony track with sheer cliff walls on either side; one soaring up and one plummeting into the valley below.  Sometimes the ancient, bald tyres of our jeep would scuff the edge of the precipice causing mini rock falls into the valley below.  The journey was terrifying and loud and I held on tightly to the door handles for a quick exit in case the jeep suddenly plunged aflame into some hapless Hmong village far below.

Thang and his Vietnamese driver Binh, as usual for the Vietnamese, remained utterly nonchalant about our predicament and Binh even took time to light up cigarettes with one hand as he steered.  Meanwhile, Thang would occasionally turn around from the front seat and give us a running commentary about the landscape, smiling at the sudden lurches and landslips.

At the summit of one of the peaks we came across the lonely skeleton of a French monastery; long abandoned to the elements, but still rather majestic in its silent decline.  The corner stone of the old mission was inscribed with the name of the French Governor-General of Indochina. The three-storey Catholic structure had clearly suffered at the hands of the invading Chinese a few decades earlier; the walls were pock marked and the land around was cratered with pits made from artillery explosions.  Vietnamese soldiers had holed up in the building to try to keep the Chinese from advancing into the valley below.  Adjacent to the mission, in a wooden Vietnamese trading post, a screaming pig, undergoing crude hysterectomy surgery, broke the silence.  Tough looking Vietnamese men looked up and laughed as they cut and sliced the animal’s belly before stitching it up with hemp twine.

“Now it grows fat and then they cut its throat,” Thang said in a matter-of-fact tone while strolling off to the jeep.  Meanwhile, the sow jumped up and ran off into the deserted monastery, leading a trail of blood into the ruined chapel.

We ambled our way down the valley from the mission, the same route the Chinese tanks and infantry would have taken.  We were heading for a small Black Hmong hamlet called Ta Phin. Assuming that we wanted some type of hiking adventure, the driver stopped several miles ahead of the village and ordered us to get out and walk the rest of the way.

“He will meet us later,” Thang said as he took off over the valley side and down a steep, lush gulley.  A steam rose from the valley floor like a hot mist and the heat saturated our clothes, while our shoes sank in the caked mud.

In the distance was the curling wood-smoke from some small villages, built by a river bed among terraces of rice.  We picked our way among small groves of fruit and along the crumbling flanks of flooded paddy fields, every so often disturbing a grazing buffalo almost submerged in water and mud except for a small Hmong child resting on its back; body swathed in tiny indigo jacket with red lining, puttees and shoes made from hemp.  The buffalo would grunt to warn us away, while the resting children would lethargically look up and gaze at us until we were almost out of sight, then nod off again on the animal’s huge, hairy, leathery back.

As we neared the village we passed a group of Dzao women, distinctive by their red head-scarves and leggings, plucking rice from a flooded paddy.  Close by was a wooden rice threshing machine, above a stream, its mallet-shaped pounder attached to a log, with a water trough at the end; an ingenious device that also harnessed very limited supplies of electricity from the water.  As we entered the outskirts of the hamlet of mud and thatched homes, curious children started running towards us, while women and old men initially gave us a wide, wary berth.  Somnolent dogs looked up, grunted and fell back to sleep.  We’d finally entered our first Black Hmong settlement.  Thang said the next village, some 100 yards away, was Dzao and although these days they never attacked each other, neither did they ever mix.  In the distance a small crowd of Dzao looked on inquisitively, but didn’t dare walk over to investigate.

The Hmong huts were windowless and had one small wooden entrance with thatched roofs.  All had wood smoke wafting out from large holes in the ceilings. Floors of these homes are made of packed earth, but the Hmong are self-consciously clean people.  As we entered one of the huts, an old man shooed out some chickens into the yard and asked us to sit and share some rice wine with him.  Thang had obviously brought us to the village chief.  Rice wine is offered as the traditional greeting in all the Indochinese highlands and although it was only seven in the morning, we couldn’t refuse.  These people are skilled archers, they still use arrows to hunt prey and they even make their own primitive flintlock guns; a fine example of which was hanging on the chief’s wall.  The rest of the village looked on through the doorway as we fixed on our smiles and drank to his good health; while with another cup he drank to ours.

The old man was 69 years old and almost immediately he began to describe the day the Chinese army flooded down the valley.  He told us he had fought the Chinese bravely before fleeing with his family into the hills.  He said the village was then razed and everyone left inside the huts were burned to death or shot as they ran out.  He then showed us his medal awarded by the Hanoi Government for bravery in the field.  It was impossible to imagine such carnage in such tranquil surroundings; but then the Chinese war was only one of several invasions over the past 50 years which have struck at every corner of the country.  Similar tales are told from the Tonkinese Alps to the Mekong Delta, far to the south; only the uniforms change.

Meanwhile, we supped our third mind-expanding cup of rice wine, this time to the village, various hens, dogs, children and pot-bellied pigs snorting and shoving their way back into the hut sniffing around our ankles.

More men arrived to join in the rice wine celebrations, but Thang came to the rescue.

“I think more and you will not be able to walk back to the jeep,” he smiled.  Outside, more Hmong children and young mothers crowded around us, while in the distance the inquisitive Dzao kept up their vigil, like nosy neighbours angry at not being invited to a party.  But the day was drawing on, the journey back to Sapa was going to take several hours along those murderous trails.

Tonight we would celebrate the Liberation (of Fall, depending on your point of view) of Saigon in 1975.  By the time we arrived back in Sapa the town was the scene of rowdy but good natured, mainly young Vietnamese tourists drinking soft fizzy pop and beer and inviting me to share their tables. It was going to be a long night.