“We love the words hoa binh,
Hoa binh means peace – first hoa, then binh:
Hoa means ‘together’ and binh means ‘all the same.’
When we’re all together, no one is parted.
When we’re all the same, no one’s at war.
Peace means no more suffering,
Hoa binh means no more war.”
*Vietnamese song from the 19th century
(Source: ‘When heaven and earth changed places’ by Le Ly Hayslip, 1990)
Being a very lucky girl, I had the chance to visit northern Vietnam and explore quite a big part of it by motorbike; I even had my eyes on China and was just a footstep away from it, which made me think a lot about the situation between China and Vietnam, historically and presently. To make it easier for you to feel something behind the words and pictures of this travel report, this introduction will provide you with some knowledge about the history of the North and with current situations and sentiments for the North from the South and for China from Vietnam. This way I hope what you read and see will amaze you as much as it amazed me in real life. The title is not offensive. I am not criticizing, although I am looking at everything from an ironic and discerning eye. The goal is to fill you in on the real stuff from this side of the world.
‘Favorite Enemy, be honest, every country has one right? Most of the time it is a country with a shared border. Germany for example, bordering on 9 countries, has plenty of favorite enemies. It mostly is a country for which the other country uses many ‘old stereotypes’, often based on real (historical) events, wars, fights. You make jokes out of it and usually they’re not serious. Germans make fun of Frenchies for eating frog and baguette, Dutch being full of cheese and Polish stealing everything. Vietnamese like to make jokes about certain sizes of Korean certain somethings…and ‘made in China’ being bad quality. Etc, etc, etc. Wrapped in a joke but with a hostile taste still sneaking through. It is something like a habit. I am not saying it is a good one.
Fact is, there are enough things I heard around here that make me believe that China is Vietnam’s favorite enemy. A lot of the things overheard are shot straight and without shame.
“Ahrg. It is made in China, it’s shitty, bad quality.”
Teacher: “Who is your best friend?” – Kid: “Is it ok if she is Chinese?”
To our ears, things like this sound so absolutely racist, but are obviously said in a manner of not being aware of racism (or racism being bad??), that we make a lot of fun about it. Even though sometimes it is frustrating to see how a kid learns to hate Chinese at home. And sorry, ‘made in China’ has a bad reputation, but is made in Vietnam really that much better?
This FB debate sums up and gives you the perfect insight:
Pretty good, huh? This happened on facebook this year, end of March.
How serious should we take the hostility? We don’t know. There is a current issue rumoring since a few months that has calmed down a lbit by now. It is about China wanting Vietnamese land, but I’ll not dig any deeper into the subject as I don’t know enough. Important is that the situation seems to be a calmer now than 3 months ago and I hope they’ll let go of it. Of course Vietnamese felt offended and endangered by this and I think China can keep its favorite enemy throne easily like this.
I chose a provocative title and introduction because what I saw of Northern Vietnam and China was love at first sight. Curling our way through a mountainous landscape for more than 700km, passing villages, native places and sights that looked like war just stopped yesterday, me and my French friend Colombe rode through Lang Son and Cau Ban province on cloud nine, with our butt’s sore as hell. Nothing could stop us; we were driven by the beauty of this spot and the hospitality and responses of its people.
Northern Vietnam, being at the border to China and being communist for the longest period of Vietnamese history, has been in a nearly constant state of war. Vietnam’s Chinese colonization starting 200 BC began in the North of the country and lasted for about a thousand years. Chinese people coming into the country finding the ‘barbarian and uncivilized’ folk of Vietnamese that had to be reformed. Sounds familiar, right? The typical excuse for colonization. This extremely long one caused a blend of Chinese and Vietnamese culture that can still be found today and was followed by a political independence of Vietnam of 900 years, before the French decided to wander around and ‘exploit’ for nearly 100 years. The Northern part of Vietnam happened to be one of the most active theaters of war, as it was pulled apart by Chinese who wanted parts of it and French colonization. Eventually, Vietnamese had to bend over modern weaponry and agree to cheap labor, gaining trust by being catholic, or best, being sent to France/Europe to travel and study. These journeys introduced them to communism which sounded attractive because communist leaders like Lenin called for the end of colonization. One of these young travelers was Ho Chi Minh.
He returned to Vietnam 1941 and started a communist party and the Viet Minh forces in the North. Western countries got alarmed by the possible spreading of communism in South-East-Asia which made the United States decide to support the French with incredible amounts of money. Ho Chi Minh and his troops still won and had French troops surrender in the North-West at the battle of ‘Dien Bien Phu’ 1954, the country split into North-Vietnam and South-Vietnam and the US after trying to avoid direct intervention earlier, in the end decided to join the escalating chaos. Summed up, about 40 more years of constant war.
‘Le Ly Hayslip’s book (When heaven and earth changed places) gives you real insights on the countries situation, how war was something ‘normal’ to Vietnamese, a girl growing up in the late forties of the 20th century, in the center of Vietnam, living her life in between two forces, having to deal with things none of us could imagine before she even turned 15, escaping to the US and coming back to a united but hurt and fragile country after the war. I suggest everyone who has a part of his heart in Vietnam to read it, even though it might make you cry every now and then. I think after living here, we can give away some tears and handle truth, even it it is painful.
On our trip we often asked ourselves, how can this place be so outstandingly beautiful with so many bombs dropped? How could people walk over this and feel like destroying, hurting something? And, perhaps most fascinating, how can the people, that have seen the worst, lost the most and got threatened by white people for a longtime, give you the biggest smile when you drive past them, applaud you for just being, celebrate and welcome you like this.
And then, how can something that creates such beauty in their fusion, feel so hostile for each other.
1st Day: Hanoi
I had no idea about Hanoi and it didn’t interest me that much. Southern rumors about Vietnam’s capital are:
- just another city
- cold and unfriendly people
- white people get ripped off
- food is bad, can’t keep up with Saigon
Alright, challenge accepted. As I had about 12hours on my own in the city, waiting for my friends to arrive from the provinces, I started with my favorite challenge: Food. Eat as much as possible and find out if it is true.I managed to schlep my tired body to Cau Go street, which ‘Lonely Planet’ told me is a good street food address. As soon as I reached it I got lost in all the steam. hell YES! Steaming from every corner, every alley, I reached paradise. Being tired and carrying heavy weight on my back, I walked back and forth a few times and decided for the first place that caught my eye. It looked different than what I eat back at ‘home’ (SG) and it was busy. I took a seat. I said ‘mot’ (one) pointing at the bowl she was just about to send out, because it looked great. I had no idea what it was. 2 minutes later I was the happiest person ever. This soup blew my mind, it was like THE breakfast soup per se.
Noodles, a mild broth, slices of an omelette/egg, mushrooms, onions, ham. I left with a big smile on my face and wandered around for a bit, searching for a place to stay for the day, cause I definitely wanted to get rid of my backpack, have a shower and a nap before my friends came back. So I thought I would cast aside the rest of the ‘Hanoi’ rumors and check out some hotels, try to bargain for a daytime price and also see if people would try to rip me off real bad at shops. None of it happened; hotels would make offers for me, as I wasn’t sure if I stayed overnight or just the day. I met a wonderful lady who made a super cheap delicious coffee for me in a charming, very ‘Hanoi’ish’ alley and told me where to find a hotel. While I had my coffee, I checked the guide again and found a street with backpacker hostels with dorms, so that’s where I headed next. I asked a ‘Xe Om’ (mototaxi) driver at the next corner to bring me to the street, and boom, next proof against the rumors: Instead of taking me there by going a long way around it and dropping me of for a few thousand dongs, he laughed out lout and pointed: ‘This way, this way!”, because it was just around the corner.
I stayed in a hostel and got the following for 7$: A bed in a dorm, shower, towel, bicycle for the whole day, rain cape, BEER and breakfast. No kidding. I had like 4 free beers after my afternoon nap. The happy beer hour is announced from 5-7, I managed to crawl out of bed short before 7 and we just drank until 8 or 8.30, till the keg was finished. Awesome, Hanoi! Cycling was very refreshing and the traffic is nothing like Saigon. Only rush hours will remind you a little bit. I The city is more like a town,instead of skyscrapers and modern buildings Hanoi sticks out with charming and tranquil sights, as Hoa-Kiem-Lake right in the middle and plenty of historical sights. A highlight that I unfortunately had no time for, Uncle Ho’s mausoleum with his body actually being there in a cabinet to look at! They take him to Russia every year to preserve him. I totally freaked out about it and couldn’t believe novody has ever talked about it in my presence! This is my new life goal: I wanna accompany Uncle Ho on his yearly beauty trips to Russia.
2nd Day: Destination Unknown
Over last evenings dinner my friend told me about how she lost her mobile phone while karaoking with a bunch of Vietnamese, getting drunk in a village in the mountains. We were all sitting together over delicious food, when my phone rang and she was calling me. Huge confusion at the table, she answered and found out that someone had her phone and wanted to give it back to her! We had the waitress translate and she wrote down where we could find the guy. Great, like this we had a destination for our first day and Colombe would get her phone back with all the numbers. We went to bed early, and started our day at 7 in the morning. Finding bikes to rent for 100 000 Dong a day (saying we’re only driving in Hanoi….) we paid 20 bucks for a 4 days motorbike tour, plus around 20 bucks for petrol and about 5 bucks each to pay for all the damage we caused and the cleaning, as it was obvious we didn’t stay in the city, haha. Still a pretty good deal. We took off direction ‘Van Quang’, in Lang Son province, 150km away from Hanoi and about 40km from the border with China. By noon we did about half of the way, having great lunch in the mountains, and as soon as we left the motorway a fantastic scenery opened up in front of us, mountains like the ones you know from pictures of the Halong Bay, just not in the water. I started taking pictures and videos every 5 minutes, because I thought this is amazing, I might not see this again. I was wrong. This was just the beginning. The beginning of an infinite mingling of every shade of green you could imagine, fields grow into trees and trees grow into mountains, up to 1800m of breathtaking altitude.
We reach the village where we were supposed to find our mobile phone guy by the afternoon. We try to call him but the phone is switched off by now. We don’t have his name or any real address, so even by communicating the story to the villagers more or less successfully there is no chance to find our hero. We settled the downer by buying 1,5kg of this:
I stop to buy at a shop to buy beer. I was wearing a tiny purse around my neck where I kept a little money close to me every day, to pay for small things and also not to show my wallett all the time with the whole travel budget inside. The lady who owned this shop was really interested in my wealth and grabbed my purse simply asking ‘bao nhiêu tiền?’ = How much money? :D. Hilarious. I don’t think what she saw satisfied her, but she still offered us her house to stay in and eat our pork purchase and stay in while it was raining. Afterwards we kept going north down the only big road that led through the mountains and ended up at a fork:
Left or right? We didn’t know. We had no real destination for tonight, we just needed to get to a town big enough to find a hotel.
Sitting right under a beautiful rainbow might have given us some strength and we decided to head towards Dong Dang right at the Chinese border. We reached it right before it got dark, it must have been around 7pm, and stopped at the first ‘Nha Nghi’ Hotel we saw. At nighttime even more trucks are on the road than during the day, making driving on winding streets really creepy and dangerous. After driving our first 10hours we were wrecked, taking our room and only going out for a good-night-beer.
3rd day: Hi China
Our long sleep filled with crazy dreams made getting up even harder – we felt so tired. When we finally crawled out of our hard beds (Vietnamese consider hard sleeping healthier and have no problem sleeping without mattress at all) and pulled back our purple, girly but indeed more than desired mosquito net, we opened our eyes to a different Dong Dang. We found out that we stopped in a kind of industrial part of town, close to the train station, and the charming Dong Dang with its market and mountainous streets had yet to be found. Continuing our trip, we stopped at the lively market in the heart of DD for breakfast. A market in Vietnam is always a bit like war, or let’s say, anything but peaceful. People yell everywhere and the narrow street that leads you through the stalls is always filled with pedestrians and of course, motorbikes. So no matter what time of the day you’re planning to check out the market, remember, these people are never tired! They are full of energy and they have one goal: Sell. The markets’ visitors are not less serious. They want to get their stuff and they want you to get out of their way! All the honking made us want to hit the road again so bad. Please Vietnam, sooner or later, get rid of that habit. If there is no space, your horn will not turn the others into dust.
We stop for a wonderful ´Phở with ‘magic meatballs’ that soaks us into its hot delicacy and even kinda deadens the noises around us. We only miss our favorite refresher ‘trà đá’, always served with every meal, simply meaning Ice Tea. In the South it is made very light, like water with a little bit of a healthy, green tea flavor. In the North we discovered the tea to be much stronger. Anyways, we couldn’t find any, but I eyed the big water container in the room, so I went over to get a shot glass of water (drinking out of miniature glasses is not reserved for alcoholic drinks over here!). In this case the 5L water container got refilled with something else – rice wine! Strong, home-brewed Vietnamese Schnapps. Holy Shit! That’s a great way to start your morning. The perfect cure for Colombe’s sore throat. With our hearts dancing after that hot and cold superstar breakfast, we head off. Our goal for today: Reach Ban Gioc Waterfalls, which are partly Vietnamese and partly Chinese, like the Niagara Falls shared between the US and CA or the Iguazú Falls in Argentina and Brazil. Vietnam and China share one too, but it seems to be a lot less famous. We can’t wait to find out if it can keep up and which part would be more beautiful, of course being biased and probably prefering the VNese side ;-). Anyways, we have 170km ahead of us this time, and we would love to see the falls before the night, so we take off; down the wrong road and getting stopped where? Right at the border! ơi ơi ơi !
‘Hi China, how are you doing? Can we go check you out?’
No. The two tiny guards show some mild attempts and stop us at the customs. Before they start sending us away, they are more interested in taking a few ‘chuck the deuce’ pictures with us! Talking to a Vietnamese-Australian the other day I found out that the situation at the border is tighter than it appeared to us. We were surprised by how unsecured it seemed, also proven by how easily we could get that close. There were no questions, no armed security men making you feel like you’re getting close to some kind of danger zone. But according to my acquaintance, crossing the border is a hot topic for Vietnamese and Chinese, mostly thanks to lots of smuggling. Most people try to avoid staying close to the border, while we happily drove along the border belt for hours, naively wondering about the Visa and border crossing situation. Could have done some research beforehand huh girls?
In 4 days of driving through North-East-Vietnam we crossed 2 western tourists. This might be the reason people in the villages cheered for us like tour-de-france competitors and women in their rice fields stopped their work to wave at us and show us a big big smile. All of them, from the youngest to the oldest, screaming “TÂY TÂY TÂY”, which means as much as ‘Westerner / White’! We found that extremely amusing as we started to imagine ourselves behaving the same way in our country. Use your imagination here, I won’t phrase this one for you ;-)
I think it was in Dong Khé where we decided that we were hungry and it must be about time for lunch. We stopped at a place that was advertising the famous ‘Cơm tấm’ (broken rice, meaning the rice grains have been broken up in their processing), to us a signal for rice + something, meat, fish, tofu, veggies, the bigger the place, the bigger the choice. This one was just a house with an eatery downstairs. The house was beautiful and looked very French, as many houses in the north do. High walls and enormous staircases, impressive frets, not at all practical looking but imposing, big. We park our bikes on the street and the host yells a loud ‘Haaallooo’ in our direction. I thought ‘wow, that sounded pretty German!’ but rationally thinking (sometimes I manage to do so…) I considered it completely senseless to find a man speaking German 20km away from the Chinese border in a country that has NOT been overrun by the Germans (yay). It turned out the food was freaking delicious, I was moaning inappropriately the whole time, and the landlord indeed spoke German. Real, real real good German. He spent some time in Germany, that’s how he learned it, and despite not having practiced in a long time, he managed to communicate perfectly. It was incredible. Why did I feel like stopping right there? We nearly passed by because it was such a tiny place. We told him about all the way we came so far and where we wanted to go, and I will never forget how he asked me in the cutest accent of the world: “Hast du keine Angst?” (Aren’t you afraid?). No, we’re not, and you shouldn’t be either! I think his wife sent out prayers for us and stayed sleepless for about 5 days, that’s how worried she was about 2 girls driving through wild Northern Vietnam ;-). Sorry about that!!!!
Researching Dong Khe afterwards, I found out that it was a huge battlefield in the French-Indochina war, lasting 3 days in September 1950 and ending with the total defeat of the French fighting against Viet Minh forces who got a large support from communist China, Dong Khe falling in communist hands with their victory. Colombe, who comes from France, mentioned that she sometimes felt like just saying she also comes from Germany, as the French had been so active in the North. But we really can’t say that we received any hostile feelings against being ‘Pháp’ or being white in general, just as Le Ly Hayslip phrased it in her book, returning to Vietnam from America only about 10 years after war:
“Like most Vietnamese I have met on the trip, he is more fascinated by, than hateful of, his former enemy.”
A fascinating ability to many of us. Vietnamese know how to make a difference between yourself and your nationality. I don’t want to start counting how many times people would ask me (or any German) ‘Don’t you feel terrible for what your people have done?’. Well, even over here I still get associated with Hitler 7 out of 10 times I say ‘Germany’, but I blame this on the school system.
Anyways, we thank coincidence for our lovely lunch stop with the German Mister, who has a damn good cook as a wife and the best dog ever.
We continue and get to Ban Gioc, just like the day before, right before Sunset. We see the falls from above but decide to have a closer look tomorrow and take the closest hotel as we are completely destroyed. Another day of 10hours +/- driving, I’m getting seriously worried about my sore butt staying flattened forever. We stay in another hotel that costs us 5 bucks per night, not as nice and clean as last nights one, but still perfectly fine for the only thing we’re interested in: eat and sleep. While we got in asking for the room price, my friend made clear that we are the ‘poor’ tourists. Working with Vietnamese minorities, she speaks great (in comparison to most expats) Vietnamese. Plus seeing that we are ‘Tay Ba Lô’, rucksack tourists, not luggage tourists (their way of categorizing, if they don’t just check your wallett), they seem to give us the fair room price. We see that they also serve food downstairs and the kitchen sends out a very promising scent, so we eat. As if we were big tough guys, we get a huge bowl of steamed rice, a bowl of fruit soup (yes, really, and yes, it was fantastic, pineapple heavy), more delicious pork fat, beans and my favorite thing of the north, grape leaves stuffed with meat, you can see them in the picture above. We feared that they’re trying to rip us off with the meal, but said alright fuck it, challenge accepted, we’ll eat it all. We nearly managed to do so, only left a little rice over and fell in our bed before the clock turned 10.
4th Day: Like a waterfall
Waking up with sunrise, I open my eyes to a big Chinese mountain right in front of our prison-like barricaded window. Beautiful. Not different, but beautiful as always.
We walk down to the falls which are both impressive. Somehow you can see as many falls as you want to in life, but they will always keep something magical to them. This picture is showing you the Vietnamese one to the left, and the Chinese one to the right. They both melt into one river and two countries.
We drove along the belt with our bikes for a little while, just to watch the differences between the two, ahead of you in one glimpse. Surprisingly the road we were on by the river was much better on our side than on the Chinese, which was just being constructed. Strike, Vietnam! China is ahead of Vietnam for about 5-10 years, but doesn’t show off right here! It did by the falls though, where the tourists from China could take a nice boat ride on the river and the most we could do was touch the water ;). One of the best things we’ve seen on our trips was definitely a scene by this river: A Vietnamese person sitting on one edge and a Chinese one directly opposite of him. Staring at each other quietly. :)
Our 4th day’s destination was far beyond realistic and we should’ve known that we wouldn’t be able to make it. 210 km through the mountains to Ba Be Lake / National Park. Especially as it was already 10 am when we left the waterfall… Our plans were obviously beginning to leak a little, but we didn’t let this disturb us and just tried to stay positive and enjoy the floods of beauty that stormed our brains.
We headed back South now, Ba Be being right in between us and Hanoi, where we had to be the next day in the evening to catch our flights. When the sun set we were still far from our destination, but the street winding through the mountains was small and mostly empty-more stones, puddles and holes than trucks, which made us think we could drive a while in the dark. We had to stop when the rain just got too strong. We came across one of the thousands of tiny villages we passed, high in the mountains. People here live a completely different life, a life that is ancient to us. They work with wooden tools which they made themselves, they cook with fire, they have a bathroom outside, if they’re rich enough, they’ll have cement floor and a motorbike. Colombe took off towards a house we saw that had the lights on inside and the door opened and seemed very lively. She came back saying,
“Ok, I don’t know if they understood that we need a place to sleep, but we can come in for now.”
We went in and accepted their kind offer to take a seat in their living room. They were sitting around a table drinking hot tea and the women were on the floor playing with their kids. Communication was kind of a problem, but we managed to lighten up the atmosphere and get some smiles and laughter around. One of the women impressed me most, I’ve never seen anyone with such a shining happy attitude. She seemed to beam with joy and warmth and filled the place with joy, she was just constantly laughing! They were talking and doing stuff with their phones, a few minutes later we knew they were calling a girl over who spoke some English. How lovely can someone be?! Ly, with her pieces of English and Google translator made something like a conversation happen and they ended up offering us to stay over night. The man of the house walked us through the kitchen to the washing area and bathroom to get fresh for bed. They had a bed without a mattress right in the living room. A traditional VNese way, a wooden bed with a bamboo mat on top. We didn’t care at all, we would have slept on the floor and we were glad we didn’t take their space away, as they said they have their bedrooms upstairs. The house was huge, high walls that were full of dust and spider webs because it’s just not practical and way too high to clean. The space was filled with gigantic portraits of family members, communist leaders, and weddings. We slept right beside an open window, fully clothed but under a mosquito net that protected us from the many insects that live deep in the mountains. I made this video right before our host shot the lights, turn your volume up to a 100% to get the full impression of how loud it is out there.
5th Day: Fatigue
We woke up at 6 the next morning, while the housewives must’ve been cooking for a while already. We got ordered to the table and served a bowl of rice and delicious chicken and veggies. More than happy about how lucky we got again, we asked how much money would be appropriate as a thank-you. It took a while to make them understand, then they discussed and ended up saying 100 000. Converted, $5. We were of course more than fine with that and hoped it was a good amount of money to them. Colombe told me to hand over the bills discretely to the landlord when we would say goodbye. So I thought I would just hide it in my hands and sneak it into his when we would shake hands for the goodbye like Bugsy Seagul. The farewell turned out to be a lot more sentimental than expected, the landlord held my hands and then felt like holding my face, too! Squeezing my cheeks and giving me the loveliest smile, the bills of course were flying around which made the situation a little awkward, good plan Kristin. I was so touched by his kindness. We took a picture goodbye and made our way off to Hanoi. THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH! YOU ARE OUR HEROES!
Ba Be national park and its surrounding was the last part of our peaceful and refreshing trip through one of the greenest, poorest, friendliest, mountainous and most beautiful spots on our planet.
Thank you for welcoming us, thank you for feeding us, thank you for waving at us like superstars instead of wishing us away, thank you Vietnam for reminding us about the beautiful planet we got the chance to leave our footprints on.
For more pictures, check my FB album: https://www.facebook.com/kris.zett/media_set?set=a.10201227394862647.1073741835.1104502251&type=1
For the end of the story and Day 5, click here ;-).