Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Vietnam: Travels with Uncle Ho

Away from Halong Bay, you can still find some parts of Northern Vietnam free of tourist buses and technology, discovers Isaac Davison.

Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo / Getty Images
Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo / Getty Images

As we crowd around a knee-high table feasting on fried pork, lemongrass and sticky rice, our Vietnamese guide tells us it is customary to drink 15 small glasses of rice wine before you can be excused from dinner.

We are 400km north of Hanoi, in Tien Thang Village, quickly learning about the vital role of this homemade liquor at most rural meals.

The owner of the large, sparsely-filled homestay pours the clear spirit from a plastic water bottle into tiny teacups, clasps both of his hands around mine while looking intensely into my eyes, and says "Chuc suc khoe!" (Cheers!), with a toothy smile.

Several of our group of six New Zealanders bow out after a drink or two, wary about how quickly our teacups are being refilled.

After around nine cups, the owner toasts Communist leader Ho Chi Minh (affectionately called "My Uncle Ho" by our guide). After 13 cups, he toasts Russia.

Fifteen cups in, he sings a haunting, Soviet-era song with great emotion, waving one hand in the air.

By sundown, this intrepid journalist can report that it was possible to drink 27 teacups of rice wine and still feel clear-headed, though the blood in my veins felt three degrees warmer.

It is our first evening in the far northern pocket of Vietnam, the last part of the country to be colonised by tourist buses and 21st century technology. Some people look astonished by the presence of white people in their backyard, though local children are worldly enough to make a playful demand: "Money! Money!"

After the six-hour drive from the chaos of Hanoi, my ears struggle to adjust to the dead quiet, which is interrupted only by the shuffle of the dog on the concrete floor downstairs and the clink of a water buffalo's bell in the garden. I lie on the firm mattress on the floor, under a mosquito net, and smile at the differentness of it all.

In the morning we are met by a new guide, Chien. He is dressed in forest-green policeman's pants, his smile is missing three teeth from a motorbike accident, and he carries a wicker basket full of bread for a 15km hike into the mountains above the village.

Chien leads us wordlessly through terraced rice fields, worked by farmers with sickles and straw baskets, and sluiced by clever man-made waterways that ensure every patch of rice is sodden.

Near the ridge we have morning tea with a Dao family in their low-ceilinged hut held up on stilts. Smoked pork squelched in fat, baguette heated on an indoor fire, rice so sticky it needs to be cut by a knife, garlic, boiled eggs, sweet banana and cold beer. Breathing heavily from the hike, we devour it quickly, along with six cups of rice wine.

To the Westerner's eye, this is a poor person's home. But Chien points out a large safe in the corner and smiles. The soil and altitude once suited to growing crops of opium poppy is now used for growing lucrative cardamom plants, which are sold across the border in China. This family is considered well-off in this region.

On the descent, as we drop below the mist, our other tour guide and Communist Party member Duke points out a new road being constructed into southern China. He shakes his head and says he can imagine Chinese tanks rolling into the village. His comment sounds paranoid. But he points out that Vietnamese feel vulnerable because they have been invaded time and again for 1000 years. As recently as 1979 Chinese troops and tanks spilled over the border nearby and captured three villages.

The landscape on the hike is breathtaking, but we soon find it is just a curtain-raiser for what is to come on our nine-day tour. Our next stop is known as Heaven.

Hidden in the northernmost part of the country, and hemmed in by China's border, Heaven's Gate is Vietnam's first internationally-recognised cultural and geological site. Unesco declared it a Global Geopark in 2010.

A couple of hours into the drive north, the unmarked, narrow highway begins climbing. The road begins to wrap around sheer limestone cliffs and before long we are in the heavens, looking down on honeycombed karst formations in the Meo Vac valley.

The sights are also a distraction from the perilous roads, zig-zagged and cluttered by motorbikes with unlikely cargo - three live pigs on one, a fridge on another. Eighty per cent of drivers are unlicensed here, and about 30 a day die on the rural roads.

On one steep climb, a motorcyclist topples in front of us. The 160kg of rice he is carrying force him to sit on the motorbike's petrol tank, his waist pushed up against the handlebars. As he struggles to get his bike going, Duke asks him if he has to go much further. " Sixty km," he says, as if his destination is around the corner.

Despite the steep gradient, barely a centimetre is free of agriculture and the toil of workers. Women and girls dig their toes into the slope and cut away weeds with hand sickles, their pink headscarves vivid against the greys and light greens of the mountains.

Outside a primary school, a group of children linger on the dusty road. A 6-year-old carries a grubby-faced infant in a cloth backpack, another child is pantless and has a bloated stomach, and one baby appears to have mould on his scalp. This is a tough environment, and these kids are desperately poor. "Their families would have a fire in their house. Nothing else," Duke says.

After looping back to Hanoi, our tour ends at Halong Bay on the north-east coast for an overnight stay on a luxurious junk, which feels like a guilty pleasure after the gritty experience of Heaven's Gate.

The 3000 islands and grottos in the Gulf of Tonkin can be admired, beer-in-hand, from the comfort of the top deck, but we rediscover our inner Kiwi and dive-bomb from our cabin balconies into the bath-warm water of the gulf.

Halong Bay is a mighty tourist destination on its own but the real treat of this tour is in the vast, undiscovered northern territory bordering China.

My entry point to Vietnam was Graham Green's The Quiet American, and it's satisfying to find part of the country preserved as he desctribed it - the way the north's watery backbone, the Red River, turns crimson in the evening, and the "gold of the rice fields under a flat, late sun".

It is not a breezy trip. There are three days in a row of dizzying seven-hour drives. But in a part of the country without airports or three-lane highways, that's a small price to reach Heaven.

Expert tips for Northern Vietnam

Lollies: Stock up on lollies or stickers before you set off into the rural areas. Local children spill out on to the road when tour vans drive past, and it's great to have something small to hand out.

Rice wine: It's hard to avoid this liquor in the north, but don't worry, it's not as strong as you expect. Chinese men drink 20 shots before the first course arrives. The polite amount to drink is around 15.

Guides: Our guide Duke makes queues disappear, gets food to arrive from kitchens in minutes, and even clears a roadblock. Lonely Planet warns of the country's frustrating bureaucracy, but having a Government-sponsored guide makes things very smooth.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily Auckland to Hanoi with a stopover in Singapore.

Online: worldexpeditions.com

Isaac Davison travelled to Hanoi courtesy of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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