November 22-24, 2015
As is my prevailing penchant, I wanted to venture far off the beaten path for some of my time in northern Vietnam, and so hired a guide for three days to travel north from Hanoi through the mountainous region of Ba Be Lake and Cao Bang, going as far as the border of China.
While this certainly wasn’t the most economical portion of my trip, it is without question, one of my favorite chapters. The scenery was outrageously beautiful and equally important, it gave me a rich opportunity to dive into the real, rural Vietnam that remains relatively untouched by tourism.
En route we stop for tea (a strong, locally grown and mildly bitter green) which is an integral part of the Vietnamese culture, not just in the northern region but the entire country. Throughout the day, tiny teapots and dainty cups await you wherever you go.
While tea is being prepared, I see some activity involving steaming hot water spilling onto the ground around the corner from where we sit, and my guide points for me to go see and says something about what I thought was “giving birth.”
Thinking I would see a litter of pigs coming into the world, or some such thing, I was horrified to turn the corner and see not “giving birth” but “killing birds”… scalding them to death in a large vat, in fact. Good lord… these are the things I would really prefer not to see, and yet I understand this stark, seemingly inhumane reality of food preparation is but an integral part of the Vietnamese culture, and thus part of my experience here. I last for about five seconds before I have to walk away.
Moving on, we arrive at the perimeter of Ba Be Lake and boat along a lush canal, passing through the Puong grotto, a large float-through cave where we disembark for a bit to explore.
The river eventually empties us into the large lake where the landscape changes but the breathtaking beauty does not.
Overnight is spent at a gorgeous homestay (more of a boutique hotel than authentic homestay, really) on the edge of the quiet lake in the village of Bo Lu, surrounded by mountains and rice fields, and I have a chance to walk through this glorious countryside in the late afternoon, no one around but the locals harvesting their rice.
Out here, it seems life has not changed much over the decades and the old ways are still quite apparent. Life is kept simple… hard work prevails and family has an ever-abundant presence. Babies are still carried around papoose style while the mothers work, be it in the fields or at their roadside food stalls which are simply an extension of the home.
In the car we pass a roadside stand selling live, dangling rodents of some sort, presumably for cooking. I am curious, but not really wanting to know the answer I decide not to inquire.
About a mile down the road we pull over and I realize I’m about to get my curiosity satiated whether I want to or not, as we approach a stand with several of these creatures hanging upside down by their tail, furiously pawing at the air.
Up close I recognize these creatures from some nature show I once watched and the guide confirms my suspicions. They are ‘bamboo rats’ that live underground and eat only the root of the bamboo tree, and in Vietnam they are considered a delicacy, as they are not frequently available due to the difficulty of finding and capturing them.
Once again, I am both horrified and fascinated, hating to see these creatures suffer but wanting to understand more about a culture so different than my own, particularly where animals and food are concerned.
I find it incredibly interesting that the prolific consumption of every type of meat possible (all the rumors you’ve heard are true) along with the relative disinterest in the welfare of the animal (domestic pets seemingly excluded) is so engrained in a society that is primarily Buddhist.
Upon inquiry I find that while Buddhism is in fact the main religion practiced here, like people and their religious practices everywhere, not all Buddhists abide by all of the laws (vegetarianism seeming to be the least observed one) and historically with much of the country poor and living in remote regions, the people have looked for food (and found it) in some unusual places, learning to prepare and eat whatever was available… and these eating habits still have their place in the culture today.
Aside from the shock to my American sensibilities, eating in this region has otherwise been a delight. In true Vietnamese fashion, each meal involves dish after dish being brought to the table and it is above all, a social affair. Aside from the meat-heavy selections (I stuck with beef, pork and chicken, thank you very much) there was also a huge variety of vegetables… bitter melon, kohlrabi (the root, not just the greens, as we seem to do in the states), thick chunks of bamboo shoot, wilted greens in spicy broth and a plethora of other indiscernible vegetables my guide couldn’t translate.
At night, the meal always included some of the locally brewed “happy water” … a homemade ‘wine’ that tasted, at least to my palate, more like sake. Mostly made from corn or rice and batched up in the abundant, discarded water bottles, the taste and color varied quite a bit from place to place. Like tea, it is served in tiny cups which is just as well, at about 30% alcohol.
Curious, I asked if each kitchen made their own happy water and it turns out that generally one family in the village makes a batch every few days (fermenting time is only about 2-3 days) and distributes it to all the kitchens in the region.
Today we visit the remote mountain village of Phuoc Sen, situated about 60km from the China border. Here the Nung people, one of Vietnam’s many ethnic minority groups, practice their age old art of knife-making. The village is small but well known for its craft and thus, where most farmers in the region buy their tools.
It is here that I get to meet, via my guide, some of the local women who have spent their entire lives tending the surrounding fields and who today, some of them well into their 70’s, still do so. They are astounding in their strength and beauty, epitomizing the strong backbone women provide in this culture.
From here we travel to the Ban Gioc waterfall, the third largest country-dividing waterfall after Niagara and Iguazu.
After an overnight in the town of Cao Bang we begin our long drive back to Hanoi, taking time to absorb all of the luscious scenery along the way, and I say goodbye to this beautiful land and these beautiful people of the north.