Ma Pi Leng pass, Vietnam, Ha Giang,

Notes from the North; the final frontier.

International borders are strange places. Scale mountains, cross rivers, and then you arrive at an apparently arbitrary line drawn in the sand which announces the beginning of a new territory, completely incongruous with the identical geographical landscape on both sides of this invisible division.

Ma Pi Leng pass, Ha Giang, Vietnam
Mã Pí Lèng Pass, 馬鼻梁/ mǎbíliáng (5000 ft above sea level). The name means “bridge of a horse’s nose” in Mandarin, referring to its narrowness, and the collapse of many horses en-route the treacherous road. 

To be fair, the journey from Hà Giang city to Mèo Vạc had given us a taste of what to expect. This was a local bus service, in which the vehicle was loaded up with produce to be sold at the market the next day. This produce included livestock comprising of no less than four crates of live ducklings, strapped to the roof, and chirping all the way. They were eventually delivered to a primary school in the middle of a foggy valley, some hours later.

When the bus began to slide around in the muddy slopes (which formed the main road) I was horrified when the busboys began motioning that half of the bus would have to get off and walk for a while. Well, at least I wasn’t expected to help push the bus…and the locals enjoyed the show of watching me (half-asleep with only my phone in my hand) trudge along embattled bus as it struggled onwards. It was 8am, and I hadn’t sleep properly the previous night (blame the sleeper bus from Hanoi with its non-stop karaoke and neon lights). After the shock wore off, and I woke up properly, I started to really appreciate what I was seeing, and realised I’m Not In Hanoi Anymore.

Dong Van market, Ha Giang, Vietnam

Modernity exists somewhat uneasily in Đồng Văn in my opinion.

I’ve already spoken about how strangely time seems to move in Hanoi, and even in Europe, when I was listing reasons to visit Latvia last year, I was struck by the juxtaposition of old and new (concerning transportation and beyond). This was truly something else though, women carried wicker baskets of goods, whilst men sat on their brick-like mobile phones. There were no clocks, no mechanical noises, but there was something strange about a lot of the ethnic minority clothes that were for sale…

Now it just so happens that I briefly worked for an online e-commerce business dealing with ethnic minority handicrafts (I know, I know, it’s been an odd sort of life so far). As a result, I do actually know my Black Hmong from Flower Hmong, Tay, Dzai etc. That’s when I realised. The shades of these garments were far too neon to have been produced by natural dyes. the fabric looked more like Lycra or something similarly synthetic.

Then I remember a post on a blog that I read about six months ago. It was about how ethnic minority peoples in Sapa had started to do business with factories in China in order to produce ready-made “ethnic minority style” garments. In her post, Pau mentions the Hmong children that she saw wearing these garments, which were originally made for Vietnamese and other tourists to “dress up” in for photo shoots (the idea of cultural appropriation isn’t widespread in Vietnam or China, from what I’ve seen).

Hence the uneasy relationship between modern tourism innovation, and cultural heritage preservation cross the border regions of northern Vietnam. We also came across “ethnic minority tourist villages”, under construction, in which properties are being built in ethnic minority styles, and then go into business as “traditional home-stays” for tourists (despite the fact that they are both new, and not actually “home” to any minority peoples).

Hmong King's palace, Ha Giang,
Palace of the Hmong Kings, 19th century. 

One things was clear, compared to the city, a life of hardship was what awaited many ethnic minority peoples. We saw children as young as five or six working in the fields, carrying loads on their backs, and many unaccompanied children wandering along the side of busy roads, collecting discarded plastic bottles and other waste. It was a national holiday (Labour Day) whilst we were in Ha Giang, but that meant little to the people who were working on the land.

Dong Van market

We met several extraordinary women (and an owl).

The woman in the photo above had caught this owl in the mountains, and trained it as something of a pet. Although I might disagree with the ethics of keeping a wild animal as a pet, she was clearly very affectionate towards it, and it slept by her side as she sold things on her stall. I couldn’t help but wondering if the owl was something of a symbol of the place where she’d come from, too, and that when she came into the city to make a living, perhaps it felt a bit less lonely to have something else beside yet which looked slightly incongruous in an urban environment.

Dong Van market pho seller

 This woman was a phở (noodle soup) seller, and she sold pork phở – unusual fare for the cities, but apparently the norm in Hà Giang. What was amazing about this woman was how she demonstrated the utter fragility of western notions of “intelligence”. For starters, she was illiterate, and secondly, was selling food so cheaply that she couldn’t be turning a very good profit.

However, after some more customers arrived at her stand we noticed that they were speaking a language which was neither Mandarin nor Vietnamese. This happened several times, with more customers appearing. After a quick conversation (in Vietnamese) it transpired that this lady does indeed know how to speak five different languages, of which there are no printed dictionaries or direct translations of into English. Not only that, but she revealed that the common language between ethnic minority groups is actually Mandarin Chinese, meaning that the vast majority of ethnic minority people are at least bi- or tri-lingual from childhood.

Notice the faded black-and-white photograph of a man in the background, on the wall.

The bus from Hà Giang broke down on our return journey. Halfway in between village life and the roaring city bustle, this time I knew just what to do. With a glass of sugarcane juice, I sat by the side of the road, and waited for time to resume.

2 thoughts on “Notes from the North; the final frontier.”

  1. […] Cat Ba instead of Halong, staying in Trang An in Ninh Binh instead of Tam Coc, seeing Ha Giang (Meo Vac and Dong Van), not Sapa. This was the right decision for me because I need to learn to be comfortable with my […]


  2. Great article and adventures! I would like to visit an Asian country one day and to see all those cultural differences with my own eyes. It must be super interesting. Good luck with your travelling, and I can’t wait to read more about your adventures.


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