A distant commune in the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang blooms and withers with the seasons
A kindergarten class in Thang Tin Commune, the northern province of Ha Giang / PHOTO: MAI THANH HAI
Every September and October, tourists from all over the country flock to Ha Giang to admire the bright golden rice terraces as they ripen.
Then, Ha Giang's grassy meadows turn white and pink with blossoming buckwheat flowers in October and November.
After Tet (Vietnam's Lunar New Year Festival), travelers arrive in droves again to see the peach blossoms and yellow mustard flowers in the late-winter or early-spring.
Thang Tin, a mountainous commune 140 kilometers from the capital town of Ha Giang, is slowly becoming a destination from which to admire the province's seasonal beauty. For years its magnificient rice terraces remained unknown due to its remote location in Vietnam's most remote province and its crumbling, nearly impassable roads.
Commander of the commune's border guard station, who asked to be referred only as Dinh, said that off-road travelers and some media attention had brought an increasing number of tourists to the area for the past two falls.
"So, occasionally some tourists visit Thang Tin," he said.
However, for the rest of the year, the commune remains almost forgotten, while its more than 1,500 residents eke out a living, struggling for food and schooling for their children.
No road more difficult
When I visited Thang Tin recently, Colonel Hoang Dinh Xuat, head of the Ha Giang Border Guard Headquarters, had to check road conditions with the local communal border station before assigning officers to accompany me.
He told me to bring instant noodles, dried food and water in case we were held up somewhere by landslides.
For a moment I thought the officer was worrying too much, but once we started out from Tan Quang in Bac Quang District, I realized the road was the worst I'd ever taken.
As our all-terrain vehicle moved slowly on a narrow and extremely rocky mountainous path, we could barely see the holes and boulders in front of us due to a thick fog. The driver had to pull over anytime he saw headlights in the distance.
On one such occasion, his sudden turn off the road to let another vehicle pass swung the back of the car into the mountainside.
"We're lucky they turned on their headlights!" he exclaimed.
Watching the dump truck carrying sacks of corns pass us by noisily, Tuan, a border officer, sighed, saying it was almost impossible to follow traffic rules here because the road was too small, treacherous and foggy.
I was told that Tan Quang is about 80 kilometers from Thang Tin, but it can take a whole day to reach the commune, even on clear sunny days.
It is much worse when it rains, as roads become muddy and there are often landslides. During the rainy season, landslides in Ha Giang regularly bury houses and people. In most cases, people combing the hills are unable to retrieve victims' bodies from deep beneath the mud, rock and soil.
"˜We feel sorry for students'
Late in the afternoon, we finally reached the border guard station at Thang Tin, which manages nearly 21 kilometers of borderline.
Dinh, the station's chief, said theirs is the most troubled of all 12 stations in Ha Giang.
"But we soldiers are familiar with hardships. We just feel sorry for local teachers and students."
Then he took me to the kindergarten in the Ngai Thau Village. To get there we had to walk over hilly slopes and through people's backyards because the schoolhouse is at the end of the village.
The kindergarten was an old, crumbling house with little light. There was one door and one window.
Huyen, a teacher, said the kindergarten was actually an old house borrowed from local people. It has no clean water or electricity, just like the rest of the village.
Most of the children go home at noon for lunch and a nap because the school has no tables, no blackboards, let alone a kitchen, pillows or sleeping mats.
"We do not have even a toilet," said Huyen.
The kindergarten hosts one single class for some 30 kids aged three to five, and it is the only school in the village. When the kids grow up, they have to walk four kilometers to the communal elementary school.
At nearby Ngai Tro Village, the kindergarten of 51 children from different hill tribe communities is about five kilometers from the commune center.
As the path to school has lots of steep hills and streams to pass, most kids arrive severely muddied during the rainy season.
Every weekend, teachers walk to the commune's center to buy food for the whole week, but when the roads become unusable due to rains and landslides, they eat only rice with salt.
Asked about local schools' difficulties, Bui Tuyen Hung, vice chairman of Thang Tin People's Committee, said: "We are familiar with hardships, so we do not dare ask for anything, except a few toilets."