Encounters in a remote geopark

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  A section of the Hanh Phuc (happiness) road on Ma Pi Leng mountain pass, part of Dong Van, a UNESCO geopark / PHOTO COURTESY OF VNA

Decades ago, tens of thousands of young volunteers from 16 ethnic minority communities in northern Vietnam lent their sweat and toil to build a road connecting Ha Giang Town with Meo Vac Town in Dong Van District.

It took them almost six years to complete the work, and the toll it took is reflected in the presence of a cemetery exclusively for people who died during the construction.

But, in the end, the road was named Hanh Phuc, which means happiness. Indeed, the road made things better for people living in one of the most remote areas in the country. They had easier access to education and more economic opportunities. 

Meanwhile, we, people who love travelling on motorbikes, felt real gratitude for the volunteers as we drove a few weeks ago on the road they built. Without their effort, we would not have had the opportunity to see the beauty of Vietnam's northern highlands areas, and to come in contact with the amazingly friendly and cheerful ethnic minority people.

The Hanh Phuc Road starts on the National Road 2 section in Ha Giang Town.

After riding on a quite smooth section for some 20 kilometers, we reached the Cong Troi Quan Ba (Quan Ba Heavens Gate) mountain pass, which is a sharp slope that required us to shift gears on our bikes.

As we climbed up the pass slowly, it struck us how rich and modern Tam Son, a town situated in the valley, looked among mountains and vast fields. Numerous villas and high buildings stood close to each other. Indeed, the town is equipped with every service including restaurants, hotels, wireless connections, and even massage parlors.

We did not miss spotting the famous pair of green-covered mountains that look like female breasts.

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They are officially known as the Quan Ba mountains, but Len, a local souvenir shop owner, told us that they were originally called the Co Tien (fairy) pair.

Along the road, we discovered more villages of ethnic minority people in the valleys, and were amazed to see corn fields flourishing despite being planted on rough, dry and rocky slopes.

Seeing our surprised expressions, Giang Thi Veo, a Mong woman in Sa Phin Commune, laughed, saying: "Here we plant corn to have something to eat daily. Sometimes the kids have their meals with rice."

As she was saying, Veo skillfully placed corn seeds into small slits among black and pointy rocks that are often called tai mèo (cat ears) by locals.

 

Then we saw people heading to their terrace fields to prepare for a new rice season, removing weeds and so on. 

Children walked to school in old and worn out clothes. Many of them did not even wear sandals. Our local tour guide told us that more elementary schools and kindergartens were being established along the Hanh Phuc Road.

After going across several more mountain passes like Bac Sum, Can Ty, and Mau Due, we entered Ma Pi Leng, which is possibly the most famous of all the passes.

According to records, to build the 20-kilometer pass that is over 2,000 meters above the sea level, a "suicide team" acted as pioneers and hung themselves on cliffs to break rocks over an 11-month period. At first the pass was only 40 centimeters wide, but since then it has been enlarged and now is large enough to host two car lanes.

Giang A Sung, a 76-year-old man who runs a sugarcane juice stall in Tam Son Town, said in the past when people still travelled by horses, all the animals would collapse when they reached the top of Ma Pi Leng.

We saw Mong children who seemed to be permanently cheerful and smiling, waving their hands and saying "Xin chao" (hello) to every vehicle passing them. If someone gave them candy or some other sweetmeat, they screamed happily and called out to their friends to share the bounty.

At the end of the valley, "next" to the Ma Pi Leng's summit, flowed the Nho Que River along the deepest valley of its kind in Southeast Asia.

Poppy history

Dong Van is known around the world as a UNESCO geopark since 2010, but the 2,350-square-kilometer area carries historical significance as well.

Our tour guide said Dong Van can be said to be a relic site of the empire of Vuong Chinh Duc (1865-1947), who ruled Ha Giang before the Vietnamese revolution against French domination in August 1945, she said.

Under Duc's rule, all people, mostly the Mong, grew poppy plants for him to make addictive drugs from the plant's extract.

His customers included mandarins of China's Qing Dynasty, officials of the Chinese nationalist government, and even French soldiers, the tour guide said.

She said his close trade relationship with the Chinese is obviously reflected in the architecture of his residence that now stands close to Hanh Phuc Road, some 14 kilometers from Dong Van Town.

The building, with an area of more than 1,000 square meters has 13 parts designed almost the same as the residences of Chinese feudal lords and officials.

Its walls were built with stones and layered with rare wood, which made them 50-60 centimeters thick. The whole building was surrounded by a stone wall one meter thick and 2.5-3 meters high.

As we returned from Ha Giang, our thoughts went back to the people who built the Hanh Phuc Road, and we sent silent prayers of thanks to their souls.

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