Visions of Vietnam -- Part 5

By Jon Dillingham, Thanh Nien News

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And you didn’t believe me when I told you they were stylin’ in Phia Den…Photo credit: Olof And you didn’t believe me when I told you they were stylin’ in Phia Den…Photo credit: Olof

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Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown…
A road worth taking…
We took Road 212 from Ba Be to Road 34 to Cao Bang. I mention Road 212 because it is a road worth taking: rivers and mountains all rising up like steam and dissolving into a fine hazy mist, a distilled grey hanging above, the kind of beautiful overcast that brings the peacocks out to fuck each other in city parks. 
Everything is incredibly steep, like you see in the rice terrace pictures of places like Sapa and the Philippines and Yunan and Indonesia and all over the world, but this is Cao Bang! Then, once you get high enough, you cross a line and it’s like New England, the jungle disappears into an autumn forest with multi-colored leaves.
At one point, we turned a bend that took us above another far-out valley: the forest disappeared below us into terraced paddies with a river at the bottom. 
In the middle, standing alone on a small rice terrace hill, was an incredible abandoned villa. There was an electricity pole, a pond for water, and no signs that anyone was using the building at all.
Yes, we said, we’d use this to be our Neil Young California Farm (we’d have to buy it from a coupla lawyers) and we’d invite all the beautiful Vietnamese Joni Mitchels to come live and play music with us. I vowed (another vow!) to come back one day and make this our (the royal, editorial our) home.
After that slice of paradise, the clouds closed in and it began to dump cold, hard rain on us. We got tired, hungry and thirsty fast, more and more the longer we drove through the storm. 
We needed hot food—and water. We passed a beautiful deo and the village at the mountaintop, but it wasn't dinning hours and there wasn't so much as a bun shop serving. 
We could’ve asked and someone would’ve made us food, but we just pushed on without so much as a pause or a word. 
One more deo and one more mountain top summit later and I felt like I was going to pass out--dehydrated—just as we hit the village of Phia Den, which wrapped around a rocky peak. 
It had a single pho shop serving. All they had was duck pho and that was all they needed.
The best bowl of (duck) pho in the world, atop a mountain in Cao Bang Province. Photo: Olof
What a divine bowl of pho this was! I don’t hesitate to say the best (or a best) in 9 years of eating the best bowls of pho. 
Crispy moist duck, a brown kind of sweet Chinese-y broth, fresh fatty fat soft noodles that they were making right there in the shop (drying rice paper discs lined the walls), and just a few mint leaves.
Road meals with cheap prices! A group of comrades invited us to drink rice wine and so we did. Then we stood outside, cockles warmed by the fire of the duck and wine, and blazed a tiny cherry of our own as a fat man in a trench coat with plastic bags tied around his feet walked into the shop -- stylin’
We’d got what we came for and thus styled our way out of the joint with our bellies big, beautiful and blithesome. We took off as though we too had trench coats and plastic bags on our feet, when all we really had were ao mua and sandals.

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Cao Pha rice terraces in the fall

Cao Pha rice terraces in the fall

When September brings first storms of the fall, paddy fields in Cao Pha Valley in the northwestern province of Yen Bai turn yellow, ready for harvest