Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown…
There will be a problem, but it’s ok…
We got up in the morning and all the late-night drunken talk of going to the market as a group for pho had gone out the window.
Chi and Dong had left for “work” a few hours earlier, according to Reggae on the Radio. Olof and I had a couple of cigarettes with the kids and then left for the market on our own.
The morning market noodles we had were another exquisite batch of meat and broth (like almost all pho we’d had since we hit the mountains in Tuyen Quang, it was pork pho, not beef or chicken) and we delighted in overpaying.
It’s just so damn incredible to sit there, with all the people moving around and sitting still, watching the steam rise from your bowl, and from everyone’s bowls and cauldrons across the tent, and from breath and from everywhere, and all the colors of scarves, hemp skirts, turbans, stockings, sequins and all the young boys and girls trying to sell things and eat pho without breaking their giggles as they stared at us.
I fell in love with a H’Mong girl in gold selling vests. She was only 22 but married for four years with four kids already.
I tried to flirt with her but her aunt wasn’t having any of it. We got Olof outfitted in full regalia: H’Mong jacket, hat, pants, a woman’s vest that he dug (what a scene with the old women cackling delightfully, calling for their friends, sons and daughters across the way to have a look at the crazy pale-skin dressed like a H’Mong man trying on ladies’ clothes), a skirt for his lady back home, and some ladies’ scarves that he also dug, and later we bought a baby dangler, also for friends back home, etc etc, and we spent time watching the men at the sewing machines, repairing everything for customers who waited outside the tarp with umbrellas because it had started to drizzle.
I found an old medicine woman and put a little medicine in her bamboo bong and lit things up even brighter: the women in their pure hemp skirts, sometimes just black but mostly blue and black and blue and green and sometimes patterned and sometimes not and some of their scarves were blue and others were green and yellow-gold or green or maroon (mafuckin’roon) with sequins over gold or green sequined shirts and all varietals of three-cloth multicolor chin-strap turbans framing faces like The Battle of Algiers…
Olof and I wandered around separately and aimlessly for a while, me following around the pretty girls, Olof following around the pretty clothes.
On our way out of the market around 10 a.m., things were beginning to close up and droves of people had already left.
In the outdoor lot on the way to the gate there were still wooden tables and stools filled with men getting hammered and about half the sellers still at their stalls, the other stalls left to small piles of litter.
In the middle of the lot was a tiny young girl, maybe 6 years old, standing next to a pile of fresh green tea leaves on the ground. As we walked by she made eye contact and pointed with a lone finger to the tea without making a sound or changing her blank expression. We passed her and looked at each other.
“Should we buy some?” I asked Olof.
We went back and a huge bushel was VND5,000, which she indicated to us without saying a word, even though my Vietnamese was working pretty good that morning.
We couldn’t take the whole bushel, enough to fill either of our bags, but I pulled out a few stems, gave her VND10,000 and we tried to get her to explain how to make it. Did we need to cut it? Dry it? Soak it?
She shook her head and wouldn’t utter a single slovo until finally she said: “Just make it the way you make tea. Put it in boiling water.”
A young girl selling a pile of green tea as the Meo Vac Sunday Market starts to close-down in the late morning. Photo: Olof
We went back to the Lo Lo house, dropped off the tea as a parting gift (“Ngon,” said Thanh), gave out VND150,000 to Ky and told them we hoped we’d run into another of their road-building projects on down the line, and away we went, with joints in our breast pockets.
We decided to take the rest of the day to do the 25km from Meo Vac to Dong Van in order to savor it: tall slanted mountains that look like piles of green lava poured down from above, tiny arrow-like peaks where the last of the molten rock had dripped.
The feeling of being high up there on that road is like having the most beautiful girl in school chose you, this place having chosen you to be there, to stand there, to drive the road, not to observe and take notes, but to witness like an animal a piece of earth made by hand.
The first souls we ran into were some bad-ass motherfucker primary-schoolers, waiting around the most picturesque bend, where white people had been stopping to take photos of the most incredible valley: the mountains open up just a bit to see the long tail of the Huong Que River running like orange blood through the hills below.
These kids, mostly 6,7,8 and 9, but some maybe as old as 12, all had sickles and rope (what’s the rope for? that rope’s no good!) and some were H’Mong and some were not and some had H’Mong clothing and hats and some didn’t, but all had the yellow rubber cyclo sandals.
They were rummaging for wild things in the bushes, as well as money and candy from travelers. We gave them a little of both and then lamented as the bigger kids ran off with the booty, flashing their sickles at the youngins’ who gave chase.
By the middle of the drive we’d split blissfully apart and we were both alone, doing our things. At a bend in the road that comprised a shop with beer and a pool table, I stopped to fill the communal dieu cay water pipe with a mix of medicine and Hai Phong tobacco I’d concocted.
I was finally learning to smoke the bongs they have in the mountains, which are often (but not always) shorter and much wider than in Hanoi, so much more so that you have to put your mouth to the side of the cylinder when you pull, which makes it harder to smoke.
It was at that little billiards table that I took my first truly perfect northern-mountain rip. As the numbness slowly crawled over my body like a family of little lizards I walked off towards my bike, simultaneously refusing rice wine and a game of pool…
As I saddled up, one of the guys at the table asked me for a dollar.
“How about half a dollar?” I said.
“OOO-K!” he replied to the laughs of his friends.
I handed him VND10,000 but as I started the engine he handed it back to me.
“I was only joking,” he said.
* * * * *
We’d been put in touch with a Dong Van Tay-Nung man named Tue by a friend in Hanoi and as we rolled into town we called him and agreed to meet at a cafe .
We posted up at Pho Xua Café, in the heart of the old district, really in the center of town any which way you sliced it, and fell in love with some waitresses. Tue pulled up with a calm demeanor, but some kind of tiny fire in his eyes.
“I’m not going to take you the regular way to my house,” he said. “I’m going to take you the long way. The beautiful way.”
He saw something in our smiles.
“My house is only 2km from China and you’re not allowed to stay there. But it’s ok, you can stay at my house. If we get caught, there’ll be a problem. But it’s ok.”
And so we drove off after him like maniacs down some insane road. The road was smaller and more remote, with a more intense fog, than the others we’d been on.
The shouting “hellos” from children and farmers on the side of the road turned into silent smiles and in some rare cases, waves. At one point when we stopped for nature’s call, three young girls carrying bundles of sticks three times the size of their bodies walked by.
I tried to talk to them and they just turned their heads down and away towards the mountain, walking off into the horizon, where it looked like rain. Olof got what is in my opinion the best shot of the trip with those girls walking away and into the gathering storm-clouds.
The last bit of road before Tue’s house fell apart like Road 212 had, only worse and steeper. We came to know it well, going back and forth several times over our three days at Tue’s.
We struggled each time, humbled by the farmers who seemed to sail over it on hovercrafts. But we were comforted, too, by the farmers who also fell off their bikes...
Once at his place, we met Tue’s mom, who made indestructible H’Mong hempskirts on her ancient loom and was not selling them but was busy perfecting one for Tue’s yet-to-be-chosen-soon-to-be-bride.
Her sweet smile radiated love and kindness – the perfect tiny and caring end-station of life’s spectrum.
We also met Tue’s Chinese truck, which would soon transport one of his goats to the upcoming animal auction. We met his 9-year-old nephew, who lived with him and was to take us on a 7km hike the next day after the market at the former H’Mong king’s former palace.
The last bit of road before Tue’s house fell apart like Road 212 had, only worse and steeper. We came to know it well, going back and forth several times over our three days at Tue’s. We struggled each time, humbled by the farmers who seemed to sail over it on hovercrafts. But we were comforted, too, by the farmers who also fell off their bikes..."
We drank proud homemade wine from a bowl with a dinner of pork that had been smoking over the kitchen fire since Christmas. To try to describe that combination would be a crime against truth.
But I’m guilty of plenty of those already: a crunchy black bacon exterior that let off smoke when you bit near the skin, rib-meat that quickly turned into pudding once you chewed it, the fire-wine and fish sauce melting everything in your belly like a vat of ore liquefied in order to be sent to parts of the body to rebuild them and eventually be melted down again and used as fuel.
There was no running water at Tue’s joint, and we got a tiny bucket half-full to use for face-washing and tooth-brushing.
We peed in the backyard. Tue told us he was planning to separate his house (now 1 room, no bathroom) into two rooms with an outhouse so he could do homestays.
His mother and a brother and sister lived about 250 meters down the road where there was also no water. They (his mom and sisters-in-law and some grandmothers and tiny little boys and girls) carried 25 liter gasoline jugs of the stuff on their backs from another village that had a well a kilometer down the road.
After the feast, the family retired and we hung out with Tue and his nephew smoking cigarettes. Tue showed us incredible pictures he’d taken on his phone all over the Karst Plateau.
He had several shots of gorgeous Tay, Nung and H’Mong women he was courting in rock orchards and gardens. He also had a few shots of stunning Kinh girls hanging out with him in a Ha Giang city park.
He was a tiny, squat man, but he clearly had game. Twenty-seven and still holding out on marriage. It’s a sin!
We got into bed, Olof and I sharing the larger of two wooden planks, Tue and his nephew sharing the other. Tue was the first to fall asleep but Olof and I lay awake a while as the kid chatted with his girl, lulling lukewarm lullabies into his phone’s left ear all night long…
* Jon Dillingham wrote his bachelor's thesis on the (poor) American press coverage of the Vietnam War and used his graduation money to fund a trip through Asia that never left Vietnam. He spent eight years getting married (and divorced), getting a Master's Degree in Journalism at the University of Southern California (AKA Clown College) and editing every state-owned English-language endeavor in Saigon. About a year ago he snapped, gave away all of his things and headed North to đi phượt--an expression that translates, roughly, to abandoning the material world on a motorbike in pursuit of enlightenment (at best) and relaxation (at worst). These are his chronicles. He can be contacted at email@example.com