On our first weekend in Hanoi we drove to Tam Coc, an area south of the city dominated by enormous limestone karsts. The land they spring from is almost entirely flat, and this only makes them more dramatic; there’s no sense of gradual rise, of hills building up to greater heights – only great mounds of rock set down in the middle of rice paddies. The limestone has turned black over time and worn into soft, rounded shapes; gathered on the plain the karsts reminded me of a herd of elephants. A two-hour drive from Hanoi, Tam Coc is a famous pleasure spot: a fleet of rowboats await visitors to take them out into the rice fields and through a series of caves. Ben and I bought our ticket and boarded a boat. There was a man sitting in the back with the oars; he paddled with his feet, the balls of his feet clenched around the oars’ handles. He sat with his weight thrown way back, supporting himself with his hands on the sides of the boat. There were many other people out on the water, but the landscape made us quiet: the only sound was the steady plashing of oars in water. Nature spots in Vietnam seem also to be working landscapes: the boats’ path through the water was lined on either side by fields of rice, fenced in by neat rows of bamboo. It contributed to the place’s beauty: the green shoots of rice seemed to knit together the brown water and the towering black rock. White egrets waded through the water and tiny kingfishers with sapphire heads sat on the bamboo. A brilliant red and green snake wriggled through the water beside the boat. After the noise of Hanoi, this quiet landscape was quite magical.
This last weekend we took the overnight train to Lao Cai (a town in the north of Vietnam near the border with China) to visit the town of Sapa. Established by the French as a mountain retreat for colonials weary of the Hanoi heat, it’s now a busy tourist centre. You approach it by a winding mountain road; coming into Sapa (which at an elevation of 1500m is a little higher than our home in Blackheath) is a bit like driving along the highway into Katoomba, where the road is suddenly wrapped in great swathes of fog. Sapa is surrounded by land settled by a number of hill tribes. There are 54 different ethnic groups in Vietnam: the dominant Viets (86 percent of the population), who settled the fertile river deltas, and various minorities, many of whom live quite separately from the Viet mainstream and maintain their own language and culture. Ben and I hired a guide to take us out into the land cultivated by the Hmong people. It’s illegal to go trekking around Sapa without a guide (to prevent the hill tribes’ villages being overrun by tourists): it’s one example of how the government here respects and endeavours to protect traditional ways of life. Our guide prided himself on avoiding the usual tourist routes: we set out on a steep path leading through the town’s market gardens into the valley below Sapa.
The fog began to burn off as we walked and gradually we could see further around us. The Hmong arrived in Vietnam only recently – 400 years ago – by which stage the mountains in the country’s northwest were the only land still available. They made the steep slopes suitable for farming by cutting them into terraces. Seen from a distance this victory over the landscape is truly impressive: whole mountains cut into steps, like the face of an enormous pyramid. Their intricacy up close is impressive too: a network of pipes directing water down the slopes; drains cut into the side of paddies to relieve the pressure in times of rain. Animals are allowed to roam about feeding at will. It being spring here, we saw many young litters: complacent sows, their teats sagging almost to the ground, and shy brown piglets that skittered away at our approach; a fiercely protective pair of brown-necked geese, their goslings gathered close; a bitch and her pups napping in the sun. Again, it was a working landscape: it was not yet time for planting rice, but there were women in traditional dress (the Hmong are famous for their skill in weaving hemp) working the village vegetable gardens. It was very beautiful but the beauty was incidental; nearly everything we saw was useful.
When we’d walked a few hours, on our way to the village of Linh Ho, we could see Sapa perched high on a mountain opposite. I wondered what the town meant to the hill people who lived below in long low houses, practicing agriculture as they have for centuries; what it was like to look up and see that symbol of a life radically different to your own. It could be a threat or a symbol of promise (we passed some Hmong kids listening to pop music on a little transistor radio) or perhaps neither, a matter of indifference. I asked our guide (a Viet) if he thought the Vietnamese government respected the country’s minorities. He said that hill tribes are exempt from the taxes paid by the Viet majority, but that they still have access to services like health and education. Otherwise the government more or less leaves them alone. I couldn’t help but reflect on the situation in Western Australia and how much more respectful of difference the Vietnamese approach seemed; how it implied there was value in other ways of life. Our guide did not mean to praise the government, however. He launched into a diatribe against the hill tribes: their wilful backwardness in refusing to embrace modern agricultural methods; their inability to manage money. It was surprising in a man whose living depends on those same people, people he thinks so little of; a man who held friendly conversations with villagers in their own language. It sounded very much like the complaints of white Australians on talkback radio back home, about Australia’s indigenous people. Perhaps the contours of prejudice don’t change much from place to place.