Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Corn Wine trek

There's no getting around it, these people like their hard liquor. Rice wine is the preferred local brew, but when your rice production barely feeds you then it's corn wine. Everyone makes their own with a distilling operation going on in most houses. It's cheap, plentiful and powerful stuff, and before long you've joined the locals in drinking it at breakfast, lunch and dinner!! It's a social event with everyone toasting each other and the preferred method of drinking is "bottoms up" or "chook sum kwai" (sic)

From Pac Bo, Ho Chi Minh's hideout when he returned to Vietnam in 1940, we began an eight day trek along the Chinese border, staying in the houses of local minority group families and walking an average of 20km a day. I was joined by my tour guide, Hoang, a local guide, Tung, and a porter and cook, Tu. And what a lot of fun we had!

DAY 1 Pac Bo to Nam Nhung

After the drive up to Pac Bo from Cao Bang, we visited the important pilgrimage site where Ho Chi Minh had returned to Vietnam after self imposed exile of 20 years. From here he had gained support within Vietnam to fight for independence from the French. We weren't able to visit the cave or bungalow as they were "under construction".
Pac Bo is right on the border with China and our walk today kept us within only a few kms of the border. Vietnam and China have never had the friendliest of relationships, so visiting this region requires extra police permits and a compulsory local guide. Hence my three companions. Apparently we also must have a porter for carrying and cooking the food. In truth, the luggage of my three companions could easily be carried in just one normal backpack. As it turns out, I am carrying more than them, but I am determined not to give in to getting the porter to carry my load.From Pac Bo it's up a narrow track through secondary forest. It's slippery work climbing on limestone, and it's fairly steep. And I walk slow uphill. It isn't long before my guide suggests I give over some of my gear to the porter. I explain that gear or no gear, I'm slow uphill, and that I don't take rest stops as my muscles don't like cooling down. And that we'd specifically asked not to have porters so I wasn't giving in just yet. After about 3 days they all at last realised that this stubborn lass was going to carry her pack the whole way. Then we all relaxed!We lunched on a grassy summit then climbed down to a small cluster of five houses in a valley. Here we stop for tea, then corn wine. I'm informed that the rest of the day's trekking time is only short so we are staying here for a while. Mot quite into the swing of drinking corn wine at any hour of the day I go off exploring and am invited into another woman's house, where I am also offered rice wine. The kids are all friendly, and thrilled to get pens from the strange foreigner.At last we head off, up over another few hills then down to a village and a dusty road. We turned our backs away from China and headed down the road to our accommodation for the night. This is my first homestay, in the house of Nung people. It is a small village, with a cluster of houses set around a covered market. Corn and pig feed are laid out to dry, and the local men are making concrete bricks and sawing planks with huge crosssaws, as they are building a new house. Everyone is extremely friendly and I am soon being walked around the village with pleas for me to take everyone's photos.Cooking is done on a hearth towards the back of the house. It's all open fire cooking, with a tripod placed over the flames for the cooking pots. Watching the porter and guide prepare our meals becomes a regular evening attraction, sitting on tiny stools around the fire listening to their chatter.The sleeping arrangements are quite comfortable. I sleep on a comfortable bed with a firm mattress and a really thick blanket. There's even a pillow. It's freezing cold as we are high in the mountains and I am snug as a bug. Under the house live the cows, pigs and poultry but they don't make much noise until the cocks start crowing at some unearthly hour. No sleeping in in this neck of the woods.I am a little apprehensive about the toilets, but I needn't have worried. Pit toilets are the usual, with some having wooden planks to stand on, others having a concrete floor with a 10cm diameter hole to aim into. I actually get good at this. Toilet paper is abundant, and there's ash to throw over your droppings after. And lots of water for washing up afterwards.

Showering is quite a different matter, as there is no private place for this. There are public wells and people collect their water for their houses. I'm OK for the moment and it's far too cold for getting naked so I defer that for another day.

photos from Day 1

DAY 2 Nam Nhung to Tong Cot
Today we spend mostly walking along dusty roads, heading down the valley. It's beautiful countryside, with karst peaks flanking the road. Although there are small hamlets, there appears to be very little arable land up here and it is a womder they manage to survive. We visit a small school and give the kids pens, and meet many more friendly locals. Tong Cot is a slightly larger village, and we stay in the house of another family who run a shop. The toilet is a clean squat job, and there's even a bathroom, so I manage to have a quick wash. Dinner is as usual washed down with a few glasses of corn wine. photos from Day 2

DAY 3 Tong Cot to Na Ma It's a long day today, along roads that are not paved but covered with rocks which are hell on the feet. Even with my boots I can feel every stone, and am thankful to take them off for a while over lunch and give them some respite. We lunch in a dusty little town where I am amused to watch a mouse crawling around amongst the rubble of a renovation, trying to get to the kitchen. After I've eaten I spy another up on the food bench.In the afternoon we are forced to take a larger dusty road, rather than a smaller scenic track, as the rain has raised the level of a lake and made the track impassable. After some 25km we arrive at our evening accommodation, in another beautiful valley. I decline the offer to walk to the lake which would be a 6 km round trip. I am exhausted!The house has a bamboo verandah looking over the rice fields and vegetable patches to some nearby peaks, and the setting sun is creating glorious purples and pinks. One of the daughters is learning English, but too shy to practice it with me, and the mother spends the last hours of sunlight planting a cabbage crop. The toilet here is my first experience at aiming into a small hole in the concrete. I do a better job than some of my companions!! Every household makes it's own rice or corn wine, and this house is no different. In fact they are currently distilling wine as we arrive. I'd seen some larger stainless vats at one of the other houses, this one was a much more rustic affair. photos from Day 3

DAY 4 Na Ma to Quan Uyen Today we head off on small tracks through the rice fields and up a ridge into another valley. Most of the morning is spent descending into the valley, along a rocky road which we share with the locals returning laden with unbelievably heavy loads from the fields. At the bottom is this gloriously picturesque village set along a stream. I am bowled away by the beauty there is here, though I know it's a tough life. Most now have electricity, and satellite TV, and that has meant they have been able to use power driven appliances to do some of the daily chores. They work all day, and most of it is hard physical labour. But they seem pretty happy to me, without all the stress we seem to have in our lives.The rest of the day we continue to walk down this valley, which is yet another picturesque area with rice fields giving way to miles of corn and sugarcane, friendly locals and forest covered peaks. The boys are singing songs in Vietnamese and we are all at peace with the world. We go over a pass and into a larger town, again set in a drop dead gorgeous surrounding, and book into a guesthouse. I have a hot shower!!!Our guesthouse is soon full with a group of French, who are going trekking for 3 days. As they haul their huge trolley suitcases up the stairs I am wondering just what sort of trekking it is. But they are only doing a measly 10km a day, and have porters carrying their gear. I feel very adventurous in comparison.We've survived four days on the road, so after dinner we take another bottle of corn wine back to the guesthouse and have a few celebratory from Day 4

DAY 5 Quan Uyen to Tha Meng There is a small market going on in the morning, with a few women dressed in the beautiful hand dyed indigo clothing of their minirity group. After breakfast - yes I am now a fully fledged corn wine for breakfast drinker - we take a local minibus up and over a few passes into another valley. I get the front seat, along with another woman and her daughter, while the others must pile in the back with the other twenty passengers.We set off along a river. Soon the terrain heads upwards as we cross through into another valley, past a beautiful waterfall in the middle of nowhere. The weather is sweltering hot today and we are all feeling the heat. We lunch by the river and some of us go for a swim.The rest of the day we follow the river, along small tracks then a larger rocky road. We pass a waterwheel used to irrigate the rice terraces. The heat is really energy sapping so we take a couple of shortcuts to avoid a few river bends and at last are at our homestay. I am exhausted, and the river is just a bit too far away for a swim, so it's a rather public wash on the outside verandah. Actually it wasn't all that public, everyone else was too busy to bother noticing a westerner having a wash in her underwear.
photos from Day 5

DAY 6 Tha Meng to Ta Lung Today's a fairly easy day of walking, especially as the weather is cooler and overcast. We climb over yet another pass and continue down a large valley planted with taro and sugarcane. The taro harvest is in full swing, so there are whole or chipped taro lying everywhere drying. We find some cut cane that's fallen from someone's load and have a natural sugar treat as we walk.Ta Lung is a dusty border town, and our guesthouse is a mere 500m from the border gates. Everywhere there are bicycles with large sidecars. They are used for loading up with goods for transporting between here and China, as the border cannot be crossed by trucks. The pileup of these laden bikes at the Chinese immigration gates in the morning is a sight to be seen.
photos from Day 6

DAY 7 Ta Lung to Ban La

I visit the market, where there is some sort of special fair on, but it's actually a bit of a disappointment. Ta Lung is just a dusty border town, though the guesthouse was lovely as were our hosts. This is our last full day of trekking but we are all a bit reluctant to head off. It's a tough one today, up through very steep, forested terrain. Much of the area is still primary forest, and we are passed by numerous locals with their packhorses laden with huge logs.We descend into yet another gorgeous valley, with only a few houses, where we have lunch. Our host is very generous with the corn wine and we are a bit tipsy by the time we leave. This isn't such a bad thing as our climb this afternoon is even steeper than this morning. Soon I too am singing along with the Vietnamese songs - not that I know the words!But the climb isn't so bad, and we descend into the valley in which we are staying. The rice harvest is in full swing so I join them for a bit of manual labour before we trek the final kms to our homestay. We apparently invite them all over later for a drink. Hoang tells me you can get the whole village drunk for about $5!!

We stay at a house that is normally used for storage, so it's less cluttered than the usual house, and cleaner. We purchase a duck, which our guide slaughters, plucks and butchers for dinner. The whole family join us for dinner, and we start off with the host's good rice wine before drinking what we've brought. It's a big night with everyone toasting everyone else, and having to send out for more wine. Our porter succumbs to his bed first, then I am second to leave the festivities. Then the village boys turn up and more wine must be sent for. It turns out that the village drinks itself dry that night! As I said, they like their from Day 7

DAY 8 Return to Hanoi

We're a sad old lot this morning. Nothing to do with the copious amount of alcohol drunk, which surprisingly leaves me hangover free. Our host finds some bee infused rice wine for breakfast and we polish off that as well. Then it's an hour or so walk to meet our car and driver. We drive to a nearby town where Tung and Tu jump on a bus back to Cao Bang. It seems weird to pass out the tips and say goodbye, they've become more like friends over our 8 days together. And yes I carried my pack the whole way.

photos from Day 8

The drive back to Hanoi is a sober affair, though we do share a beer over lunch. Hoang finds me some accommodation in Hanoi then it's goodbye to him too. Eight very special days are over but I have some great memories and photos from it.

I am staying in a dormitory in a backpackers in Hanoi, so very soon I am immersed back into western culture. It's happy hour from 5 - 6 and I too have joined the hordes drinking cheap beer. I just might give my liver a break in a few days, right now it's great talking in non-halting English with my compatriots. I've got to get a Chinese visa next so I'm stuck here till that comes through. Might as well enjoy the vibe while I can. Oh, and get a haircut!!

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