Northern exposure Vietnam
Surreal karst scenery, secluded waterfalls and hospitable locals are but part of the allure of northern Vietnam. Then there are the mountain goats…
There are two ways to milk a mountain goat: the right way and the wrong way. People have been milking mountain goats the right way for thousands of years. It took me a fraction of that time to learn how to do it the wrong way and, for my efforts, I was bitten, kicked and cried at. If you have ever heard a mountain goat cry, you know it to be a baleful sound, on par with the wailing of babies who think they’ll never have milk again. For my own part, I learned how not to milk a mountain goat while visiting Vietnam – exactly the kind of place you go to learn such a skill.
How not to milk a mountain goat
Megan is my boss. Her job is to find interesting places to experience. My job is to get us to those interesting places. Megan told me Northern Vietnam is a place that many people visit but few experience; she told me she wanted to fill her pockets with new experiences as if they were heavy gold coins.
I bought us a pair of bicycles. I picked them up for a penny and a song at a little shop on the main drag of Ninh Binh, a backwater berg a few hours south of Hanoi. Being the boss, Megan got the bicycle that was in better shape: both her wheels were plumb and true, her brakes worked and the bicycle went where she wanted it to go. My bike rumbled and bumbled over the broken road with a mind of its own. One tyre was shaped like a boomerang and the chain lashed at the air like the tail of a flea-bitten dog.
“My bike is haunted,” I lamented, but Megan only laughed and pedalled farther into the Ninh Binh countryside, a rich rural dreamscape of meandering water buffalo, fertile rice paddies and gigantic karst monsters that has inspired folk tales for thousands of years. Mercifully, the dusty dirt road succumbed to the lure of the jungle and the track became impassable even for Megan’s bicycle, so we embraced Vietnam’s pastoral grace on foot.
Late in the day, we crossed paths with a trio of men returning from the mountains; the leader of the pack carried himself with an air of accomplishment, while the others had a scruffy mountain goat strung upside down from a pole they balanced on their shoulders. The men led us to a collection of small cottages, neatly tucked into the base of a karst outcrop.
They invited us into their homes and introduced us to their wives, children, friends and neighbours. We were each offered a glass of ruou de, a Mekong moonshine made from rice, while Megan was summoned into the kitchen. I was tasked with milking the goat so that we would have something fresh to dribble into our evening tea.
I didn’t do a very good job. I offered the goat carrots and grass, and I whispered softly into its ear, but the goat was having no part of me or my promises. It bit me, it kicked me, and it cried until I felt bad for wanting to milk it in the first place. I begged and pleaded to no end and was left with no other choice but to offer the goat the rubber from my wonky tyres. With the goat distracted, I flipped it over onto its back, parted its fur and felt around for its udders. Curiously, I found only one. I remembered a brief lesson from biology class; male goats do not enjoy being milked. Laughter erupted from within the cottages so that the shutters shook.
With our desire to get off the beaten track, we had almost forgotten why Ninh Binh is popular in the first place – a trip to Tam Coc, or the ancient caves along the Ngo Dong River, is a romantic departure from the rigours of urban existence. We arrived in the tiny town of Van Lam and boarded a leaky skiff before the sun had a chance to rise. We rode out onto the river, a slight woman in an oversized hat piloting our craft with her dexterous feet.
All the light in the world was extinguished as we travelled through long limestone caves, the sound of water dripping off rocks the only clue to our whereabouts. With mountains lurching overheard and the water below as thick and steely as mercury, I imagined this world as a mirror-image of the dark side of the moon, if its great grey canyons ever overflowed with water.
Our trip on the Ngo Dong lasted only a few hours; our time in the hills among the ancient pagodas, untamed jungles and other wild places was even shorter. But with each sojourn it felt like we were dropping newly minted coins into our pockets, each stamped with a time, a date and a memory.
What maps can do for you
I knew I could make it past the Hmong ladies without buying silver bracelets. I thought I could avoid the Red Dao gals, too. But if the villagers sent out an armada of little girls to do their hawking for them, all hope would be lost. One village child dressed in traditional tribal garb is cuter than 50 fluffy kitties and sweeter than 500 Girl Guide biscuits dipped in Nutella. I would end up sending the kid and half of her friends to private school. I couldn’t afford to let that happen.
I utilised a series of jukes, dekes, high-steps and spin moves to work my way through the streets of Sapa, Vietnam’s seminal highland frontier town. Old ladies chased me down the street waving their wares; bakers and tailors attempted to rein me in with promises of toasty croissants and tight-fitting pants, respectively. Yet I persevered. I denied all of them my hard-earned money and arrived at my destination. I returned to our hotel a few minutes later with a topographic map of the Sapa Highlands in my possession. I was triumphant.
“Do you know how to read a topographic map?” Megan asked. I wanted to lie and say I did but I knew I would never get away with it. “We don’t even need a map,” I said, crumpling the source of my shame and shoving it deep into my pack. “No map will lead us to adventure.”
“True, but it might keep us from getting lost in the woods,” she said. Little did she know that lost was exactly what I wanted us to be.
I realised that it would take us the better part of a decade to explore the highlands on bicycles, so I reined in a mechanical bull with my powers of persuasion, filled its thirsty maw with petrol and zoomed us off into the hills. A few hours later, we were lost. Megan consulted the map but she had a difficult time making sense of the red swirls and relief calculations. “I’m worried,” Megan said.
“This is all a part of my plan,” I replied. “That’s why I’m worried,” she said. By the time our mechanical bull was thirsty again, we had arrived at a minority settlement somewhere between Laos and China, a real working village high in the hills, far from the sort of hamlets that charge entrance fees and prop up souvenir stands in rice fields in order to sieve cash from the pockets of unsuspecting visitors. I winked at Megan and mouthed the word “authentic,” but only because I knew it would drive her crazy.
An enterprising young villager named Hong Hanh convinced us that her guiding skills were on par with any we would pay for in Sapa proper, so we accepted her invitation and set off on a two-day trek into the hills. We crossed rice terraces where we met old ladies who encouraged us to try our hand at shucking rice; I learned quickly that ladies three times my age and a quarter my size are stronger, faster and probably smarter than I am. We met children riding water buffalos to school and we filled our canteens with the spray from some of the most tremendous jungle waterfalls in the world. Hong Hanh led us on a scramble through elfin forest and up and over the reptilian spine of Fansipan – or a reasonable facsimile of the legendary mist-shrouded mountain – while it became increasingly difficult to remember all the marvellous things we had experienced.
By the time we arrived back in Sapa we were exhausted, soaked through to our bones and happier than we had been in some time. I unfurled what was left of our wet, tattered map on the bed and admired it fondly. “I wonder where we have been,” I said, as I traced my finger along lines of red ink that had bled together.
“It doesn’t even matter,” Megan said.
Don’t rock the boat
I was nearly stranded on the shore. Megan knew it was bound to happen. I was determined to find a way to explore Halong Bay on our own but unless I learned to captain a junk cruiser inside an hour, or somehow managed to commandeer my own seaworthy vessel, I was going to have to give in and join a tour. The blood in my veins chilled at the thought. I considered skipping the trip altogether. Megan talked some sense into me and at the last second, I tossed my bags onto the deck of the ornately beautiful junk and jumped aboard.
As the first mate delivered our bags to our posh midship suite, I folded my arms across my chest and thrust my chin in the air. “The spirit of the independent traveller still beats within me,” I said, handing the first mate a tip. Megan rolled her eyes as the first mate popped the cork on a bottle of vintage Dalat wine, filling two glasses to the rim.
“Tours can be rewarding, too,” the first mate said, sensing my reluctance to embrace this mode of travel. “Relax and throw yourself into the experience.”
Begrudgingly, I accepted a glass of the wine. I soon found myself on the top deck, wondering what it was I was worried about in the first place. Sailing Halong Bay is the quintessential northern Vietnamese experience; it doesn’t matter how you come to experience it, just as long as you do. A twilight world revealed itself before us, draped in hues of purple and gold, made more spectral by the waves that lapped slowly at the craggy mountains. When the sun vanished and the alien kingdom glowed blue, I resolved to enjoy the journey, to embrace our itinerary and have a good time.
We shared the ship with a host of travellers from eight different nations, but we carried on like we had known each other all our lives. Some, like us, had been hesitant to join a tour while others knew of no other way to travel. We found comfort in our collective experience. The briny sea air charged our spirits; we went sailing through limestone caves in plastic kayaks, raced through ancient caves used as safe havens during the Vietnam War and bounded onto tiny islands named after monkeys, turtles, snakes and all manner of creatures that had long ago learned to avoid overstimulated thrillseekers.
It can be difficult to revel in solitude when you are part of a tour, but when you find yourself surrounded on all sides by ancient rock, thick jungle and a seemingly endless sea, it is easy to imagine you’re experiencing it on your own, and for the first time.
I couldn’t help but feel like I’d lost myself to another plane of existence entirely – a watery world of transcendent elegance, watching the karst monsters chase a petulant sun over the horizon from the deck of our ship. The tranquillity was broken only by a call from the water. At first, I imagined it to be coming from a creature of the deep. “Your mermaid wants to sell you a beer,” Megan said, pointing at a waif of a woman who had piloted a tiny craft from some unseen cove out onto the open waters of the sea. Her boat overflowed with cold beer, chips, chocolates and trinkets. I was not frustrated by the intrusion or dismayed that I had been enveloped by the dark shawl of the mighty tourist magician – I was impressed with this woman’s ingenuity and thrilled at the prospect of a frosty drink, for some frivolities even the most cynical independent travellers can’t live without.
I can’t imagine I’ll ever again be in a position to whisper in a mountain goat’s ear, shuck rice from the husk or cave dive in Halong Bay, yet there are some skills a traveller can’t live without, even if he only plans on putting them into practice once. Vietnam rewards itinerant travellers who go looking for something outside of the ordinary, but it also has a few surprises in store for visitors who open themselves up to every avenue of experience. •
Photography by Flash Parker.
when to go
Vietnam can be visited year-round, but keep in mind that the country is large enough to see significant seasonal variance from one region to another. Winter temperatures in Northern Vietnam can dip to 12°C and in summer, they can skyrocket as high as 40°C (though the average is a much more tolerable 32°C). Extremes are amplified in the mountains and the hill country.
World Expeditions offers more than a dozen trips through Vietnam, including several cycling trips. 1300-720-000; worldexpeditions.com
Helen Wong’s Tours and Travel Indochina also offer small-group trips around Vietnam. helenwongstours.com and travelindochina.com
where to stay
• Emeralda Resort & Spa Ninh Binh. 84-4/9157-36062; ninhbinhtravel.info
• Hyatt Regency Danang Resort & Spa. danang.regency.hyatt.com
• Topas Ecolodge. 84-4/3715-1005; topasecolodge.com
• Victoria Hotels & Resorts. victoriahotels-asia.com
The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism can help with additional tips on travelling to the country. vietnamtourism.com