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Journey through Heaven’s Gate

February 21, 2017

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Journey through Heaven’s Gate

February 21, 2017


Ha Giang, Northern Vietnam


I arrived in Ha Giang province in the middle of rainy season, and rainy season in Ha Giang means mudslides, flooded mountain roads, and lots of lovely torrential downpours.  Not ideal conditions when you consider that I would be traveling by motorbike along some of the most dangerous high-altitude roads in northern Vietnam; but absolutely perfect to capture the rich green pre-harvest rice terraces and misty mountain vistas known only to this season.  And what’s an adventure without a little danger, anyway?  My journey would take me to Heaven’s Gate (Cổng Trời), and deep into the spectacular Dong Van Rocky Plateau for an encounter with the isolated tribes of Red Dzao, H’mong and Hoa who eke out a life in this tough but unforgettably beautiful part of the world.


After a 9 hour journey by overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi, I rented a motorbike in Ha Giang city and, rucksack and camera gear wrapped up in waterproof pannier bags behind me, hit the road north.  My back ached from a night on a bunk designed more for slender Vietnamese than broad-shouldered South Africans, and I hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours all night; but the moment I caught a glimpse of the mountains peering through the cloud over the city, I knew there was no time to waste.  Besides, my troubles were nothing a bowl of steaming ‘phở bò’ (beef noodle soup) and a cup of super-strong Vietnamese ‘ca phe nau nong’ (hot coffee with condensed milk) couldn’t solve. 



Through the morning rain, I could see conical-hatted workers, and families, in the rice paddies alongside the road out of the city.  Harvest season had yet to arrive, but they were already out in the fields at dawn making preparations despite the weather.  Not for the last time on this trip, the toughness and diligence of the Vietnamese, and especially the women who handle most of the farm labor in the on had yet to arrive, but they were already out in the fields at dawn making countryside, amazed and humbled me.



Soon I was climbing out of the lowlands along winding, rain-soaked roads, roaring rivers and waterfalls around every turn. My first view of the real journey ahead came two hours out of Ha Giang city, on a pass above Quan Ba. The cloud around me cleared and, beyond the bright green hills and valleys, I could see the mist-wrapped mountains of the Dong Van Rocky Plateau. This was Heaven’s Gate, and I would be entering for the first time.


Hungry and wet, Saint Peter appeared in an unexpected form and served up an incredibly tasty yet interesting meal.


Stopping for lunch at a roadside “restaurant”. The gentleman here was in this position on entering the restaurant.


He did later pull up his single bed with pillow next to the table so he could multitask while watching the local Vietnamese soapie on the TV above blaring out what had to be a significant  drama, and concentrate on the foreign alien that had arrived.


I stepped outside having had an incredibly tasty lunch of beef, chicked, local vegetables I didn't recognize, ribs (presuming likely pork, intentionally didn't ask) and the local but tasty after a few, “death in a shot glass”, as I call it, corn wine.


I stepped outside into the road having finished the meal and feeling really good about the meal and quality.


I did see a man on a scooter driving down the road and toward me. He happened to stop right outside the restaurant. He climbed off the bike and picked up the very large piece of beef on the seat behind him - heavy enough clearly that it did not need to be strapped down as it hung over each side of the bike. I did notice the side nearest me was in fact dragging on the road as he approached.


He picked up the meat, put it over his shoulder, nodded a greeting as I stepped aside to let him though, and he promptly took the meat straight into the kitchen I’d just walked past.



Funnily enough - I never had a single issue with a “dynamic” stomach or any other mild illnesses throughout this entire journey! An the food, service and experience was wonderful (as in cases - sometimes with hindsight)


 After lunch, it was a short 3km ride to my accommodation for the night with a Red Dzao minority family in Nam Dam village.  The Dzao people have inhabited this region for many centuries, their ancestors migrating from Southern China.  They have their own language, customs and very distinctive dress.  Like the other mountain tribes of northern Vietnam, the main reason their costume features such bold colors is purely practical – it makes it easier for them to pick each other out at distance across the vast valleys and mountainsides of their home.  Within each sub-group of a tribe (ie Red Dzao), there are more localized sub-groups, and their form of dress, customs and even their language differs from others.  Again, environment is the reason – before the advent of roads and other modern infrastructure, sub-groups even just 50km apart would have little, if any, contact thanks to the forbidding mountain terrain.


My hosts were the incredibly warm Mr Thang and Mrs On, and they welcomed me into their simple but very beautiful adobe house with a couple of shots of the potent home-brewed corn wine in which the Red Dzao specialize.  Soon enough, I’d dried out and relaxed, and after a few more shots with Mr Thang, it was time for a snooze.


I woke a couple of hours later and noticed the late afternoon sun was streaming through my window, the tapping of rain on the rooftop long gone.  I grabbed my camera and headed out of the house.  In the courtyard outside, I came across this lovely woman, introduced earlier as Mr Thang’s mother.  She was embroidering a piece of fabric, which, she showed me, would be sewn to a traditional jacket.  Her hands worked quickly with thread and knife, and once she’d finished showing me her work she returned steady attention to the embroidery.  Just what I needed to capture her in the flow.


I then struck out along one of the pathways leading into the countryside, wondering what I would find.  I met this woman returning from the fields astride her trusty scooter.  Bound up behind her she had this huge bunch of ‘Tam Giac Mac’ flowers, harvested as feed for her family’s horses.


I returned to the homestay for dinner, and a delicious dinner it was: Thang and On had cooked up a feast of deep-fried spring rolls, poached chicken with herbs, stir-fried beef and onions, and dishes of vegetables all grown in their own allotment at the front of the house. Between their limited English, my almost non-existent Vietnamese, and the international language of hand gestures, laughter and strong alcohol, I found out that they’d sourced all the food on the table from their own land - even the corn wine, which Thang produced in a hut just outside.  It was the definition of the simple life, and Thang and On seemed genuinely happy with it, for all the hardship you could see in their sun-beaten faces and tough, callused hands.


I was on the road again the next morning, crossing a small plateau through light drizzle before dropping into an enormous valley.  On the other side of the valley, towering dark mountains peered down at me through the rain.  I went down and down, before reaching the river and travelling alongside it through scattered villages of stilt houses.  The river rushed along the bottom of a deep gorge, the walls of which reached high into the sky above me on both sides.  Just as the road started to rise again, I encountered ruined battlements erected by the colonial French army over a century before.  The French had an outpost in Ha Giang to manage the local opium trade, in conjunction with local H’mong chiefs, and these battlements above the main route south would have served well as watch-posts and sniper’s nests.


Now I was travelling up into the Dong Van Rocky Plateau, the terrain turning from green pine forest and rice terrace into barren volcanic rock.  The weather seemed to change around every hairpin turn, one minute the rain lashing into my face, the next baking sunlight breaking through the cloud.  


Once I’d climbed out of the small provincial town of Yen Minh, I found myself among valleys of dark volcanic rock, a landscape like something from another planet, except for the pretty villages of adobe houses nestled among the stones.  On the slopes all around, sharp limestone rocks jutted from the ground, gardens of rock among which nothing could grow.  At least, so it seemed.  When I looked more closely, I could see that corn cobs were being cultivated on this lunar terrain, their roots straggling down into cracks in the rock below.  In every possible cranny of this inhospitable landscape, from the stepped rice terraces plotted high in the mountain faces above Yen Minh, to these ears of corn grown on limestone rock, the local minorities had found a way to grow life where it seemed least wanted.


In Dong Van town, I broke for coffee at the atmospheric ‘Ca Phe Pho Co’, a traditional H’mong market building restored as a café and hostel.  The H’mong architectural style shows the influence of the great neighbor to the north, China, not least because the H’mong originated from there.  While the palace of the H’mong King further to the south was designed in the style of a traditional Chinese courtyard mansion, this market building, with stalls and balconies overlooking an inner courtyard, is like a miniature adobe and wood version of any indoor market in China or northern Vietnam.  In the early 1900s, the French subsidized and supported several H’mong chiefs in order to pacify the other tribes in the region, and only these powerful local figures had the financing to construct buildings like these.  This one dates back to 1911. 



The final leg of my journey to Meo Vac took me up into maybe the most spectacular mountain scenery I’ve ever seen.  The Ma Pi Leng pass crosses 1500m over South-East Asia’s deepest gorge, and it’s here that you’re reminded most clearly that these mountains form part of the Greater Himalaya Range stretching northeast into China, Myanmar, Tibet, India and Nepal.  The road swerves and twists along the face of these vast walls of rock, with only stone blocks painted with warning stripes to save you in the event of a slip. 


The road was initially built by local minority people in the mid-twentieth century, but suffered extensive damage due to Chinese artillery fire in the border war of 1979-1981.  Slow reconstruction began in the mid-nineties, but the road wasn’t completed until the mid-90s.  From above the small outbuilding that marks the top of the pass, I could see the Nho Que River threading its way south-west along the bottom of the gorge, the last of the afternoon sunlight glittering on its surface.  I had passed through Heaven’s Gate and now I was high among the clouds.


As much as I love landscapes, and traveling to spectacular locations, in both photography and travel, it’s always the people who draw me in most.  In Ha Giang, I came across so many cheerful and friendly locals, living in what, for all of its beauty, is an unforgiving and harsh terrain.  Possibilities for agriculture are limited, thanks to the volcanic, rocky ground everywhere; and the weather, at this time of year at least, flitting between biting cold rain and sweltering sunshine, would play havoc with the health of anyone who lived in such simple wood and adobe dwellings as the local H’mong and Dzao people.  But for all that, so many people approached me in Ha Giang wanting nothing more than to share a smile and a laugh, a handshake and a few friendly-sounding words.  It’s an experience that humbled me, and one I’ll never forget.  These are just a few of my favorite faces encountered randomly on the road.


Xin chao, Ha Giang, va hen gap lai!


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