Day 211: I Dig Bees, Vietnam Frontier Zone
Praise the Lord for selfie sticks. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THERE'S the glint of sheet metal in a sharp, rocky outcropping plastered with light purple lavender blossoms. It's not a single flap of sheet metal up dozens catching the morning sun on the easterly slope of the mountain. Donkey and I slow and Callum comes to a stop behind us as we all pull off the road.
A couple young men are making breakfast over an open flame in a tarp-roofed home along a straight stretch of road zigzagging up the mountain side. Shimmering pieces of sheet metal pulling warmth from the sun are flopped over wooden boxes scattered among the rocks and flowers.
The men are bee keepers. The boxes bee hives.
Like most travelers, we nearly zoomed straight past them. If we were on a bus or any form of public transport, we'd probably gone past them in our sleep. Or, if lucky enough to spot them, still wouldn't have been able to stop..
“They're bees. This is amazing. It's what I love about motorcycle travel,” I effuse.
I dig bees.
Honey bees are one of the most fascinating, important animals in the world, and here we are in the presence of all the buzz. Seriously, fuck Panda Bears, save the bees.
Honey bees are key species for maintaining so many ecosystems. When considering a single-species conservation, we should look at the larger impact a species as on the environment and the relative costs of conservation. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
One of the young men, with a sweet face and the standard, slight build of the Vietnamese, comes down to us. Without a word, he removes the piece of sheet metal, then lifts out a wooden frame. Little honey bees crawl across the natural, golden comb inside the frame, unperturbed by a section of their home being lifted out into the cool morning air.
The men have no issues with us pounding up the hillside, taking in deep breathes of the perfumed air and watching thousands of bees crawling in and out of the entrance reducer for the hives. Navigating the maze of hives and rocks, we find ourselves back down by the shelter the men sleep in. Inside the open-air construction are cooking utensils, a few burnt pots, bags of clothes, a green gas canister for cooking and bedding.
One of them approaches us with a small water bottle filled with freshly harvested honey. He pours a sample into a shot glass handing it to me. Their are hints of lavender in the bright sweetness of the honey. They want about 250,000 Dong (12 dollars) for the bottle of honey. It's a fair price, but even though Callum and I had considered splitting the costs, it's more than we want to spend on honey.
We kindly decline. They don't come back with a lower offer, making me certain that it's a fair price.
Callum's and my engines fire up. We're off again.
We'd gotten a slow start this morning. I was the last person at the homestay to crawl off of my mat. While, I was sleeping, Callum found a park gym somewhere in town and had done his morning workout, returning about the time I was waking.
I made the mistake of ordering breakfast last night, which ended up begin cubes of fried bread, watermelon and instant coffee. So, before getting on the road properly, we roll down to August's Cafe to have a proper coffee. Instant coffee in Vietnam is an unspeakable sin. There's so much amazing coffee in this country.
The road flattens out as we drive through the u-shapped valley stretching up toward the Chinese boarder and Pho Cao. A bustling Hmong market is closing up with gaggles of woman in brightly colored skirts still swarming over certain roadside vendors as we enter Pho Cao. Most of the interior of the market has closed down, the wooden stalls bare. We spot the Canadian kids we'd broken free from yesterday nestled into some small, open-faced restaurant. On the far side of town, the road splits, we take the road less traveled, which ends up being less traveled for a reason – it doesn't go where we're trying to go.
The land between the sharp slopes of the valley, which are occasionally broken by narrow ravines, has been developed into farm land. There are leafy greens planted in long, straight rows and corn stalks boasting ears nearly ready for harvest. Many of the houses here are built from cobblestones. Even the mud-plaster homes have rock walls built around their yards.
This region is populated by a number of ethnic minorities -- most originally from China. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Clothes are drying in the sun atop one such rock wall.
The road seems to have more than its fair share of rocks as well, leaving Callum and me bouncing out of our seats no matter how slowly we drive.
Though the market appeared to have been dominated by the H'mong, the village we're driving through now, only five minutes away mostly comprise the Black-Clothes Zhuang, another of Vietnam's many minority ethnic groups.
Well-weathered men watch as we drive past. They wear traditional Chinese-style black jackets with cloth cloth bottons down the front and short collars. The women are also mostly wearing black. It's a somber village despite the occasional, shy child's smile. As with many of the minorities this far north, the Zhuang are originally from China, their faces are rounder than a typical Vietnamese face; they look more Chinese than Vietnamese.
“I don't think this is the right road,” Callum says as I stop to take a picture.
Several photos later my camera dies.
“Hey, I'm hungry and need to charge my camera battery, mind if we go back into the main village and grab a quick bite?”
Restaurant selection is always decision ripe for the dice. However, Callum tends to have opinions and it seems best not to get him tied up with a dice decision.
After trying the most hygienic looking place at Callum's suggestion, but finding out they along with several other restaurants we go to are not selling food, we finally find a woman napping in a bed next to her kitchen to make us two big bowels of Bun Cha.
We linger at the outside table, waiting for the camera battery to charge.
Moments out of town, up the first step of the valley's side, we find a small path.
“Want to see where it goes?” Callum asks.
If it was just me, I'd have driven right past – walking is my least favorite way of passing time. However, it's not just me.
“Sure man. Why not?”
It's a narrow, well-worn path cutting through tall grass and short trees on the fertile mountain slope. A H'mong family gives us a strange look as we walk pass their homestead.
“I'm not sure this is really going anywhere,” I say.
On the way down, we stop at the homestead, where the family somehow managed to find enough flat land on which to build it. The home is about 18 floor boards wide with a corrugated metal roof. Two large white Brahman cows stand together in their pen.
The women and the little girls are all wear long skirts and floral long-sleeve shirts; the little boys are dressed in western wear. The second smallest of the family, a boy of perhaps four years old, is too scared to come out from behind his grandma's back when we approach. The women laugh as he peeks out and then ducks behind the old woman.
A young man in a polo shirt appears with a long bird gun in hand. The stock and forearm of the air-powered rifle are hand carved. He slides a pellet down the thin barrel, then shows us the trigger. The trigger looks like a button on electrical lighter, the kind that's sold at a bus stop in a developing country and comes attached to a cheap switchblade.
Grandma gives us a toothless grin as we take a couple photos. The children, shy, but giddy with excitement, hide their faces, clinging to their grandmother.
It was a big, full family we found up in the mountains. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Farther up the road, we pass a woman packing a large woven basket of sticks on her back. Her two daughters wear thick crowns of pink Peavine Clover blooms. Each of them carries their own large woven basket with a machete handle visible among the thicket of clovers. Like the little girls with their grandma, these girls are also camera shy. The young fairy maidens turn their backs to the lens and lean up against the metal rail that runs along a bend in the road.
They hid with crowns of flowers and black hair. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It's deep into the afternoon by the time we barrel past the turn off for the Lung Cu Flag Tower and into a cirque bowel where the H'mong King's Palace stands among a grove of serene Vietnamese White Pines. The thick-walled stone fort – it is a fort built to withstand whatever might come with the winter rather than some ornate French palace – is surrounded by a modest amount of farm land.
At first, it's unclear where the parking for the attraction is. At last we, make an educated guess and park near the desolate stalls of a closed market. Only a couple vendors on what appears to be the paved path to the fort's entrance are open.
An old woman sits behind one of the wooden tables, loudly cracking walnuts. There are baskets of shelled nuts on the table, an aluminum bowl of unshelled ones and clear bags of the nuts for sale.
A woman cracks walnuts outside the H'mong King's Palace. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The woman waves us over.
I plop down on a stool and buy a packet of Banh Che Lam Tam Giac Mach. I know it's Banh Che Lam Tam Giac Mach, because that's what's printed on a white piece of paper stapled to the plastic container that holds the slices of food that look vaguely like cake with a sprinkling of powder sugar on top. What Banh Che Lam Tam Giac Mach is though, I haven't the slightest. What I can tell you is that it's served with tea.
The woman pours hot water into two porcelain shot glasses sitting on a big silver tray. She tosses the water out, as if its only purpose was to warm the glasses, then pours us tea.
The Banh Che Lam Tam Giac Mach turns out to be a soft dough dessert with a hint of walnut and some spice Callum and I can't quite identify. Nibbling on our snacks, we listen – but don't comprehend much – as the old woman asks us questions in Vietnamese.
Once our tea and snacks are polished off, we walk farther up the path to pay the entrance fee to the palace and step through the outer wall of the solid fort, which stands only two-meters high, but is 80 centimeters thick.
The palace was built by wealthy warlord and opium trader Vuong Chinh Duc, who established his own H'mong army in the early 19th century.
The fort was carefully positioned and construced in accordance with feng shui. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli
Legend has it that a Chinese geomancer chose the location for the three court-yard palace in the cirques surrounded by the jagged karst limestone cliffs because the terrain looks like a turtle shell, which represents long life and wealth. The symmetrical building, which looks like three square zeros stacked on top of each other from above, was carefully positioned and constructed in accordance with feng shui.
It took Chinese labors and skilled H'mong craftsman about eight years to build the fort of stone, fir wood and Terra-cotta tiles in the Chinese architectural style of the Man Qing era.
The H'mong's craftsmanship is visible on the elegantly carved fir panels at the entrance, which stand between two plastered pillars with red Chinese script running down them. The entrance doors are open, as are the doors to the first court yard and the second and the third. Each doorway frames the one behind it; each getting smaller and smaller as they receded into the distance.
The wood of the interior is worn by thousands of foot falls, the rooms wrapping around each courtyard. Balconies on the second floor look down on the stone-floored, open space. Up steps, through a room and back down steps, we find ourselves in a second courtyard then a third.
Steep wood steps lead into empty, low-ceiling rooms, where light comes in through narrow windows. The windows are thin on the outside and wide on the inside to allow archers the most possible protection and firing range when defending the fort. When I close my eyes, the floor plans, the details appear as if drawn on grid paper by an eight-year-old me dreaming such a place into existence in a Dungeons and Dragons world.
In the armory, there are two racks of replica rifles. Other rooms have dusty glass cases sparsely filled with artifacts, some rooms have only black and white pictures of the Vuong family or nothing at all.
There is supposedly a room for executions and prayers, but Callum and I wander through each unaware of its purpose.
Outside, the old woman selling walnuts tries to send a couple bags of the unshelled goodies with us. However, we kindly decline the chance to buy them and get back on the road.
One more stop for the day: Lung Cu Flag Tower.
The tower sits at the northernmost point of Vietnam. Videos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It's a well-paved windy road, like the spine of a serpent, that leads us through the mountains to Lu Cu. Somewhere along the way, a buoyant Vietnamese man on a motorcycle spots us.
“Lung Cu,” he says, pointing ahead.
He smiles and smiles and smiles, trying to talk between his smiles as he saddles up next to us on his motorcycle, everyone taking the turns in the road together. He wants us to follow him there. However, I manage to pull out ahead of him. Donkey is eating up gas as we go. We're driving fast, finding the right lines on the turns as they follow the contours of the mountain.
I glance back in my mirror to make sure I've not dropped Callum.
I haven't. He's comfortably cruising behind me, chatting away with the Vietnamese guy.
Down into the the valley, we follow the man past a parking lot and wind our way up the tall lump of land.
The tower sits atop a small mountain, marking Vietnam's nothernmost point. There are two litle lakes on either side of the summit. These, according to one of several ethnic groups in the region, are the eyes of a sacred dragon.
“In the past, life in the region was very hard because of the lack of water. Before rising to heaven, the sacred dragon, out of kindness, left the villagers, his eyes which were later turned into two semi-circular lakes. The first belongs to the Mong and the second to the Lolo,” Nguyen Thi Hong, a Lolo who lives in Lung Cu, explained to the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
The Vietnamese guy shows us a patch on his shirt, beneath his jacket. It looks like he works for a tour company, though he doesn't seem to speak much English, if any.
We pay the entrance fee. Callum is unaware that we've covered the Vietnamese guy's ticket as well. However, it's not enough to make a fuss about, though I can imagine it irritating Callum to no end.
The entire way up the 389 stone steps to the top, the man keeps holding up his selfie stick to get photos of the three of us.
Callum is over it. Callum was over it before it started, back when they guy apparently wouldn't let him focus on driving, but kept pulling up next to him, chatting his ear off in Vietnamese.
Several people who were sleeping the our homestay last night are standing on the base of the octagonal monument. Dong Son drums – a symbol of Vietnamese culture – and images of the 54 ethnic groups of the country are carved into smooth stone base. At the top of the impressive 33 meter tower is a bright red Vietnamese flag billowing in the wind. The flag, which even from the base of the monument looks huge, is 54 square meters.
Our Vietnamese friend is grabbing any white person he can get his hands on for a photo. After several pictures with him, I'm forced to brush off his requests so I can finish setting up Dorsey II, my drone.
The monument is still underconstruction. Large steel cables stretch out of the doorway from the iron spiral staircase leading to the top. The top is covered with building materials: large cement blocks, a pile of sand. If others hadn't climbed to the top earlier, I might have hesitated to sneak through the open doors and climb the dark stairs to watch the sunset behind China
The tower is without a doubt inspiring. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Though on one side is China and the other Vietnam, everywhere bellow us are grassy hills, their bases carved into stepping rice paddies. Above the paddies are strips of pine forest, which give way to the bald, grassy heads of the hills.
“On both sides, tiny Lo Lo houses guard the rice fields. This beautiful scenery inspires the patriotism of those who make the climb the Lung Cu flag,” writes the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism.
For once, such a grand statement by a nationalistic country doesn't seem to overstep reality. There is something powerful, beautiful and grand about the monument and the landscape it overlooks.
China is across a dirt patch, up a tiny hill. China is across a fence. It's not a cross a big fence. It's across a fence that's meant to deter, but not prevent, cows from crossing at this point. Of course, if you walk 50 meters in either direction, you could walk around the fence.
Later, in a bar, drinking nasty honey wine, a young musician and music producer who is out with friends on a motorcycle tour explained how a van was backed up against the fence on the Vietnam side and an old man was dragging large logs up to the fence on the China side. It appeared to be a booming point of import-export. The American took pleasure in pissing on China, in a way that only an American can, which, of course, is literal.
“Do you want to go to China?” Callum asks.
“Not, really. I mean the dice said my next country has to be Kenya – can't really sneak China in now,” I say. “But if you want to go.”
“No, it's okay.”
The sun is getting low and though we're close to Dong Van we're not there yet.
Snaking back along the road, there's the crashing sound from hard plastic slamming into even harder asphalt.
In my side view mirror, I spot Callum running down the road, his long legs swinging out in front of him. A serious distance behind him, his scooter lays on its side beyond a sandy, wet bend in the road.
“Well, that was well managed. You okay?” I ask.
He is. The bike is also fine, no serious damage at all. Later that night, we'll find out that that particular corner took a couple other motorcyclist down today.
A large square arch welcomes us to Dong Van as we slide into town with the sun setting in front of us.