I balanced precariously on a bouncing bamboo suspension bridge spanning the river, gamely resisting the impulse to grab a cable for support. Having bounced for days over unpaved mountain roads in a Soviet-built jeep, my inner-ear was well practiced. Suddenly a canoe appeared upstream, loaded to the gunwales with produce and people of the Black Thai tribe. I watched in awe as the boat and its colorful cargo swept swiftly beneath and disappeared into the roadless mountains beyond. "Now, that is the way to travel," I thought.
Back in Hanoi, not certain where to begin, I approached Mr. Cuong, whose services had arranged the aforementioned jeep. "I have an idea," I told him, hopefully over estimating neither his entrepreneurial nor his adventurous spirit. Happily he was willing, and with Cuong's colleague, Mr. Linh, we set out in February 1995. Our mission was to explore the possibility of tourist travel, by boat, through the remote mountains of north Vietnam.
Our jeep was driven by Mr. Hung. Like most drivers in Hanoi, he was trained for wartime duty on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and he drove with both purpose and the requisite caution. We spent that first night in Son La at the Trade Union Guest House, a less than elegant "hotel" in the mountain-ringed provincial capitol. It's attraction for Cuong had more to do with politics than comforts, a prejudice I came to appreciate. Mr. Quan, manager of the guest house, was also director of tourism for Son La Province.
In the morning we drove north toward the River Da. We passed farmers of the White Thai tribe as they climbed to the precipitous plots where they practiced traditional slash and burn agriculture. Then we entered narrow mountain defiles and untouched jungle. I remarked on how the horn honked spontaneously whenever we hit a good bump. Hung replied, through Linh, that the Americans could never produce such a horn and I agreed it was "high-tech." Hung laughed.
We arrived at the River Da about noon. Across the wide, smooth water, was the village of TaBu, a name unfortunately apt. Linh told me that this was one of the most remote districts in Vietnam. Hung started back to Son La. He was to meet us in three days. We took a small canoe across to TaBu where Cuong hired a boat to take us upriver. Earlier I had expressed concern over Cuong's cavalier attitude about the availability of boats, and I was not surprised when there were none at the ready. Of two possibilities, one was out of commission and awaiting parts, while the other was down river to market, due back "later." Since Hung had already left, there was little to be done but wait until "later." This we did, snacking in the shade of a bamboo storefront.
We decided to hire a small canoe to Ban O, a larger town where we'd surely find a boat. Our canoe was fitted with an outboard motor of indistinguishable make which was capable of sometimes making indistinguishable headway. The bowman was repeatedly required to employ some heavy polling action in faster water to assure our progress.
Mountains rose in broad sweeps on both sides, their flanks in various stages of regrowth following agricultural use. We passed many small villages, some now abandoned. When people saw us, they would stop and stare, pointing at me, the foreigner. Once, our motor mercifully cut out and the silence was truly golden. From an idyllic village, the occasional voices of children, cows and chickens echoed across the water.
There was much to see. Members of the Thai, Xa, Muong and other tribes floated by, their vessels overloaded with the fruits of their labors: rice, fish, firewood, bamboo. Many people were mining for gold. From bamboo platforms built over the swift waters and held tenuously in place by stone-filled baskets, they scraped the river bed with shovels thirty feet long. Others fished, with net or line. In shallow water, children gathered underwater plants for food and fodder. Sometimes there were bird hunters with incredibly loud, homemade rifles.
We reached Ban O at dusk. This Black Thai village featured the last semblance of a road we would see for days. It was little more than a pair of footpaths. Commercial activity was winding up. On rickety tables beside the path, some of the river's bounty was displayed. Twenty-five-pound fish with huge scales highlighted in gray and yellow were offered at $1.20 each.
We were introduced to Mr. Pho, a prosperous resident, and boat owner. He agreed to take us in for the night and up river in the morning. His house was typically Thai, large and comfortable, about eight feet off the ground on heavy stilts. Underneath were the usual cast of characters (pigs, chickens, a water buffalo) and equipment, but also an item peculiar to this tribe. What looked like a dugout canoe was in fact a coffin-in-waiting. In the house stood several stacks of embroidered blankets and quilts, ready for overnight guests. A large drum, used only for dancing at New Years, hung from a rafter. The kitchen was a separate room in back. A young girl prepared our dinner over an open fire. There was no electricity, no plumbing.
Seated on floor mats, Cuong, Linh and I were served a meal of chicken, marinated pork, fish, soup, vegetables (cooked and raw) and, of course, rice. When we finished, the boatmen were served. The women ate in the kitchen.
I walked toward the sound of a gas-fired generator. A doorway opened onto the street and it seemed the whole village was inside watching a video. A wall of faces, all ages, basked in a surreal glow. They were so enthralled that my appearance up front caused barely a stir. I watched several youths outside who were playing shuttlecock, in what little light spilled from the doorway. Their skill was astounding, not to mention their eyesight. With gestures and smiles, I politely declined the offer to join them and headed "home."
After breakfast noodles, we loaded our new craft and watched the children going to school. For some reason, the school, an open thatch-roofed building, was located across the river. Groups of young boys and girls, their books over their shoulders in embroidered bags, would board narrow, tippy dugout canoes and pole or paddle their way upstream along the bank. When they turned out onto the river, stroking vigorously for the far shore, the current hit them broadside, sweeping them back at alarming speed. Of course, all made their landing safely, but this struck me as a remarkably dramatic way to start the schoolday, especially as the crossing was always made standing up. Only the teacher, a young woman in the last boat, made the trip sitting down.
Pho brought two women friends on board. They wore the traditional long dark sarongs with bright green velvet jackets and plaid headwraps. Pho's boat was about twenty feet long, but it would still roll ominously whenever anyone shifted their weight. This was cause for lots of laughs. It also had a large outboard motor which nonetheless struggled against faster water. This was cause for no laughs.
Several times the motor quit in whitewater and I wound up steering us back through the rapids with a crude paddle in the bow while Pho worked feverishly over the motor in the stern. He seemed an accomplished amateur marine mechanic, finally concluding that we needed new spark plugs.
We pulled into shore near a village of the Xao tribe and I followed Pho as he went house to house in his quest. It was midday and most of the adults were on the river or off to their fields, but the children all ran at the sight of me. Soon we found a promising hut with outboards by the side. Pho went in and sat for the obligatory cup of tea. I stood at the doorway and watched a group of girls playing cards on the ground. They were about ten years old and they kept up a lively chatter, hunkered down in a tight little circle. I was sure they had seen us approach and now I wondered at their complete nonchalance with this foreigner not five feet away. Suddenly, one girl let out a shriek, threw down her cards, leapt over the game, and ran away. The others watched her go. Then a second girl saw me, and did the same. One after the other, with an uncanny sense of timing, each threw down her cards and ran off in a different direction. The last girl, perhaps a little older, hesitated a second longer, but then she too fled.
As we walked back to the boat, an elderly man came running after us, followed by dozens of village kids. He seemed to be urging them not to be afraid of me. When I stopped, they all stopped. If I went on, they followed, but always at a safe distance. Finally, by employing my most obsequious posture, I managed to approach the group. I began to distribute some marbles I brought for the occasion and that broke the ice. Little brown hands were thrust aggressively at me on all sides. It was not clear that they knew what marbles were, but they did want them and jostled each other for seconds. When we left, the whole group stood on the riverbank until our boat, finally firing on both cylinders, disappeared upstream.
I asked Cuong when he thought the last foreigners had come this way. "Oh, never!" he said without hesitation. But I had to wonder. Certainly some French colonial governor or general traveled this way, even if it was a generation or two ago.
The scenery became ever more spectacular. The river narrowed and the jungle-covered mountains rose straight up from the banks. Ranks of ragged ridge lines receded into distant mists, often perfectly mirrored on the still waters beneath. Villages became rarer. We once held a collision course with a family of swimming buffalo, until they finally veered off, an iridescent kingfisher screeching the alarm. We rode on past perfect beaches and several hot springs, just beating darkness to our destination.
NamMa was a fairytale village climbing steep slopes beyond a broad sandy beach. Large trees between the stilt homes made NamMa feel like a town of tree houses. Despite their isolation, the people seemed less shy than others, and a parade of the curious escorted us up to the home of Mr. Ong.
Mr. Ong was a slight, older man who had just returned from a wedding, a five hour mountain trek. That he had enjoyed himself at the wedding, on the trek, or both, was obvious. That he was delighted at our arrival was also obvious. I marveled at his energy.
Dinner preparations commenced with the capture of a chicken, and as it would clearly take a little awhile, I went outside. From the porch encircling the house, I drank in the scene. It was sublime. Evening shadows climbed the cliffs towards the pink and blue sky above, all reflected on the glassy river below. The only sounds were low voices carried on the warm beams of lantern light from nearby homes.
Once again, Cuong, Linh and I ate first. Mr. Ong brought out some of the rice wine he produced in a still below his house. He proposed a series of unintelligible toasts. After one or two, Cuong and Linh were able to politely decline, but Mr. Ong's focus was on me and I could not.
Cuong and Linh were exhausted. They went to sleep on their blankets in a corner. But the house was far from quiet. The wine continued to flow and the conversation was lively. Soon music from a cassette player, powered by a truck battery, filled the house. The speakers were destroyed and the sound was terrible, but no one seemed to care. Volume was everything. There is no such thing as a noise complaint in Vietnam.
Deeming sleep unlikely, I decided to make a journal entry. I sat on a six-inch stool and wrote on my lap by light of a headlamp. Absorbed in my little puddle of light, I was almost oblivious to the party across the room. But I was totally oblivious to the group of people, mostly young women and children, who came in and stood some six feet away watching me write. When I looked up, they were suddenly bathed in the light from my headlamp. For once, I was more startled than they were. They did not run. I distributed some marbles and candy to the kids. They drifted away and I drifted off to bed.
The music was finally doused about eleven. I watched as Ong and his wife struggled above me for ten minutes, hanging a curtain around my little corner of the house. I had to marvel again at Ong's stamina. He had spent the last twenty hours alternately trekking steep mountain trails or partying very heavily, and now he would tend to this detail of proper hospitality before retiring. The silence was soon complete.
But it was abruptly broken again at 6:30 am when Ong turned the music back on. Even the roosters were drowned out. Linh suggested some education would be in order here if we were to make this a tourist stop. Water arrived at the backdoor from a bamboo pipeline. It was heated over the fire and left in a pan for our morning ablutions. This was luxury. Ong offered several more glasses of rice wine with breakfast and, again, I could not say no. I was clearly in his favor.
Before departing, we wanted to try Ong's rowboat. Like many we had seen, it was rowed standing up, by a single oar tethered to a post near the stern. Cuong made it look easy. When my turn came, Ong hopped in too. He sat in the bow smiling like a kid at an amusement park as I paddled him around.
The good-byes were not easy, but we had to go. Mr. Ong shook my hand five or six times. The sorrowful side of the sweetness was softened by my silent vow to return. And again, our new friends stood long on the shore, waving us out of sight.
Our voyage ended that afternoon near Lai Chau and the swinging bridge where the idea first struck me. I like to think that another, as good, might strike again sometime.
Published on 2/1/96