Saturday, March 26, 2011

A day in the mountains

You can't visit two contrasting countries like Cambodia and Vietnam without making some comparisons. So far, Cambodia is coming out the winner. Vietnam is busier and more industrious, but Cambodia is more harmonious. As in Cambodia, the houses, at least in the Hanoi region, are narrow and long. In contrast, they are built of brick and those gray building blocks made of a mixture of coal, sand and clay. Gray, like the sky. The facades are all different, though and as the family gets richer, they add another story or two. It's not very pretty, really. There is coal dust everywhere. Almost everyone wears a mask to filter out dust. In vietnam, they wear cloth masks that they wash out; in Cambodia, in the cities, they also wear masks, paper, to filter out traffic pollution.
In Hanoi, the streets are packed – cars, scooters, trucks, buses, bikes, pedestrians – all trying to move smoothly without having to stop. It was the same in Cambodia, without the pedestrians, but here, they honk warning honks constantly. The sidewalks are just as packed – people walking, people sitting on stools having a quick meal, smoking, getting a sidewalk haircut, reading the paper. There is also merchandise flowing out of the tiny shops and thousands of scooters parked, sometimes three deep.
The north has been very chilly and I don't have the right kind of clothes. My sweater and raincoat are not warm enough. On Wednesday we headed into the mountains.  Since we left very early and made decent time, we stopped at a town market to walk through. They were selling sections of sugar can to suck, bamboo shoots, eggs (chicken, duck, and quail), meat (pig and dog mostly).
We stopped at a Muong village where Mr. Dung knows the people and some of the group had tea with one of the families. We did not. It's one thing to be invited into someone's home; it's another to have the impression they are selling their intimacy. Even if they are his friends and perhaps it was an authentic invitation, it didn't seem that way. All the children expected candy and were not content to take just one or two, they ended up with almost a bag's worth of candy each. We and a few others of the group felt very uncomfortable. That said, the village is quite beautiful. They live in wood houses on stilts. The floor is made of unrolled bamboo.
We had lunch in a Taÿ village, just outside Mai Chau. This is a tourist town. They still grow rice, but the town is really a lot of restaurants, guest houses, and souvenir shops. The weaving is beautiful, but the feeling of being trapped is there. The more I feel trapped, the less I am inclined to buy anything. Kind of like New Hope or Sausalito, Mont St. Michel or Lourdes. This is what they call a White Taÿ village – black skirt, white blouse buttoned down the middle. Black Taÿ wear a black blouse. The Muong wear any color they like, buttoned down the side. Frankly, I think these vestimentary differences are dying out; we didn't see them. None of these ethnic groups wears the conical hat, though. The women wear turban-like cloths around their heads. We had lunch in this Taÿ village/shopping center and it was very good; the men do the cooking, here.
Not far from there, on the way to Hoa Binh, we stopped for an ethnic folk dancing, music show. Again, it was a show in a shop. The show was very pleasant and I bought the video CD, so I can probably discard the little film clips I took.

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