• Heels-up in the hills of Hanoi

    Not for the first time, I gatecrashed a party. This time it's a party for Vietnamese officials in a Montagnard village in the mountains near Hanoi. And even though I haven't brought anything to drink, no one seems to care.

    On the contrary, when one of the elegant White Thai girls - that's what this particular racial minority is known as - asks me up to join the dancing, all the bureaucrats cheer on the reluctant foreigner.

    It's a gentle enough performance, my mentor first leading me by the hand in big a circle, then encouraging me with pats on the back as we weave our way around the bamboo floor of the traditional stilt house.

    The dancers, resplendent in their colourful, beautifully embroidered costumes, are obviously well used to dealing with clumsy visitors so it all ends without embarrassment.

    Afterwards, when the ritual apparently requires us to sip from a bunch of bamboo straws sticking out of a giant pot of rice wine, nothing will do but that I wrap my lips around one of the straws and give a hearty suck.

    It's a nervous moment, because after three weeks travelling through Indo-China my stomach is a little restive - but all those amiable pats on the back are hard to resist.

    The wine is sweet, pleasant and not particularly alcoholic, and my stomach responds well. After the dancing it's off to bed on a straw mat on the floor of a stilt house over the road.

    It takes a while to drop off because the bed is hard and the bureaucrats over the road are still making a lot of noise.

    But before long the village headman comes to tell them to be quiet, the temperature is pleasantly cool after the steamy day, a net keeps any mosquitoes at bay, my room-mates are not snoring, and I actually enjoy a surprisingly good night's sleep - although for days afterwards my hip feels bruised because of the hard mattress.

    Next morning there's a pleasantly undemanding breakfast of a fried egg on a plate, a loaf of freshly baked bread, a banana, and a tankard of coffee. It's an ideal preparation for a peaceful exploration of the surrounding forests, rice paddies and villages.

    A visit to the village of Lac in the Mai Chau valley is a great chance to experience rural life and to see some of the 54 minorities who live in Vietnam's mountainous areas.

    You can either trek from the village or take the softer option, which I do, of using a single house as a base for exploring the beautiful valley with Vietnam travel guide.

    In the early morning light this is an area of almost surreal beauty, with the tiers of glowing green and gold rice plants contrasting with the darker green of the jungle growing up the slopes of the misty hills.

    Everywhere there are people, mostly in their conical straw hats, carrying out their tasks.

    In one of the irrigation channels which flows through the village, part of a complex network which spreads water from the mountain streams across the valley floor, a young woman is doing her washing.

    In another channel two youngsters are collecting snails for the family lunch. In a pond alongside a house, carp being raised for food are jumping. In another pond a gang of small boys are shouting and splashing excitedly.

    Along the narrow paths which crisscross the paddies several people with billhooks are cutting grass as food for their buffaloes. One old lady who must have made an early start staggers homeward with two huge baskets of grass on her back, legs bowed with the strain.

    In this area the rice-planting has all been done so the buffaloes aren't required for ploughing and most of them are lounging around.

    At a house on the outskirts of one village, a small girl shelters under a brilliantly blue umbrella, holding the lead of a huge buffalo while it wallows contentedly in the mud.

    I wander over in the hope of taking a photo but an old man appears from the house and gently shoos me away. A young woman uses a net on a stick to catch grasshoppers for supper. The insects are sitting on the rice shoots and from time to time she stops to pull out stray wheat plants.

    An aged grandmother walks slowly past carrying two cans of water hanging from a stick on her shoulder. The family well has yet to be repaired after being destroyed by the monsoon rains so she has to walk to the next village for water.

    She tells my guide she was born in 1946, which would make her a year younger than I, but even allowing for the ravages of such a hard life I doubt it. She looks well into her 80s.

    Her daughter invites us into the house, where we sip a reddish tea made from a crushed root which is said to have medicinal benefits. Let's hope so.

    The children gather round wide-eyed as my guide explains I am from New Zealand, which the oldest, aged about 12, promptly identifies on a map on the wall.

    His sophistication vanishes, however, when I photograph grandmother with the two youngest children. The sight of their picture on the screen of my digital camera sends the whole family into delighted giggles.

    In a larger village the market is in full swing with exotic fruits, smelly pig intestines and mysterious spices sitting alongside more mundane bottles of water, scissors and jars of motor oil.

    At the tobacco stall a man carefully selects a handful from the baskets on offer and promptly stuffs it in into one of the stallholder's bamboo pipes, lights up and sucks in a huge lungful of smoke.

    On the other side of the alley a woman presides over a basin full of tiny frogs - apparently they are best cooked inside a bamboo shoot and then eaten whole - and a seething tub of large white grubs.

    In the livestock section four old women, their mouths stained purple from chewing betel nuts, offer woven baskets of birds for sale.

    While I watch, a man buys two piglets - each pre-packed in its own basket - and then carefully balances them on each end of a stick across the back of his motorcycle, before riding off.

    By now the sun is up and it is extremely hot and humid. Even my guide is perspiring and I'm a walking pool of sweat. It's a good time to head back to Lac for a rest.

    The ground floors of many stilt houses are still used for pigs, chickens and buffaloes but the place we are staying in has a small cafe where you can buy cold drinks, and a shop that sells handwoven and hand-embroidered bags, shawls, blouses and hats. Our host, 83-year-old Nham, is something of a tourism pioneer.

    In 1963, when the country was still closed to foreigners, he was chosen to provide accommodation for embassy staff, most of them from Eastern Europe, who wanted to see the countryside. As a result, when Vietnam opened to travellers 12 years ago, he was well placed to take advantage.

    The main living-room in his house is covered with photos of himself with local and foreign dignitaries or standing proudly with a new addition to his chest of medals. In pride of place are photos of the father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, plus some of Marx, Engels and Stalin.

    These days, Nham's daughter-in-law seems to do most of the work while Nham, serves visitors an endless supply of the strong, bitter tea beloved by most in the northern part of Vietnam, and reminisces about the country's independence wars.

    With a gap-toothed grin he tells of French prisoners being confined in the buffalo pen which used to be under the house - along with the buffaloes - after they tried to escape.

    And he giggles as he recalls an American fighter pilot chasing him round and round a big tree on the outskirts of the village with bursts of machinegun fire. But that, he says, is the past. Now he's happy to welcome people from former enemies - such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States - to Vietnam as guests.

    Would I, he gestures, like some more tea? Indeed I would. I'd also like to come back to this delightful part of the world again some time.

    Source: nzherald

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