Destinations

Dong Van, Vietnam’s hidden Himalayas

Google the name “Dong Van” and you won’t find much. Until 2013, this mountainous frontier district in Vietnam’s northeast corner was under military control and in order to visit, foreigners required special permits that were notoriously difficult to get.

“Tourists in Vietnam – if they want to see mountains, they go to Sapa in the northwest,” said Anh Tuan Nguyen, the director of Mototours Asia, a company that offers motorcycle trips throughout the north of Vietnam. “The problem with Sapa is the people are now used to tourists and they are not too interested in being friendly to them. But in Dong Van, the people are still wearing traditional clothes and living traditional lifestyles and are very happy to see you.” With that in mind, I set out from the traffic-choked capital Hanoi on an eight-day guided road trip to Dong Van, riding a vintage Royal Enfield 500cc Bullet motorcycle – and eager to visit a part of Vietnam few foreigners have ever seen. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Curves ahead

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The district of Dong Van is so uncharted by Western visitors that many of the roads and mountain ranges have no English translations, making them difficult for travellers to navigate without the help of a local guide. But you don’t have to be a local – or a biker – to appreciate the symmetry and engineering of the road leading to Dong Van. Together with Mototours Asia guide Quyen Do Huu, we spent day after day careening around hairpin turns that snaked some 1,500m up colossal mountain ranges. After finding a pass, the road would drop like a bomb into massive canyons carpeted with rice paddies, and it would amble through a village or two before it found another mountain to climb – the dizzying ascent starting all over again. When we left Hanoi, Do Huu told me that Vietnam’s roads and scenery would top even those of Laos, a place many consider a motor biking paradise. On roads like this one, with its peg-threatening curves, negligible traffic and stunning scenery, I realised he was right. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Civilisations built on rice

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The further north we travelled, the bigger the mountains became. We rode up to 250km a day across ranges riddled with thousands of rice terraces – an ancient form of agriculture that gave rise to every civilisation to inhabit Vietnam for the past 10,000 years. February marks the middle of the dry season, which accounts for the terraces’ brown and earthy tones. But during the monsoon season, from April to October, the terraces light up in bright green and yellow. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Weaving by hand

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One of the great draws of exploring Vietnam’s northeast is the chance to meet and interact with the Hmong, an ethnic minority that resides in the mountains of Southeast Asia and is often identified by their bright clothing: elaborate dresses, shawls, shirts and scarves, handmade from cotton and hemp fibres that are then dyed with root vegetables in shades of electric pink, red, green and blue. In a world where so many indigenous tribes have capitulated to the convenience of T-shirts and tracksuits, many Hmong girls still learn how to sew and weave tribal motifs passed down to them by their mothers and grandmothers. In this photo, a Hmong woman in traditional dress works an antique loom inside a barn on the outskirts of Yen Minh town, approximately 90km south of Dong Van town – the capital of Dong Van district. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Entering Meo Vac

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About 30km south of Dong Van town is Meo Vac, a Soviet-era concrete town surrounded by Hmong villages. With the exception of electricity cables, scooters and ubiquitous mobile phones, the villagers living here still lead traditional lives. Their daily chores include tilling the earth with ox-driven ploughs, fermenting corn to make wine and collecting tinder to warm their homes and cook their rice. This photograph of a Hmong child carrying her baby sister on her back was taken by Do Huu, after he asked to borrow my camera during an afternoon stroll. (Quyen Do Huu)

Meo Vac’s famous weekend market

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One morning we awoke at 6 am and, in the dark, made our way to Meo Vac’s famous weekend market. Dressed in their Sunday best, the Hmong people gathered in the thousands, buying and selling herbs such as ginseng, anise and cinnamon, apples the size of pears, pears the size of melons, the butchered carcasses of pigs, goats and dogs, handmade rice noodles and huge slabs of tofu. They also sold homemade corn wine, a fiery spirit with a vodka-like finish and warm, aromatic flavours. It was here that I saw Western faces for the first time since leaving Hanoi: a retired couple from France travelling around on local minibuses. They were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

The old Hmong king’s palace

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About 15km south of Dong Van town in the Sa Phin Valley is Nha Vua Meo: the Palace of the Hmong King, a two-storey four-winged building backed by massive sawtooth cliffs and enclosed in a forest of pines. Built by Chinese tradespeople in 1902 for the Hmong warlord Vuong Chinh Duc, the fortress-like building includes 500mm-thick stone walls set within an 800mm-thick stone barrier, two internal courtyards, 64 bedrooms where the king’s wives, children and guard slept, a shrine, armoury, marijuana store – and a large stone block used for lopping off traitors’ heads. Only one other Hmong king – communist sympathiser Vuong Chu Sen – lived in the palace before it was abandoned during the Anti-French Resistance War, known in Vietnam as the French War, of 1946 to 1954. Today the palace is run as a museum with a small collection of period artefacts set in dusty glass cases. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Dong Van’s Old Quarter

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After four days and 900km of arduous riding on our trusty old Enfields, we crawled into Dong Van town just after nightfall. We spent the night in a home stay in the Old Quarter, a maze-like warren of cobblestoned alleyways and century-old flagstone buildings topped off with terracotta tile roofing. The oldest of these homes – a large terrace with two stone-pillar supports festooned with red lanterns – was built by the Luong family between 1810 and 1820 and is still inhabited by their descendants today. It was one of 40 heritage buildings that survived a fire that ravaged Dong Van in 1923, before the French rebuilt the town. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

End of the road

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Set in the strategic heart of a 1,600m high plateau only 3km from the Chinese border, Dong Van became France’s northernmost outpost during the country’s ill-fated 59-year-long colonial occupation of Vietnam. French soldiers used indentured Vietnamese labourers controlled by local kapos (collaborators) to build a large garrison that now lies in ruins on top one of the many karst rock formations overlooking Dong Van town. The garrison can be reached via a steep, roughly 1km goat trail that leads from an alleyway on the eastern boundary of the Old Quarter. This photo was taken from the top of garrison shortly after dawn, when the town was still partly wrapped in the nightly mist. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Source: BBC Travel

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