The lowdown on the Highlands
by TRACY GROSS
By far, this was the most grueling part of my trip, emotionally and ride-wise.
In Dalat, I was rushed by groups of Asian tourists wanting to take my picture, pull my hair and take pieces of it as souvenirs. Tour buses tried to get me to pull over to be ogled and pinched.
What I thought would be a relaxing massage turned into a staff lesson on Black anatomy — including parading around my bra and poking at my breasts and the color variations across my body. At the tribal markets, women continually felt me up, thinking I was pregnant and possibly lactating.
This area had the largest concentration of indigenous or hill peoples. The Highland minorities were collectively referred to as “Montagnards” (French for “mountain people”) or nguoi thoung, Vietnamese for “Highland citizen.”
And like minorities around the world, they have been poorly treated by the majority.
The government has been “Vietnamizing” the country cultures. A major thorn in the side of this was the guerrilla organization FURLO ( Front Unifee de Lutte de Races Opprimees) or the Unified Front For The Struggle of the Oppressed Races. Their existence is not officially acknowledged by the government. At best, they were relegated to embarrassing blurbs in foreign-printed guidebooks that the government couldn’t censor.
In many instances, special permits were required to enter indigenous zones. We were ordered not to photograph or interact with any of the tribespeople. Requests for further explanation were politely rebuffed: “It is forbidden…please to not.”
We also were told that the secret police were following us, which we doubted — until we got an escort out of town, with sirens.
KARMA ON WHEELS
Leaving Dalat, covered 300 kilometers in one day. Crossing the former DMZ, we bypassed to arrive in Hoi An.
When we arrived in northern Vietnam, we received a new guide, Loi.
Loi pointed out that my riding partner and I were a lucky omen. Murray Small and Tracy Gross — quite literally small and big, black and white, male and female. Yin and Yang on wheels.
Our reward for riding long and hard was a much needed three-day break in a five-star hotel and the ultimate in shopping opportunities. In addition to its natural beauty and status as a UNESCO Heritage Site, Hoi An is an artisan town, is filled with galleries featuring traditional lacquer, ceramics and wood-working, as well as silk embroidery paintings.
But the biggest draw was the hub of tailors. As in Hong Kong, designer wardrobes can be reproduced at a fraction of the cost and time to buy retail. Cobblers recreate designer shoes while you wait.
From Hoi An, we side-tripped to the village of Buon Ma Thout. We visited a traditional Edi tribe longhouse for a cultural performance. After the restrictions we experienced earlier, I was afraid that it would be a bit depressing, like American Indian reservations or Aboriginal Designated Territories, but it was surprisingly sincere and truly welcoming.
Next, we ventured to the top most mountain town of Sapa.
At the time, Sapa was full because there was a four-day celoebration of two national holidays, Reunification Day and Liberation Day. We hiked Vietnam’s tallest peak, Fabsapian Mountain, to reach the Hmong Lau Chai village. There, we encountered the Red Hmong, Black Hmong and the Flower Hmong peoples.
The Hmong are a darker people and the women wear elaborate head dresses, so I didn’t faze them at all. They just figured that my braids were how my people traditionally wear their hair. In the midst of sales pitches, I was presented with offers to trade goods for showing them how to cornrow.
Some of them thought I was a hill person from Dalat!
From Sapa, we rode to Lo Cai to board a train onto Hanoi.
Lo Cai was quite literally an Asian version of Tijuana. It is the regional train hub and a border crossing point into China. Our train was part of the “Reunification Express”. Historically known as the Transindochinois, these tracks ran directly from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
Vietnamese railcars comes in four classes: There is a hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper category. Also known as first-first class, first-second class, second-second class and third-second class. First-first class is a soft sleeper with air conditioning.
If you are ever in Vietnam and take the train, go first-first.
IN THE END, WE ARE ALL THE SAME
We spent one night in Hue and then re-boarded the train to Hanoi the next afternoon.
Hue was the Vietnamese imperial capital. The last bastion of the Nguyen dynasty, Hue housed tombs of the emperors and the famed Citadel on the Pearl River. The tombs and pagodas dedicated to the old royal family took a particular beating from both the Vietnamese and the Americans during the war. Rescued from decay, Hue was declared a World Heritage Site in 1993.
Outside the city we found marble rock formations known uniformly as Marble Mountain. We climbed what felt like a million steps carved into the white and pink marble mountainside. At first, there was a series of Buddhist temples and mountain-to beach-lookouts. Then we worked through a row of Indiana Jones-style cave entrances and climbed into the mountain’s belly.
Concealed in the rock outcrops were the most spectacular Buddhas.
From the ceiling, natural chimney shafts allowed in streaming sun rays from outside the caverns that any Hollywood director of photography would have killed to re-create. Apparently these caves served as a secret Viet Cong hospital during the war. There were no official guides or markings. The only indicator that the caves were open to tour was a small booth next to an active quarry.
At the entrance was where local children and elderly women sold trinkets. As it is illegal for them to take payment for leading you on the pathways, they circumvent this by selling you a marble carving or stone piece.
For my “non guided” tour, I was adopted by a tiny old lady. Barley five feet tall with teeth reddened from chewing betel nuts, she took us deeper and deeper into the caverns until we reached a beautiful pink marble reclining Buddha. Still further, hidden behind the first Buddha, she revealed there was another incarnation of the Buddha. This one is solid white marble and nearly forty feet tall- The resplendent enlightened standing Buddha.
In pidgin English, she recalled her early childhood, her teenage years marked by the war erupting around her and her constant struggle to survive. She told us how she had been befriended by American soldiers, who gave her food and offered to take her to the United States. She then sold me some incense and showed me how to make an offering.
As we prayed our mantras, she smiled at me. Her eyes twinkling in the low light, she reached over and patted my arm in a grandmotherly fashion. Perhaps remembering her encounters with Black GI’s she said to me, ” You soul sister. Black too. We same-same, but different”
Images by T. Gross and M. Small. all rights reserved.
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