An Associated Press reporter who covered the Vietnam War first-hand drives back by motorbike to revisit a northern plateau’s limestone giants, ethnic legacy, and history of another, perhaps forgotten war. By Carl Robinson.
There we were, amid huge conical mounds of rough-looking karst, or limestone outcrops. Entire valleys of the grayish sharp-edged material really were a virtual desert because no water collects anywhere and very little grows other than crops of maize. This was the day’s long-awaited drama, the limestone heart of the Dong Van Karst Plateau in Ha Giang province.
To anyone who’ll listen I rave that Dong Van ranks as the country’s singularly most spectacular region. Here at the very northern tip of Vietnam is dramatic scenery, an amazing mixture of karst, deep valleys, caves and tribal people. I’d been so entranced on a motorbike trip the previous year that I just had to come back.
But you’d think more people would know about this region, considering its place in history during the border war between China and Vietnam in 1979. Unlike the four other northern provincial capitals, Ha Giang was not occupied by the Chinese but, with the border only 24 km away, they shelled the hell out of the place and all the town’s civilians fled.
For years I’ve collected string — facts and anecdotes — about the now deliberately-obscured Sino-Vietnamese conflict. Everywhere I travelled in my two-week 2000-km motorcycle trip along the Chinese border, all I had to ask locals was “And where were you in ’79?” to hear memories flooding back.
To reach the plateau, my motorbike companions and I left behind the Song Lo, which like all of northern Vietnam’s rivers originates in China’s neighbouring Yunnan province, and followed a major tributary up through a narrow canyon. The valley widened out into a settlement at the bottom of a dramatic escarpment. On the hillside straight ahead, a big Hollywood-style sign announced our destination in Vietnamese and English.
The escarpment rose sharply above us and a good 500 metres up I could just make a truck clearing the first crest onto a pocket-size plateau half-way up, likely formed by a receding sea long ago. Travelling slowly and nervously past where I’d taken a bad fall the year before, I crossed a second, much larger plateau and finally up another escarpment through the so-called Heaven’s Gate.
An unusual feature of driving through this steep and dramatic landscape is the kilometre markers, which can show you’re only a couple more kilometres away but you still can’t see your destination. Then, you make a sudden descent down the sheer side of a mountain — and you’re there.
Riding on, we encountered ethnic minorities, mostly Hmong. A couple boys walked by, laden with chopped grass for the animals back home, and two girls, one carrying stalks of corn, bolted away giggling as I raised my camera. We would meet more tribal groups the next day, when villagers from all around came out in their Sunday best for a frenzied day’s trading. On Market Day, Hmong (aka Meo) men in black clothes and berets pulled along cattle, pigs and dogs, while women in colourful clothing carried baskets of produce or just-purchased goods on their backs.
These tribal markets are supposed to be really colourful, but perhaps one just gets a bit ‘marketed out’ after a while in Vietnam. I saw very little that was original, with most of the material goods on sale ‘Made in China’. Forget finely embroidered skirts and blouses. This is all polyester country now, manufactured stuff from across the border barely 20 km away.
With everyone a bit disappointed by Dong Van’s not-so-large nor exciting market, we backtracked up the previous day’s road for Vua Meo, or Meo Palace. Located at the head of a valley of karsts, the more-fort-than-palace dates from 1919, when it was built by a local opium warlord named Vuong (King) Chinh Duc who ruled over the Meo of the plateau with the full blessing of the French colonial regime. By the time he died in the late 1940s, his successor already had struck a deal with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh (who actively courted minority groups and needed their territory as rear bases) and later joined North Vietnam’s first National Assembly.
Located among tall pine trees and done in Chinese-style, the Hmong palace is quite an impressive structure surrounded by a now-dry moat and stone wall complete with firing holes. At its highest point are two guard-towers reached by ladder, while inside are living areas for the king’s three wives, and a couple lovely courtyards, including a thick-walled, cool room that once housed the opium. At the information centre and shop outside, we met the distinctive-looking grand-niece of the famous king who still lives there.
After that pleasant visit, we headed up through the most remarkable scenery of the Dong Van Plateau to the northernmost point of Vietnam — and the landmark giant flagpole at Lung Cu. At the top of another valley of conical-shaped karst, we turned along a ridge road where a long, deep valley dropped spectacularly off to our right. On its far side stood a line of distinctive ‘hogbacks’ karst formations, as well as ridge after ridge far off in the hazy distance. Then, driving right along the Chinese border, we descended into a triangular-shaped valley with the flagpole rising from a hill at its centre.
While my travel mates climbed to the top of the flagpole, I stayed behind to chat with a young employee of the provincial tourism office. When I asked about 1979, I was told the Chinese had fired artillery from across the border, here marked by steep river valleys and a tough climb for any troops, and knocked it to the ground. The one built after that was replaced only two years ago by the new one. Yet another piece of string in that long-forgotten war.