“cao bang”

Photo Essay — North of Northern Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, last of the three part posts.

North Vietnam is mountainous forested eastbound extension of Himalayan ranges that protrude deep into Southeast Asia. For many years now it has fascinated me, and been prowling region in neighboring Thailand [1], [2], and Burma [1], [2], [3]. Region was for a long seen by foreigners as difficult and even dangerous backyard. French geographic surveys, colonial administrators and Christian missionaries gradually begun entering and recording the area at the turn of 20th century. Only after conflicts died down and road networks improve during the last decades of century, it gradually started to open up for wider world.

Found useful summary of hill tribes people living in Southeast Asia (source bellow):

long before there was a Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, there have been people of distinctly different cultures living in the mountainous areas that make up those borders today.

Each group has a separate culture and speaks mutually unintelligible languages. What the different people do share is a probable origin to both their language and their animistic/elder-worship religions.

Each of the peoples’ languages originate in the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group, so they share some phonology.

All of these aspects make the Hill Tribe languages similar to the roots of Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Laos, but the differences are much greater. Most importantly, none of the Hill Tribe peoples have an authentic alphabet (many of their languages have now been romanised). This oral tradition was an isolating factor during the important intermingling periods of the previous millennia that brought together the different peoples who make up the Southeast Asian Peninsula. While the lowlanders were homogenising, intermarrying and strengthening bonds through blending language and culture (perhaps most importantly the acceptance of Buddhism), the highlanders kept apart, not only from the mass of people, but from each other as well.

Source: link.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is popular for doing treks and visiting local villages. Scooters are plenty for rent in tourist agencies downtown. Weather in Sa Pa changes constantly and now in winter its been quite foggy for several days on row. Views in mountain sides down to valleys are great, rice terraces add their own flavor into mix. Its easy to go also to Fansipan, the highest mountain of Vietnam at over 3000 meters with stunning views (first 3 photos in this post are all taken in Fansipan). There is modern funicular taking visitors all the way to the top, a trip that in earlier would have been exhausting endeavor can now be done in half a day.


Sa Pa youth in town square.


Hmong people. Both men and women wear black dress that can be recognized easily.

Sa Pa population census was done ten years ago, which recorded 52899 people living in the region. From this 52% were Hmong (including sub groups), 23% Dao, Kinh 18%, Tay 5%, Giay 1%, Phu La 1%. Due to their isolation, tribes managed to preserve their culture, language, arts and traditions, while modern times entered populous lower lands.


Dao women wearing red head scarf.


Selfie time while heading to Fansipan mountain.


Sa Pa in the mist. In winter time mist often covers the region for several days. Best time to visit Sa Pa is on spring when weather is clear, and rice fields are on fresh green. A lot has been done to improve infrastructure in region, but at my time of visit late 2018, roads were often still in poor condition.


Sa Pa town at night, seen from Fansipan mountain.


Rice terraces in Sa Pa.

Cao Bang. Roads on border town are dusty, heavy traffic keep it in air. Many people still do “honest manual work” and families have first babies in their twenties. Vietnam is a young nation, even compared to some neighbors like Thailand and China. Arriving for first time to remote town, at sunset just as light dims and stores close. Not knowing where to sleep, or indeed where exactly are the hotels and hostels. Just as bus nears, blue dot on a mobile map is moving painfully slow and at the same time too fast. It’s getting cold, smell of burning firewood is flowing low and traffic lights are peering through it. Then, after arriving and finding a place for the night, a sense humble gratitude. Opening the bed with thick blankets, getting ready for asleep and watching river Song behind the window. It is coming across the border from China. Tomorrow watching the scene the magic is gone, but least for a while it’s still there.


Cao Bang region: Ban Gioc waterfall is shared by Vietnam (left side of photo) and China (right bank).


Nguom Ngao cave is another natural wonder near Ban Giog waterfall, both can be visited easily in a same trip.

To the low lands: Cat Ba Island and Hua Long Bay. Cat Ba island is holiday island, only half an hour speed boat from Haiphong so its with easy reach from Hanoi as well. Island has large natural park isolated from traffic, but main attraction is close proximity Hua Long Bay, with its magnificent limestone rocks and isles, in various shapes and sizes. Most tourist visit Hua Long Bay using package tour and stay overnight in a boat cabin. Cat Ba is another good alternative, if feeling like visiting places on own pace and sleeping in hotel room. Island has good infrastructure and plentiful accommodation in different price ranges. Winter time is not warm, actually sea water felt warmer than air above it.


View from Hua Long Bay and Cat Ba island.


Monkey business, Hua Long Bay.

Ninh Binh is often called Hua Long Bay on land, with high steep karst formations, caves carved by the water, and fantastic natural scenery. There are some historic sights for instance Bai Dinh temple complex.


Low lands in Ninh Binh. It is sometimes called “Hua Long Bay on-land”.


Bai Dinh complex in Ninh Binh.

Temple has new large section with impressive architecture, but behind are the caves from where it all begun.

Vietnam’s culture, traditions and fortunes through the history are heavily influenced by one direction: China in the north. For a full millennia, Annam (Vietnam’s earlier name) was a Chinese province. Even during the independence, rulers often chose to show respect and nominal vassalage to Chinese emperor, just not to give him funny ideas such as sending new occupying army south. Mongols tried to conquer Vietnam on three occasions (AD 1258, 1285, and 1287–88), but jungle warfare in tropics was too much for even Mongol warriors and campaigns ended badly for them. Champa culture in southern side of the tall country differs ethnically from north, and was more connected to Khmer’s in Cambodia as well as Javanese and seaborne cultures of Southeast Asia.


Viet youth.


St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi downtown around Christmas time.


Famous Turtle Tower, in Hoan Kiem lake. Hanoi downtown.


Young students often circle the Hoan Kiem lake next to Hanoi old quarters. They approach foreigners to practice their English skills.


Rainy day in Hanoi downtown.

Hanoi. Old town of Hanoi still has its charm, with its bustling markets, street vendors and side streets, small shops, old French colonial buildings. Vietnamese have quick eyes, paying a shop or cafe they somehow always manage to gauge notes in my wallet in a second and telling me which notes to use. Living costs in Vietnam is still bellow Thailand for instance. I visited Hanoi 2012, and while city obviously has developed fast during this time, street scenes do not differ much to 2019. Most rapid pace of change occurred 1986 and afterwards (Doi Moi reforms).


Scenes from Hanoi downtown.

Downtown is photogenic spot, with always something new to observe.


Sa Pa valley view from Fansipan at sunset.

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Traveling in Northern Vietnam — War Years and Independence

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, first of the three part posts.

What a delight to have real keyboard. Been traveling in Southeast Asia and piling up material, now lets blog some!


Scenery in Lung Cu at Chinese border, at northern tip of Vietnam.

Sparsely populated northern regions of Vietnam have often been safe heavens for groups having trouble with the established order, such as revolutionaries, smugglers and militias groups. In mountainous and forested Cao Bang, right next to Chinese border, revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh first setup a shop 1941 in a cave.


Cave in Ho Chi Minh jungle camp in Pac Bo, near town of Cao Bang, where he was hiding Japanese troops and organizing movement in the country. Decades later when Chinese troops were occupying the region, they vandalized it with explosives, knowing the importance to Vietnamese.


Memorial temple in Pac Bo. Location has long been pilgrimage like destination in Vietnam.

Ho was on a mission to build an movement that would evolve into a regime fighting first the Japanese occupiers, then wrestle control from French colonialists (Chinese troops were also in country because of Japanese, complicating things further), then thwart American advances and their bid of independent South Vietnam, and finally Chinese again because of Vietnamese war with their Red Khmer ally in Cambodia. Wars also spread to neighboring Laos. All this while building new nation in a process. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist icon of twentieth century much like Lenin, Tito, Mao, Castro. Like them, Ho Chi Minh didn’t hesitate using also ruthless and coercive methods, as he deemed required. When wars finally had quiet down, Uncle Ho was long embalmed in a mausoleum in Hanoi downtown. Today he is important historical figure in Vietnam, his statues, posters and flags can be seen everywhere.

Dien Bien Phu. From the valley floor, one can awe low mountains surrounding plateau from both sides. Looking easygoing life in this small provincial town, sun setting behind western hills and people minding their businesses, it’s hard to grasp the role it has to play in the country’s history. Old Japanese built airfield is still in same place, and has flights to Hanoi, pretty much as it did in late 1953…


@Dien Bien Phu museum: General Navarre, Commander-In-Chief of French army in Indochina, inspected Dien Bien Phu fortification group (29th of November 1953)

Couple days go fast visiting in war memorials, museum and cemetery and looking the scenery, although they can be done easily in a one day if in a rush. Many travelers en route to or from Laos simply treat Dien Bien Phu as a bus transit point. There are couple low hills in the valley, that became French only strong points, a far cry from what their enemies had. Unbeknownst to French, Viet Minh (Communist led independence movement of Vietnam), after realizing the base building deep in the mountain region, had started their own concealed effort to counter it. Arduous work of transporting artillery pieces, mortars and anti-air weapons to region, hauling them to mountains, digging them to positions in tunnels. When all was said and done, guns could be pointed downward to valley and shot with direct fire.


French trench system in strong point Eliane and large crater made by Vietnamese mine detonated under defenders.

Judging the valley scene, it is perhaps around 5-10 kilometers east-west, but is longer north-south. If they had wanted, Viet Minh could have shot from one side to another, over the valley, with their bigger guns. French, when eventually realizing something big was going on, underestimated the its scale and overestimated their own abilities. When Viet Minh guns finally opened up, they soon cut the only lifeline of French garrison had, the airfield unusable. French could not get out and could not defeat the surrounding forces. Their air-power and artillery proved useless against camouflaged and well defended enemy, artillery commander made his own conclusions and committed suicide after his earlier confidence had been shattered by the reality. Patrols to mountains were facing an enemy of 2-3 times of their own size. With a benefit of time its easy to be armchair general and make all the right decisions, but one cannot still help but wonder what went on in the heads of French military leaders (Henri Navarre in Hanoi, Christian de Castries in the valley). War museum in town can give some insight. By looking how primitive weapons Viet Minh were known to have, what chances they would have opposing WW2 veteran troops from all across the French empire, equipped with modern weapons and technology.


@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (assumed by French)

What was less well known was the level of Soviet and Chinese material and advisers. Combined with cunning of Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap, and endurance of Viet Minh soldiers and workers, French surrounded after bitter deference in a hopeless situation. A mere decade later US forces led by William Westmoreland would face similar problems and eventually, the same end result for Americans.


@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (actual, on transport)


French command bunker where Col. de Castries isolated himself, once the situation had become evident for everyone.


Clips from movie Jump Into Hell. Cel. de Castries in the center right.

Jump Into Hell movie now on YouTube was done soon after the actual events. Watching today, it’s quite comical experience and shows how movies have changed. French commander is depicted as gentleman with a strong will and admiration of his men. Movie also offers a glimpse of Red Scare mentality in American experience of Cold War.

After French left Vietnam in mid 1950’s, Americans would enter almost a decade later in increasing numbers. Their presence in North Vietnam was limited to using air power. Historic sights and places are further south and central Vietnam.


“Dien Bien Phu in the air”. Poster from 2012 (my first trip to Hanoi) is an allusion to earlier victory over the French.


@Museum in Hanoi. Much to dismay for Americans during late 1960’s, latest Soviet surface to air missiles were available for their Vietnamese comrades. Americans would later turn the favor, by providing missiles to Afghans when Soviet Union tried occupation there.

Old American TV series Wings Over Vietnam can be found from YouTube. Series show how different branches of American air-force evolved during to war, from mid -60’s to end of war in early -70’s. It also has distinct Cold War ethos and is interesting to watch from this perspective. More contemporary conversation about Vietnam War is on Foreign Policy Research Institute (American think tank based in Philadelphia) YouTube.


Road sides in Vietnam are full of surprises.


Street scenes in Hanoi.


Haiphong downtown, kids playing football at old opera house.


Haiphong downtown.

Haiphong. Air feels moist with a tiny tinge of salt in it. Actual Gulf of Tonkin starts from pretty far from downtown, at the mouth of Red River. Haiphong is main port of North Vietnam and Hanoi. During the Vietnam war it became lifeline to arms and supplies from China and Soviet Union, and was thus heavily bombed especially in 1972 when Nixon administration tried to force reluctant Vietnamese leaders to negotiating table (Paris Peace Accords). Today it still is a large port city with lot of industry and businesses. There are not many sights for travelers, but nearby Cat Ba island and Hua Long Bay are must see for everyone in Haiphong.


Tanker heading to Haiphong port. Seen in nearby Hua Long Bay.