Over the Hùng Kings Death Anniversary weekend (aka, 3-day holiday weekend), we went to Cao Bằng province way up in the north of Vietnam on the border with China. It’s only a 200km away (about 125 miles, give or take). But, I think I mentioned our trip to Hà Giang in December. You know, 8 hrs in a car one day, 4 the next, then back home in another 8, douchey driver, gorgeous mountains. Well, Cao Bằng has similarly rugged geography, so we were in for a treat. I just didn’t know how special the treat would be.
But who are these Hùng Kings that they warrant a day off work? Well, I don’t know them personally, so I looked them up on the most trusted reference website on the Internet … Wikipedia of course. The article, which needs citations and rambles a bit, says that the first Hung King is the child of deities Lạc Long Quân (the Dragon King of Lạc) and Âu Cơ. Apparently the marriage didn’t last because Long was from water (nước) and Âu Cơ was from earth (đất). So they parted ways, he going south, and she north. Each was followed by 50 of their children who had sprung from Âu Cơ’s magical egg sack. The eldest son who went north became Vietnam’s first monarch – Hùng Vương. So naturally, he needs a holiday.
In present day reality, the trip organizer wanted to transport us back into this magical time and land by having the driver loop from Hanoi to Lạng Sơn to Cao Bằng back to Hanoi through Thai Nguyen. Take a look at the map I’ve posted of our three-day trip, except replace the word “trip” with “ordeal” and you’re closer to what it actually felt like. None of us had really paid attention to the itinerary and location of any of the destinations on the itinerary. Our trip organizer wanted to have us visit Pác Bó Cave, where Ho Chi Minh planned the revolution, visit the Bản Giốc waterfalls, a cave near by, an ethnic village, and then head home. All, great, except for the roads. The roads directly tie to the title and the math exercise we’re going to go over at the end of the post.
Did I mention the roads were bad? Apparently, no one told this driver, because they overloaded the truck so it could fall over onto its side when the uneven patches and bumped nudge the heavy load just past the chassis’ recovery point. These guys are lucky. Lucky, their truck didn’t wind up falling off the side of a hill. Better yet, they’re lucky they didn’t ride motorbikes head on into a bus. Yes, we saw all this on the roads in north Vietnam within the span of about 30 hours.
What exactly did we see? Well, we hit traffic between Lạng Sơn and Cao Bang town because there was a massive truck with a wench trying to pull a semi and trailer up a hill. The semi had gone over the hill a few days earlier. This was entertainment for the locals until one of my friends started passing out cookies. Then he became the entertainment.
After we made it to Cao Bang, we headed to the Pac Bo caves, about an hour away, then headed home around sunset. We hit another traffic jam. Up ahead, two bodies lay covered by a piece of cardboard, a motorbike, a small impromptu shrine with half-burned incense sticks, and a bus whose windshield had a head-sized shatter pattern on the driver side window. According to the locals who gathered at the scene, the accident had been cordoned off since about the time we went to Pac Bo – around 4.30pm. It must have happened shortly after we passed by. The problem was the local police had been unable to fill out the accident scene report. Part of the problem could have been that when one of the policemen was practicing his flame-spitting routine for the traveling carnival earlier in the day, but he got confused about whether to spit or swallow the alcohol, so he swallowed mouthfuls of pure grain alcohol and wondered why he wasn’t spitting flames. How do I know this was what he was doing? Well, let’s just say if I had been smoking (which I don’t) when he came to tell me and my friend to get back on the bus, we would have seen the trick work from the alcohol fumes emanating from his mouth about 3 feet away. In case the description is a little to tongue-in-cheek, the po po was wasted.
While ignoring the police man’s request to go back into the van, only after complying and watching him walk away to look officially drunk elsewhere, one of the bystanders told someone in our group the bus driver had left the scene and gone to the police. Our trip coordinator later explained Vietnamese law allows this because often times the family shows up to the accident scene and kills the driver of the vehicle that killed their loved one. Our trip coordinator also, with a straight face, told us she knew something like this would happen because we had passed by two weddings earlier in the day. It’s bad luck to not stop at a wedding. It’s also Vietnamese tradition to be wary of the ghost of people who die on the road. To help the hungry ghosts (ma đói) get home, the Vietnamese throw a little bit of money on the ground.
Our met our final road incident when we left the Ban Gioc waterfall, beginning our long, long, long bumpy return to the hotel in Cao Bang. I don’t need to explain that load planning and road condition checks are not a regular part of the transportation industry’s pre-departure checklist. As you might imagine, really heavy, tall loads on bumpy roads that make things sway violently might lead to some tricky situations. Like the one where the load swing so far beyond the truck’s ability to counter balance it that the truck falls on its side. I’ll bet the guys in the cab were banged up and probably a bit dazed, but at least they were alive. Again, locals gathered and watched as the traffic backed up in both directions. They had no incentive or reason to help, so they joked and giggled as one of my fellow trip-goers began digging away at the high embankment (that you can’t see in the photo above) so our driver could pass.
You just have no idea how remote and isolated these places are until you get there. It simply reminds me how amazing the roads are in the U.S. When I was growing up, we’d do a road trip to visit my grandparents in New Orleans. My sister and I always knew we were in Louisiana because the road quality went from good in Florida to the tha-thump of the Louisiana highways. Still, even these relatively poorly maintained roads would be diamond standard roads pretty much anywhere in Vietnam. Heck, even the beach road in Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina was in better condition than some of Vietnam’s paved roads. Distance becomes meaningless because the road conditions don’t let you drive with any appreciable speed. Instead, you talk about how long it takes to get from one place to the next.
All this driving meant we were in the car for about 8-12 hours on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday – all three days of our three-day weekend in honor of the Hung Kings. Now for that math problem. More precisely than 3 days, which implies a full 72 hours, we left at 6am Saturday morning, so our clock starts then. We were back on Monday at 6pm. That gives us 60 hours. Let’s pretend we slept for 16 hours (8 each on Saturday and Sunday night), so we have 44 left over. Now take away the time in the car – roughly 29 hours – that leaves 15 hours not in the car for the weekend. A majority of that time was lunch, dinner, and waiting for the next “activity” to start. We spent about 5hrs doing activities in the North – like visiting the waterfall and visiting the market across from our hotel. Please see the pie chart for visualization.
Between long stretches in the car, we did manage to see the waterfalls and visit an ethnic minority village. I think they were ethnic Tay people, but what I loved was the massive tree marking the cluster of homes that were surrounding by big limestone hills and flat, greening rice paddies. The setting was stunning. The girl staring blankly at a water buffalo is a stark reminder that we, the outsiders, get to go home to books, Internet, TV, and other modern amenities. They have few prospects for to leave the mind numbing tedium of village life. The women will work in the fields, cook, and raise children while the men occasionally work, often drink home-brewed rice whiskey, and join in the field at critical times.
We cut our trip to the village a bit short, mainly because we needed to get back to the hotel and the thought of riding on terrible roads in the dark was terrifying. But, the entry of the town’s policeman into the home where we had already sipped down home-brewed rice whiskey, and his subsequent filling of the rice whiskey bottle helped precipitate a prompt exit from the man’s home. There’s something just strange about a group of 8 men and boys sitting around at 5pm in a house sipping shots with no women to be seen except in the field.
Luckily, we made it back to Hanoi without incident. Lunch outside Thai Nguyen was delicious, the road was paved, and the driving relatively smooth. We passed two funerals, therefore our trip organizer knew, we would have good luck. Why? Just like passing a wedding is bad luck, someone else’s death and mourning is your good fortune for getting to avoid more hungry ghosts.
Would I go back to Cao Bang? Absolutely. The landscape up there is the landscape that captured my imagination years ago and made me want to visit China. Huge limestone hills, rocks, and massifs dot a pastoral landscape. It’s remote, the air is clean, and borders have all sorts of interesting things that happen there. Next time, I’ll take more time. Of course, I said the same thing about going to Hà Giang … so who knows.