A Rocky Plateau and a Few Cups of Rice Wine

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Through the half light of dusk the girl appeared as a pile of rubbish shovelled on the edge of the pavement. Clothed from head to toe in plastic bags she sat upright, one knee pulled up to her chest, the other leg, bare and shapely, the only evidence that she was a she, stuck out from the cocoon of plastic. I asked Phong his thoughts on why she was there, “perhaps she was rejected by a lover or her family” he said, “left alone she has gone mad”. Whatever her reason for being there is was a sad and wretched sight. We walked on and Phong asked about homeless people in the UK. I began to explain that, yes, there are people on the streets, but mostly there are shelters where they can stay at night, there is food for them, social security from the government. I explained how those with a dog receive a larger government handout and enjoy more generosity from the charitable public at large. He looked puzzled, I felt puzzled and decided to stop talking. “Here the government try to get the homeless back to their village and family, and the mad are taken to special homes for man people” Phong told me. We dropped into a dimly lit and dusty store and purchased two packets of biscuits, (Cozy Cookies and Choco Pie), and three litres of water. It was a rather half hearted and feeble effort but at least it would help her for a short while. We wandered back up the hill, the dust stirred up by a passing motorbike hung in the yellow light of the street lamps. “I think that you should hand the food to her Phong” I said. He looked quizzically at me, “maybe the sight of a white face with blue eyes and a long pointy nose appearing out of the evening gloom will be enough to tip her into the abyss of insanity” I explained, “then we spend the night dealing with a hysterical mad person”. Phong took the bag and speaking softly and kindly placed it before her. She shrieked and flayed her arms, we stepped back, looked at each other, turned and walked away. Another destitute person abandoned, what hope does she have?. It is sad, very sad, and puts ones own trivial woes into perspective.

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not the lady in question, this is a lady dressed in plastic bags I photographed some years ago in southern china

We leave the small town of Yen Minh early the following morning. At its far end the broad valley is fertile, a sea of green maze waving in the breeze. It is dotted with iconic conical hats no doubt adorning heads attached to the unseen bodies of minority people as they toil in the cool misty air of early morning.

We turn north and begin the first of the day’s long steep climbs. As we do we pass a lady dressed in a black skirt and matching jacket. Around her waist is a green sash and for a hat she wears a bright shiny golden head scarf that glints in the first rays of sun to break through the mist. “Is she is a Twinkly Tay Person?” I shout ahead to Phong. He looks back and calls me a name that I am surprised he knows. I am shocked!

I would like to be able to say that I will not describe the Rocky Plateau as the name seems sufficient enough to describe it quite accurately for all but the most dim witted of readers. But that is not so. The Rocky Plateau is a plateau, but not in the manner one may well imagine, IE. a flat elevated land mass stretching out into the far distance. It is also rocky, but that is not to say that as you may imagine it is covered in large stones. This plateau is covered in waves of craggy grey lime stone hills, a vista of spiring peaks spreading out into the far distance gradually fading into the mist.

The climb continues unabated. It is long, twenty kilometres for the first climb, and steep. This is a ride not for the faint of heart, weak of limb or sensitive disposition to heat. The climbs here are as steep as any I have encountered, and now, at the height of summer, the mercury rises to forty degrees. The rewards are proportionally heigh though. The scenery is not only awesome but amazing in its variety. Every days throws up something new and equally stunning.

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heading up to Heaven Gate Pass

At lunch time we roll into the dusty main street of a one horse town.A wooden lean-to fixed to the front of an egg shell blue house with wooden lattice shutters serves as the town diner. We lean our bikes beneath the shade of a banyan tree as a girl, hiding from the sun beneath a turquoise parasol, drives a small heard of cattle along the dusty main street. I pause to watch the girl use her parasol to urge one of the cows to stop eating an old ladies poinsettias and by the time I enter the restaurant Phong is already in deep conversation explaining to the proprietor and his wife how to stir-fry noodles. They seem fascinated by this new learning from the wise city boy. They stand transfixed as he goes through the finer details, their concentration only broken when they realise that standing in the doorway, framed by the bright light of day against the dark interior of their home, is a white man.

We exchange pleasantries and I take a seat. There is a little more conversation regarding the frying of noodles and then three small glasses are plonked before me.

I am hot thirsty and very hungry, I know full well what the three small glasses mean. I am gripped by fear. Our host makes a small speech as he fills each glass with home distilled rice liquor, Phong translates; “it is not often I have the honour of hosting a well spoken man from Hanoi and a foreigner; friends, a toast!” And so it began. Each moment, each movement, each thought was worthy of a toast. Scattered around the room were victims of previous toastings. In a dim corner sat a jovial looking fellow, his eyes rolled slowly and from time to time his tongue would flop from his mouth, he would then look thoughtful for a few moments before returning his tongue to a more dignified position with a grimy finger. In the middle of the room was a large table where an elderly fellow in a straw hat wobbled precariously on a flimsy plastic chair, seemingly oblivious that one leg was on the very edge of a step and he was on the brink of disaster. Our host poured three more glasses and made a speech, I could see where this was heading.

One hour, a plate of fried noodles and countless glasses of hooch later we emerged staggering ever so slightly and blinking weary eyes into the bright tropical daylight. Our host swayed in the doorway as he bade us a thousand fond farewells and we wobbled through the dust narrowly missing several more victims of our host’s hospitality snoozing quietly in the afternoon sun.

We reached the next pass and stopped to catch our breath and rehydrate. The view was of mythical proportions. I quite expected to see elves and goblins and hobbits and a little green dragon that puffs plumes of smoke instead of breathing flames. “I think I can stop now” I said. Phong looked puzzled. “Now I have seen this” I said gesturing at the jungle covered karst hills spreading out into the distance, “I think that I can find a home and settle down”. “Oh yes” said Phong, “and drink wine from breakfast time and spend your day sitting on a lady-boy”. I looked sternly at him and calling upon all my reserves of unkindness I called him the name he had called me just a few hours earlier. He looked shocked. “Have you never heard of a lazy-boy chair?” he asked, “very comfy”.

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heading into the restricted zone

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Vietnamese luggage systems. Hanoi city boy sports Japanese made aluminium multi speed mountain bike carrying 100% waterproof German made Ortlieb panniers. Hmong girl carries half a corn field on her back.

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a rural market stall

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rural shop keeper

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our host and hostess

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Phong discusses technique for frying noodles

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ahh, cheers

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