Arriving at Xa Linh Commune, the world grows darker and at first, quieter, in the late afternoon as tropical thunderheads brush the mountain peaks. The moist air smells of ozone as lightning flashes and rolling thunder heralds the rain, which hisses through the jungle leaves.
On a walk to the villages of Pa Co and Hang Kia, toddlers with muddy, stick legs and no pants run with children shouting “xin chao” (hello). Smoke drifts up from the thatched roofs where cooking fires have been lit for the evening meal, mingling with the smell of pig and chicken manure and the rich earthiness of running water, the liquid mud of the paddies and decomposing plant life.
The next day’s seven hour, 20km trek from Sam Khoe up through the mountains to visit other villages is a challenge for the hardiest walkers as the humidity soars in the late morning and temperatures peak over 40C. Walls of jungle growth turn narrow tracks into ovens in some places, forcing hikers to push on to the next patch of shade. The reward is a welcome rest and boiled water (the bottled water had been drunk) in a long house at the top of the track, before descending into a hidden valley scattered with village houses.
An afternoon downpour clears the paddies as Hmong villagers and hikers alike take shelter under the eaves of huts while children play games in the red dirt under stilt houses, waiting for the rain to stop. In the late afternoon the hike group returns to the White Thai village of Pom Coong, nestled amidst a patchwork of rice paddies and irrigation canals.
The White Thai, which have ancestral links to Thailand, are believed to have moved to Vietnam from southern China in the late 13th century. The village has five long houses in which tourists can stay. The surrounding limestone pinnacles darken to a silhouette and, with no street lights to hold it back, night drops a heavy black blanket over the paddies as the village settles in for the evening. Millions of frogs start up a chorus that doesn’t abate until the cock’s crow at first light.
The open-roomed long house, made of heavy ironwood timbers and with a split-bamboo floor covered in matting, provides accommodation under government guidelines, with a token western toilet and basic shower facilities. Behind it is a large pond in which catfish and carp are raised for food. Sleeping under mosquito nets and the sweep of electric fans, a stay in a long house offers a brief glimpse of the timeless simplicity of village life.
The matriarch, Ba Vuong, chews betel nut as she politely hands around small glasses of rice wine, her hands gnarled and sinewy from a life of toil in the paddies. Her five daughters speak limited English, but she does not, expressing everything with gestures and a winning smile of glossy black teeth and red lips stained with betel juice. Black teeth were the fashion in parts of provincial Vietnam in the early 1940s and Ba Vuong used special Chinese ingredients and only drank water for a week to achieve the desired effect.
With the first grey light of dawn, the croaking frog serenade stops and the village stirs. The chickens start scratching and dogs bark amidst the muffled voices of children playing soccer, using bamboo sticks for goals. A little girl selling plaited wrist bands to tourists divides her attention between setting up shop on a small stool and playing with a large, electric blue dragonfly with buckled wings. Conical-hatted workers move along narrow tracks amidst a sea of green as the rising sun begins to burn off the night mists from the paddies.
See Life in Mai Chau – Part 1
1st image – Mai Chau – Vietnam – Source: vietnamhomestay.net
2nd image – Mai Chau – Vietnam – Source: greentrail-indochina.com
3rd image – Mai Chau – Vietnam – Source: flickr.com