Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

Border town 

Continuing her trip into the remote north of Vietnam, Duc Hanh travels to Simacai, a mysterious border town with imposing cloudy peaks and a vibrant market.

Before traveling north my friend had recommended I rent a room in Bac Ha then take a day trip to Simacai as there are no rooms in the border town. At just 26km from Bac Ha town, it is a relatively short trip, though the road is a long and winding one. As I am travelling on the back of motorbike on unfamiliar and unpredictable roads a bit of caution is required by the driver (my husband!.

Contrary to the misty Can Cau market the sky above Simacai is clear and blue. With a cool breeze on my face I take a deep breath and bask in the glory of the seemingly endless mountain ranges around. On the road I can see the roof-tops far down below in the valleys. The landscape is the most beautiful and peaceful I have come across on my journey so far.

The young flower Mong women I see along the road are like the fairies in this bucolic paradise. After an hour driving at a snail’s pace, I arrive at the Border Martyrs’ Cemetery on the outskirts of Simacai. Here brave border soldiers who laid down their lives to defend their country are buried. Situated at an altitude of 1,000 meters above sea level, the average temperature of Simacai town is about 15 degrees Celsius. The district of Simacai stretches across 23,000ha in Lao Cai province.

There are 11 ethnic minorities living in the district, but Mong people account for 81.4 percent (The name Simacai means “the new horse market’ in Mong.) Different from what I imagined an out-of-the-way town might look like, Simacai town is rather spacious and tidy. The town centre is positively stately with modern governmental and administrative buildings leaning against the mountain backdrop.
Shops providing internet cards, Sim Cards and cable TV services line the streets along with coffee shops, karaoke bars and restaurants. It’s a bustling border town – so where are the hotels and guesthouses? Coming between modern concrete and brick houses are thatch-roofed, wooden or earthen houses of Mong people.

Also merging with Western-styled shirts and trousers are the colourful traditional outfits worn by Mong women. The town seems to be an axis on which modern and traditional worlds swirl around. Following Vinh, a young local I meet in a cafe, I visit a Chinese temple in ruins.

Only two stone lions and an obsolete entrance can be seen now. “Twenty years ago, before the temple collapsed, it was said to be a sophisticated and marvellous building before it burnt down during a border war,” says Vinh. When I ask about the absence of hotels and guesthouses, Vinh assures me there are several ones here with reasonable prices.

But tourism is low key here and foreigners need to have a permit to stay at a hotel. That’s why most foreign tourists drive from Bac Ha in the morning to catch the market. But we can stay. My husband, the gallant man that he is, heads back to fetch our luggage in Bac Ha. This means I get to relax on the balcony of Thu Huong guesthouse, from where I can see the weather changing quite visibly above the mountains.

At six in the evening, suddenly the whole town is pitch-dark as the power goes off. We eat a candle-lit dinner of delicious mountain chicken. But with little to do in the evening we have a good sleep (in a clean room). Its lucky that we have had such an early night as at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, the town comes alive. I wake up rather befuddled but then I remember – the Sunday market! I look out from the balcony.

Rain is coming down thick and heavy so there’s no rush to head out. But outside the guesthouse members of Mong, La Chi, Phu La, Nung Hill Tribes in colourful costumes are already congregating under their umbrellas. People on their way to the market carry babies as well as baskets of vegetables.

Others have black pigs or small dogs on a leash, or horses loaded with goods. Opposite the market entrance, by the Simacai Frontier Post, there is a band of horses fidgeting in the rain as traders quietly negotiate a price. Though the market is muddy underfoot and rather crowded, we decide to get in amongst it. You can find stacks of embroidery, traditional tools, electric home utensils, accessories, food and drink.

Oddly, just like at Can Cau market ice cream is everywhere. Even a toothless old woman with a chicken under one arm is enjoying one. Even though the ice cream costs just VND500 we decide to go find some noodles for breakfast instead before exploring the valleys beyond Simacai.

By Duc Hanh

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