Ta Xua – A Place as cold as the people

Ta Xua is a small commune in Son La Province located in North western Vietnam. It is well know among domestic tourists for cloud hunting. The commune is so high in the mountains that clouds will frequently roll through the commune, creating, together with the forest covered hills creating an incredible natural event that is hard to find anywhere else.

If a traveler were to stand atop a high point in Ta Xua he could see low flying clouds pass below him in the valley below and high flying clouds passing atop of him creating a site where you stand between a roof and a floor of clouds.

The clouds passing under and over me as I photograph this incredible scene
Arriving in my homestay.

The ride to Ta Xua was quite interesting. To get to this small commune you have to ride a narrow winding road and it was while on this road I encountered the thickest fog I had ever seen. Visibility was a solid zero, I couldn’t even see the big trucks driving in front of me. I spent more time looking on my phone in order to see the many twists and turns on this meandering road. That was probably the most dangerous ride of my life.

Things weren’t so bad when I arrived at my homestay. I was quickly ushered into the simple dining area and invited to eat dinner with some tourists, a couple, from Hanoi. They shared their delicious meal with me (honey roasted chicken with rice). They spoke English with me and I responded back in Vietnamese. They were impressed with my Vietnamese skills and were shocked when they found out I had only been in Vietnam for 1 year. They said they knew a foreigner in Hanoi who had been living in Vietnam for three years and they thought his Vietnamese was the best they had heard from a foreigner, until they met me. They said my Vietnamese was the best they had ever heard from a foreigner. That was one of the nicest things I had ever heard.

View from my homestay.

The people of these highland areas are the ethnic minorities of Vietnam of Vietnam. Ta Xua is primarily populated by a group of Hmong, who to my delight often still wore their traditional clothing (at least the girls and women did). Unlike in other areas of Vietnam where the Hmong mostly wear black these Hmong wear bright orange that can be easily seen even in the thick fog of Ta Xua. The children happily ran around playing, climbing trees, tossing a ball around stopping only briefly to check their cell phones, the French colonial era coins that are tied to their outfits, jingling as they ran. I was very happy to see the local people keep and maintain their culture with just a taste of the modern.

A local person’s house. Could you imagine living here.

The local Hmong, however, were not happy to see me. The adults looked at me with confusion and even a bit of suspicion that was until I bought something from them and then they cheered up a bit. The kids acted even more strangely. The boys would walk right by me without any fear but they would look straight at me with confusion and sometimes even disgust. The girls even seemed scared of me. Unlike the boys they even avoided me and would watch me from a distance as if I was a dangerous wild animal.

It was so strange. In all of my travels all over South East Asia I have never been treated this way. I have either been treated with indifference of hospitality. And not just professional hospitality, like what you see at hotels and restaurants. I have often been invited into the homes of new friends where I would eat dinner with the whole family. Kids would chase me down the street to practice speaking English or invite me to play soccer or badminton. I recall one time in Laos when I parked my motorcycle in a small remote village near the Vietnam – Laos border and the all the children of the village came running over to look at foreigner and shout ‘Hello’ as I walked by.

A sea of clouds

In Ta Xua, however, the people were as cold as the weather. I felt very saddened by this. Later in my travels I met another expat who suggested the people might have been acting strange because of Covid-19. I seriously doubt this. For a brief time in Vietnam, near the start of the pandemic Vietnamese people did fear white foreigners. Kids would cover their nose and mouth as I walked by. But this only lasted two weeks and stopped months ago. There had not been a covid-19 case in Vietnam for months and the people in Ta Xua, even as they looked at me with suspicion did not cover their mouth and nose and nobody asides from a few kids tried to keep their distance from me.

As I continued to explore the town, feeling a bit like a pariah I heard a cheerful ‘hello’ from my right. Turning left I saw a smiling Vietnamese man sitting in front of his small but modern house (most houses in Ta Xua were still built in the traditional fashion). Finally, I saw one of the first friendly faces in Ta Xua. As soon as I saw him I immediately recognized him as a ‘Kinh’ which is the dominant ethnic group in Vietnam. When we think of Vietnamese people we primarily think of Kinhs for they make up more than 85% of the population of Vietnam. I have lived in Vietnam long enough that I can generally tell the difference between different Asian races but I can’t explain why I have kind of just built a knack for it.

The Kinh are the people who, coming out of their ancestral homeland in the Red River Delta in the north of Vietnam settled the fertile lowlands of Vietnam introducing wet rice farming to the area. As they expanded throughout what is now Vietnam they either absorbed or conquered many peoples including the Cham from southern Vietnam and the Khmers from South Western Vietnam. The smaller ethnic minority tribes retreated into the less fertile highlands of Vietnam to avoid being absorbed by the Kinh. Here the 54 tribes stubbornly held out against whatever Vietnamese Emperor or Chinese Dynasty happened to rule Vietnam at the time. Through this they maintained, their language, their culture and their way of life for thousands of years.

Recently, tourism has succeeded where the ancient kings and the communists have struggled in that tourism has finally embedded itself into the lands of the ethnic minorities, the Hmong especially. Economically this has been great for the Hmong who can make extra income selling their handicrafts to tourists and offering guided tours to hikers. Some people, however, worry this could erode their way of life.

This is demonstrated in the way Kinh businessmen and entrepreneurs follow the tourists to newly opened regions building hotels and improving the existing infrastructure. Sometimes these investments provide jobs and improved standard of living to the local people but not always and it does threaten their way of life if not instituted carefully.

So, why did I go on this tangent about culture and history of the ethic minorities of Vietnam. Well this friendly Kinh man was one of those people who followed the economic development into the highlands of Vietnam. His humble and small home was one of the nicest homes in the whole town. I struck up a simple conversation with the man in Vietnamese and learned more about him. He was originally from Hanoi but liked the simple life and the cool weather of the highlands. He made a living selling vegetables to the local people and had a few chickens in coop next to his house. He was surprised to see me in Ta Xua but unlike the local people he was used to seeing foreigners.

That was when I figured out why the local people were acting so strange. This place is hardly known to foreign tourists and has only recently opened itself to tourism. The local people are just plain not used to seeing foreigners. While we talked the man grabbed one of his chickens and placing it in a strange then proceed to cut its throat. The chicken squawked for a bit before dying a few seconds later without missing a beat in our conversation.

“Wow, what just happened” I thought. I was a little disturbed by this but then I remembered that I do in fact eat meat (I’m really fond of chicken) and this was quite normal. When the man slaughtered a second chicken and the started to pluck its feathers I was much less disturbed. “This is a more humane way of killing them than slaughter houses in the west” I figured

After the pleasant conversation ended and the chickens were truly well and dead. I went and got a hot bowl of pho with a beer to celebrate my survival of the dangerous winding roads on the way here.

As I returned to my homestay I came across a group of puppies playing and found a friendly one that approached me. As I pet the puppy and cooed over it I didn’t realize that the momma dog of the puppies was sitting right beside me. Watching me carefully but without to much worry.

“Well, aren’t you a good momma dog, watching her puppies” I said to the dog as I patted her on the head “don’t worry I’m just giving your puppies some attention”. The momma dog yawned and laid down beside me, still watching me play with her puppies.
“This dog has given me more trust than all the people in this village” I thought.

When I returned to my very simple room in the homestay I braced myself for a very cold night. It was going to be a cold winter night.

The thick clouds, while beautiful, prevented any sunlight from coming in and bringing any warmth it. The homestay was a bare bones place, a couple of rooms on stilts with a wall that provided only some privacy and no insulation whatsoever. In the highlands of Vietnam, the homes are built as if they were on the deltas of the Red River or the Mekong River along the tropical coast. They are not designed to insulate heat and keep out the cold. I thought a tough Canadian panda like myself could withstand it but I was wrong. I was used to the padded, insulated, carpeted homes of Canada complete with their central heating. I was a bit disappointed to realize I wasn’t as tough as I thought I was.

That night I wrapped the thick soft blankets around myself and tried to stay warm. Eventually, I think I would have fallen asleep but there were noises all night. First, there was a karaoke party that went until 10 PM, then my neighbor snored until midnight and the dogs would not stop barking until 4 AM. By the time the dogs stopped barking I thought I could finally rest until I was awoken by the cry of the roosters in the town.

That’s when I snapped. “That’s it, I’m done with this place I’m leaving”. I packed my bags and booked a hotel room in the nearby lowlands town of Nghia Lo and got ready to leave. I knocked on the door of the room of the owners of the homestay at 5 in the morning. It took several knocks, each one louder than before to finally wake the owners so I could pay. The owners wife sleepily opened the door.

“Hello, I’m leaving now” I said in Vietnamese.

She nodded sleepily looking a touch confused.

“How much for one night” I asked, again in Vietnamese.

“Umm, one hundred thousand dong ($5 USD approx.)”

“And this” I said holding up an energy drink (Lord knows I need it after a sleepless night)

“Umm, twenty thousand” she said again in sleepy Vietnamese.

“Ok, good” I said handing her the cash. Within 5 minutes I was back on motorbike and hurriedly leaving the most unwelcoming place in Vietnam.

Do not judge this place by the bad experiences of one stuffed panda. It is possible I could the townspeople on a bad day or perhaps I was one of the first foreigners to explore this remote hard to reach corner of Vietnam and the locals were just plain not used to the sight of a foreigner (a stuffed panda foreigner to boot) wandering around the town. Afterall, even native Vietnamese people have a hard time coming here with how difficult and dangerous the foggy twisting road can be. With covid forcing most foreigners to return to their homelands the already scarce foreigners become even more uncommon. As tourism returns and the next wave of adventurous tourists comes to Ta Xua perhaps the locals will forget their fear of foreigners and become more accommodating, especially when they realize that foreign tourists bring loads of money. Ta Xua has some of the most incredible cloud cover landscapes I have ever seen. The natural sites are stunning and almost never seen anywhere else. If you are craving an adventurous journey than come to Ta Xua. Just don’t expect the people or the land to as friendly and warm as the rest of Vietnam. Perhaps one day, when they get used to foreigners, they can become as friendly and warm as the rest of Vietnam.

How I felt after a night with no sleep in Ta Xua

That will be all for today. Thanks for the long wait.

Mai Chau, Vietnam

Preface: Although I think the pictures I took in Mai Chau are very nice I don’t believe they do true justice to the beauty of the place. I am an amateur photographer (no photo editing either) and I went to Mai Chau in the middle of winter when the rice fields are left fallow. Mai Chau is most beautiful in planting season, when the rice paddies are green or during harvesting season when the rice fields are yellow.

The best time to go to Mai Chau is April to May or September to October. I visited in December, the worst time. I will return.

Now, back to the blog. I had checked the forecast for Ninh Binh and there was rain on the day I planned to leave Ning Binh for Mai Chau. So I delayed my trip to Mai Chau by one day and relaxed in the homestay. Reading in the hammock and playing with the local kids. Contrary to the forecast there was no rain on that day. Rather, there was rain on the day I would leave Ninh Binh. I delayed my trip for a day to avoid the rain only to be caught in it.

Before I left I made sure to say good bye to all my awesome friends in the wonderful homestay.

My friends at the homestay.

To get to the town of Mai Chau I had to travel the the White Rock Mountain Pass. Visibility was zero and the roads twisted and turned in unpredictable ways. I had to rely on my listening as much as my sight to know if there were giant 18 wheelers and buses in the vicinity. It was also so cold and wet.

“I’m a Canadian Panda” I thought “I’m used to the cold”…..I was not used to cold. I shivered the entire ride. It was a memorable ride but not a fun one. I pulled over a rest area to get a drink and use the bathroom when I reached the top of the pass.

The rest area was entirely outdoors and I tried to warm myself up by the fire.
This is how foggy it was. Behind that wall of fog is supposed to be a wall of rock but the fog is so thick you can’t see it.

The bathroom was a hole in the ground that would have had a spectacular view of the valley had there been no fog. As I explored the rest area I saw a few local taking a nap and I wondered how they could sleep in such cold weather.

I continued riding and eventually the altitude was reduced and the fog subsided giving me much prettier views of the valley. As the fog disappeared the cold was slightly reduced. Eventually. I made it to the lovely town of Mai Chau.

My accommodation in Mai Chau was famous Mai Chau ecolodge.

My room in the Mai Chau Ecolodge.
Breakfast with a pool view. It was too cold for a swim.

Mai Chau is a small town located in a valley surrounded by mountains. The area is mostly inhabited by White Thai and black Thai (named after their clothing). The staff at the ecolodge wore their traditional clothing and spoke excellent English.

Many of the surrounding towns still use stilt houses and the women still ply their traditional handicrafts of weaving cloths by hand and selling them to tourists. I think it is a good way to adapt to the modern world and still maintaining their tradition.

After settling into my room I decided to go for a nice long walk to the surrounding villages. Below are some pictures from my walk. Again I did not go during peak time so the rice fields were fallow.

I hoped this photo caught the essence of Mai Chau. Fertile farm field surrounded by misty mountains.
Although the fields are fallow, this clever farmer is growing some vegetables despite growing season being over.
The walking/bicycle paths leading to the nearby villages.

As I left the path and entered the villages I was immediately called upon the by the local people trying to sell me drinks, snacks and traditional handicrafts and souvenirs. It was an especially hard time, low season and covid had made these few months very difficult.

Examples of the high quality weaving done by the local people.

I quickly found a store selling the weaving. The silk was soft and there was great attention to detail. I bought a white scarf as a gift for the owner of my apartment.

In another store I found what I thought were toy crossbows. The crossbows were of the traditional variety and are still used by the Thai people to hun in the forests.

They weren’t toys. They were real crossbows.

As I was admiring the crossbows a local man walked up and gave a demonstration. He casually picked one up, loaded a bolt, aimed at a tree and fired. The bolt took off like a bolt and wedged itself into the tree.

I had grown up around firearms in Canada and served in the military for 5 years. I watched this man break every single firearm (same rules apply for crossbows in Canada) I had been taught and I winced a bit. He gave the crossbow to me and I did the same. First I made sure know one was in the way of the bolt. I held the crossbow up to my shoulder, closed one eye and aimed. I synchronized my breathing as I aimed and fired. It took a bit of force to pull the “trigger” and this reduced my accuracy but I still hit the try. My military training finally paid off.

Despite the tree being thick and strong I was still able to penetrate the trunk of the tree.

I continued to explore the village and admire the handicrafts.

Could you imagine trying to get this through security at the airport.
Many of the people still lived in simple and traditional homes like this one.
A smaller version of the house you see in the picture above.
Here a woman demonstrates how the bracelets are made. Sure did this with great skill. I made sure to buy a bracelet from her. It only cost 10,000 dong ($0.43)
This thing is hanged around the neck of water buffalos and makes noise when they walk. This way the farmer can find his buffalo out in the fields or in the forest.

After exploring I returned to the homestay and practiced speaking Vietnamese with the staff. Many staff members could fluently speak three languages Thai, their native language, Vietnamese and English.

After a nice hot shower, a blessing on a cold day, I read my book on the porch and immersed myself in the peaceful sounds of nature.

That will be all for today.

Cuc Phuong National Park

Exploring Cuc Phuong National Park

Cuc Phuong National Park is the iconic nature reserves in Vietnam. At 22,000 hectares it is the largest national park in the country. It was officially consecrated by none other than Ho Chi Minh himself in 1962 making it the oldest national park in the country. If you are a nature lover this place is a must see. Vietnamese tourists come here to escape the craziness of Vietnam’s bustling cities, especially Hanoi.

Cuc Phuong National Park is also home to the three major conservation centers: The Endangered Primate Rescue Center, The Pangolin Conservation center and the turtle conservation center. I would recommend getting a tour for these places they are educational and will give you hope for the future of endangered species.

This national park is home to an amazing diversity of flora and fauna. Inhabitants of the park include 97 species of mammals, most notable endangered langurs; 300 species of birds; 36 reptilian species; 17 species of amphibians; 11 species of fish; 2,000 species of vascular plants and thousands of species of insects. There used to be Asiatic black bears, tigers, rhinos and elephants living here but unfortunately they don’t any more. There is a possibility that they could return some day. Vietnam’s conservation and education programs have been improving. There may still be wild jungle cats in the national park.

The ride to the national park was quite long but pleasant. The road took me through the back roads so I was bale to ride around small towns and peaceful rice paddies. When I arrived at the park I paid admission and a bit extra for a private tour through the endangered primate rescue center. Here are some of the langurs and gibbons I saw in the rescue center.

Cat Ba Langur
Delacour’s Langur
Red Shanked Douc Langur
Red Shanked Douc Langur babies
A Shy white cheeked female Gibbon

They might look a little sad in these pictures but that is because many of these primates were rescued and are being rehabilitated to return to the wild. Don’t worry they will be free of these cages soon. The staff and volunteers here were working very hard to provide these precious creatures with whatever they needed.

I also visited the Pangolin and turtle rescue centers but the pangolins were sleeping underground and the turtles were behind glass which prevented me from snapping good photos.

After the tour I got to ride my motorbike deeper into the national park. The road was full of twists and turns and there was a wall of verdant trees and plants beside and over me while I road. It was fun to tackle the twists and turns and be surrounded by nature, one of the best rides I did in Vietnam. I did come across a small gate where a sleepy security guard came out. I showed him my ticket and he waved me on through a narrow passage just big enough for a motorcycle.

I tried to film the ride using my helmet cam but the plastic protective casing over the camera kept fogging up and I was unable to film the ride. A waste of money on that camera. Should have bought a GoPro.

Finally I arrived at the end of the paved road and found the hiking trails. I had my camera out hoping to see some wild animals but only came across one angry forest crab.

Get off ma property or I’ll pinch you he warned.
I also found this cool beetle. Anyone know what it is?

Here are some photos of the hike through the national park.

The road goes ever on and on
The trail got treacherous some times.
The path through these banana trees got narrow sometimes
Deep in the forest.

As I walked I came across Cuc Phuong National Park’s most famous resident. A 1,000 year old tree.

“Hello there, oh old wise tree” I said. He didn’t say anything back.

The other trees in the area were also huge.

I really had to crane my neck to see to the top of this tree.

After I found the tree I sat down for about half an hour and just listened to the sounds of nature. The gentle shaking of the leaves. The slow waving of the trees. The songs of the birds and insects together (although I couldn’t see them). One of the most peaceful places I have ever been.

As I left the old tree and continued my hike I suddenly heard a sound come from the undergrowth. I paused and looked and I could hear a deep throaty growling coming from a large animal not far from the trail. I wanted to step off the trail and get a closer look but my instincts told me to keep moving. It could be a dangerous animal and I was rather terrified. One of the scariest moments in my time in Vietnam. I still have no idea what animal it could have been. There are no bears or tigers in Cuc Phuong National Park but it could have been a jungle cat. I am still not sure.

The end of the trail and a return to the paved road.

I finally returned to my motorbike and returned to my cozy homestay. On the way back I made sure to stop and get some ice cream.

If you would like to support the Endangered Primate Rescue Center be sure to check out their Facebook page or their website. Simple search “Endangered Primate Rescue Center, Vietnam“.

Thanks for the wait between long posts/