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