oc Ly Village
April 29-30, 2001
A Hill-Tribe Market and Life on the Farm
We arrived in Coc Ly by boat after a lovely early morning trip up the Chay river that lasted two hours. The weekly Tuesday market brings the local flower Hmong people down from their villages to buy and sell food, livestock, hardware, and of course to buy and sell their handicrafts. Of all the ethnic groups we saw in Vietnam, and there are many, the flower Hmong women wore the most colorful costumes. The major item is the full, pleated knee-length skirt that is made of hemp, decorated with bands of embroidery and supplemented by front and back aprons that are themselves highly decorated. Add to this shaped headdresses that are covered with of all things machine-made plaid head scarves in the brightest greens and pinks and you have an amazing sight. Jan just loved the way they looked and never tired of seeing the semi-circular skirts hanging up to dry on bamboo poles outside of their homes.
After we had had our fill of the market, we drove out of Coc Ly back towards Bac Ha about 3 km and after asking directions, Phu pulled up at the bottom of a steep driveway leading up to a farmhouse. We hopped out, walked up the driveway of beaten earth and found ourselves in front of a two-part house. The right part was single-storey, the left-part two-storey. The ground floor of both parts had a beaten earth floor and wooden plank walls. The single-storey section consisted of one large room with a half loft above for storage. In the center of this room was an open wood fire with very low wooden stools scattered around it. There was no chimney or even opening in the roof for the smoke to escape, but there was a front and a side door, which could be used to control the smoke to some extent. There was no fireplace or hearth per se and the main fuel for the fire was made up of three or four tree branches of varying lengths that met to form the center of the fire, but there was a metal frame on which pots could be stood over the fire. The only other pieces of furniture in the room were a small wooden table with two wooden normal height chairs and a wooden cupboard that was used to store food and dishes. On a shelf along one wall was an ancient battery-powered radio.
The first floor portion of the two-storey section opened directly onto the large main room and seemed to be used to store goods and to house what looked like a still (just like the house we visited near Bac Ha). Since the owner, Mr Duc, was constantly plying Gerry with liquor, it seems quite likely that most every family brews its own liquor. The second floor, accessed by a ladder cum staircase from the main room had an open balcony in front of a large sleeping room. Like the buildings we had seen at the Ethnological museum in Hanoi, the balcony and sleeping area had split bamboo flooring. Shoes were always removed before coming upstairs. The large sleeping room had only one room, where Mr and Mrs Duc slept. Each of the other corners of the room had a wooden bed surrounded by a curtain for privacy. Although the walls of the entire house were made of wood planks, they had large gaps between planks and so were both very airy and not at all bug-guards.
There were no farm animals in the house itself although the chickens and hens that wandered freely about the property did try to come in frequently, and would have if not shooed away by grandma. There was a kitten prowling around. Not far from the house was a pen for the water buffalo, the main work animal on any Vietnamese farm. Just past the buffalo pen a short path led away from the house to the fields tended by the family.
We were introduced to our hosts, Mr & Mrs Duc and his mother. We learned that the Ducs were 52 and 47, respectively, and that grandma was in her 70's. There were five sons but only one was still living at home. The others were all married and living nearby with their wives and families who all came by at sometime or other to gawk at these strange-looking foreigners. More than likely the empty nest was being put to good use to bring in some extra cash. After introductions Phu brought our bags up and we all migrated upstairs from the main room to the sleeping room where a new-looking mat was spread on the floor for us to sit on. Once seated, Mr Duc brought out the corn liquor and while each of us sipped one small cup, he downed three or four or more and did his best to keep Gerry even with him. We did our best at communicating for about an hour but then Grandma lay down on her bed for a nap and Jan followed suit on a wooden double bed in the corner that we were told was for our use. Soon after Jan went to sleep, the rest of the company succumbed to the heat or the liquor and slept too, stretched out either on the mat or the floor.
About an hour after falling asleep, Jan woke up and crept from her bed past the bodies lying on the floor to the balcony where she sat down to enjoy the breeze and read her book. The view from the balcony was delightful so Jan sat there and soaked up the scenery of the valley and the peace and quiet of the house and the simplicity of the lifestyle she was observing. After another half hour, Gerry woke up and joined Jan on the balcony.
At about 4:30, we decided we should go for a walk before dark and set off up the road away from Coc Ly. The road climbed gently but steadily towards the head of the valley we were in. As we walked we were passed by the last few merchants from the Coc Ly market hauling their goods home — some on ultra-overloaded motorbikes and bikes and even a few on horses. Or maybe the horses were the merchandise. At any rate, as one young man went speeding past he fell off, almost into Gerry's lap. Nonetheless, passers-by were few enough that the tranquility of the late afternoon sunshine was barely dented.
Looking back and down the valley we could see the Chay river and the village spread out below us. When we finally did get to the pass, we were pleasantly surprised to have reached a high plateau valley rather than a steep downward valley on the other side. We walked along this plateau valley for about 20 minutes enjoying the beauty and remoteness of the scene with its isolated farmhouses and hillside fields of corn and other crops. For five minutes we watched locals exercising the small horses that they seemed to have bought that day at the Coc Ly market. They rode them bareback. Finally the lateness of the day and the slowly setting sun drove us back where we had come from quite satisfied with our first day of adventure.
Back at the farmhouse, Phu, our driver, asked in pidgin English if we wanted to eat and would we like chicken. We indicated yes, and then watched fascinated as a chicken was slaughtered and plucked before being cooked for our supper. The slaughter was not at all dramatic. A small bowl was readied with some clear liquid that could have been water or even corn liquor and then a knife was sharpened. Mrs Duc held the chicken over the bowl while her son used the knife to cut the chicken's throat. The blood slowly oozed out of the poor chicken into the bowl until with a mild jerk or two the chicken gave up the ghost. The son then poured some boiling water into a large dish and dunked the chicken into it, soaking it thoroughly before deftly pulling out all of its feathers. The only surprise here was the stripping of the covering off the feet. Jan hadn't imagined that there was a covering or how easily it would come off.
By now the sun was down and it was too dark to read even outdoors. At this point Jan decided she needed to go to the toilet and with the help of the phrase book asked Phu where it was. He spoke briefly to Mrs Duc, then took her outside and gently indicated that the toilet was anywhere she chose it to be! Taking the hint, Jan picked up our flashlight and climbed down the driveway to the road and off the road to as discreet a place as could be found to use as a toilet.
Our supper was quite simple. We had steamed rice, boiled chicken, and rice noodles cooked in the chicken water. There were no vegetables and no drinks except for corn liquor. By the time the preparation and cooking were underway it was already dark and we realized that in spite of the signs of electricity about the house (a neon light up in the sleeping area), the family didn't use it. Phu, our driver somehow got the job of cooking the chicken and had the hardest time seeing what was going on in the pot. The only lights around were very small spirit lamps and the light of the fire. One of the most interesting tools in the farmhouse was a manual bellows that was very effective at generating lots of flames (and therefore light) from the fire.
Our dinner companions were Phu, Mrs Duc (who appeared just as the chicken finished cooking), and her son, whose name we never learned. At the end of our meal, Mr Duc appeared, still or once again a little worse the wear for corn liquor it seemed. After some chatting he indicated to Gerry that he wanted to take him out for a drink to his son's house. Gerry agreed but Jan demurred preferring to stay home and get ready for an early night.
Led by Mr Duc and followed by his son, Gerry was taken a few hundred meters up the dirt path and across the road to the son's house. The night was very dark and there certainly were no street lights; a small pocket flashlight served Gerry to find his step; nonetheless he almost fell into the mud in front of the water cistern at the son's house. The house itself, or at least the walls and roof were of similar construction to that of Mr Duc, but it had only a ground floor, and that too was made of pounded earth. Sitting around were about thirty people, mostly men; the relatively few women were in two groups on the periphery more watchers than participants. The men, preponderantly young (Mr Duc has five sons) were talking, playing cards, drinking corn liquor, and eventually ate a full meal. Gerry was sat at a small table with Mr Duc, one son, and another person. As before he was plied with corn liquor, which he managed to take in small doses, and with fatty pig, which he happily tried. A game of cards was started, and Gerry played, only guessing at the rules (earlier observation suggested it was a form of gin rummy). Gerry challenged the son to arm wrestling and lost with the right arm and then won - by cheating - with the left arm. He refused a request for an honest replay, thinking the sons 30+ years advantage on him was enough.
Returning, Gerry forgot about the cistern and walked right into the mud. Fortunately the cistern was there to provide water for washing. Jan woke up when Gerry got back and was awake enough to hear the thunder and lightning and rainstorm during the night. Breakfast the next morning was a simple bowl of rice noodles and then we loaded everything into the jeep and slithered down the path to the main road. The rainstorm of the previous night had turned the beaten earth farmyard and driveway into a mud bath.
That morning we experienced the first of several drives over high mountain passes.
Perhaps because it was the first, or perhaps because it was the
most exciting, it is certainly the most memorable.
The road from Coc Ly to Cau Son was unpaved and after the night's rains often in terrible shape.
We definitely needed and were glad to have the four-wheel drive capability of our jeep.
But it was not the state of the road that was so memorable,
but the views that we had from the road.
Plunging views into deep valleys filled with clouds.
Isolated farmhouses perched precariously on sheer hillsides,
and vistas of mountain ridge after mountain ridge stretching away into the distance.
It was truly breathtaking.
It is very hard to describe the extent of the mountains in this part of the world because they stretch
from Vietnam northward into southern China and westward into Laos.
They just seem to go on and on forever.
Every day of our ten day trip we were astonished by the grandeur and the majesty of these endless mountains.
Every day, we doubted that the previous days views could be equalled.
Almost every day they were.