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Vietnam Redo: Water and Buffalo in the North Country

It is finally time to leave Hanoi, the city, for a gambit in the countryside. But it takes time, as the metropolis is far-flung, hanging on like a biting gnat, dousing the air with vague pollutants, funneling vehicles through multiplying passageways and asphalt lures. “Development” is everywhere, much more so than I remember 10 years ago during my first visit to Vietnam.

Where there was a rice field years ago, today there are apartments and western-style manufacturing facilities for automobiles (mostly European and Asian brands) and pottery, clothing and technology and you name it.

[Note: This blog has been silent for several weeks because my dear mother passed away and my attention and concern has been fully occupied with family] .

“Clear the air! Clean the sky! Wash the wind! Take the stone from stone, take the skin from the arm, take the muscle from bone, and wash them.” - T.S. Eliot Murder in the Cathedral, Part 2

Life in the northern hill country gets simpler and slower. China and Laos are shadows beckoning over the horizon. Farming and agriculture shield the ethnic communities from urban exuberance although a kind of cheerfulness still resonates among school children biking from schools and residents engaged in their small-scale entrepreneurial projects along the winding road.

Recent monsoon storms, “typhoonal” in size, left their signature damage; experienced by my traveling companions as we negotiate with some difficulty a landslide that partially blocked our hillside ascent. Our vehicle conveniently slides backwards/sideways into another stranded bus. We clamber off, the men put shoulder and arm to the bulky frame of our tour mobile and shove it just enough to avoid an irreconcilable situation.

The motorbike set streams past without much sympathy.

I did observe that here in the countryside there were more bicycles and motorbikes than cars. However, the bikes often were quite snazzy and an obvious object of pride to their owners.

I accompanied companions from the US on a visit sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC, led by Ruth and Lowell Jantzi and accompanied by MCC Vietnam Project Officer Le Dac Phuc) to a MCC food security and education project in Tan Son district in northern Vietnam.

Despite the recent landslides, our group visited a school that has been supported by MCC, tinkered with a hydro generator installed in a nearby stream, and joined local families for tea. The tea has a delightful but mild taste, although lukewarm (against my better judgement I drank out of courtesy and thirsty desire. Illness the next day might be traced to my lax regard for the apparent failure to boil the water strongly enough, perhaps).

These families included participants in MCC-supported rabbit and bee projects. Small communities like these remain vulnerable but I was told this village would soon be equipped with facilities ensuring modern full-time electricity and possibly even internet cable services.

Meanwhile, the villagers tend their cattle and chickens, rabbits and bees; educate their children; welcome the rare visitors like ourselves.

It was hot! The umbrellas are out. It is raining sunshine. So shade and tea are essential ingredients of our singular journey to this off- the- beaten- track place in Phu Tho province, village of Xuan Dai. The villagers are of the Dao ethnic minority group.

In Vietnam, water buffalo are often the most valuable possession of poor farmers: 'Con trâu là đầu cơ nghiệp'. They are treated as a member of the family and dubbed an “honest creature.” Make way, because they do know their worth.

In fact, the water buffalo is the traditional symbol of Vietnam — representing bravery, happiness and prosperity. These bovine-like animals produce little milk, and regular cattle are not so common, so dairy products are not widely available in rural Nam (refrigeration can be a problem).

Encounter with the Revered Cows:

Append - Ba Be Lake (2008):

Many interior areas of northern Vietnam are scenic, of course, and imbued with the spirit of wildness preserved from early history. China played a part of the life in these places for centuries but today the children of the new Vietnam play amidst vast rice fields, forests, caves and lakes. Ba Be Lake is one of those isolated places that curries to the individual traveller and adventurer. I visited the area during a visit 10 years ago, not during the 2018 pilgrimage. If time allows, the all day journey north by northwest leads to this paradise amongst the hills.

(to be continued)

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