The perfect trip: Vietnam
Mo may live in Vietnam, but she considers herself first and foremost a member of the Black Hmong – a hill-tribe originally from southern China who sought refuge in these mountains centuries ago. Black Hmong is just one of 53 minority groups in Vietnam – many of whom inhabit the country’s highlands. Walking in these valleys entails packing a different phrasebook for every hour of the trek. Close by are communities of Red Dzao, White Thai, Lu and Giay – all tribes with cultures, languages and dress distinct from those of lowland Vietnam, all equally well-practised at life lived on steep gradients.
We pass through a village, and Mo points to bamboo irrigation systems that send trickles down the hillsides and into rice pounders that see-saw with the current.
‘There’s a Hmong saying that “we flow with the water”,’ she explains. ‘It means we don’t worry too much, and take things easy.’
Dusk begins to settle on the mountains – bonfires are extinguished and water buffalo herded homewards. The villagers around Sapa all plump for an early bedtime. Very soon the valleys are engulfed in a profound stillness. The blinking lights of fireflies cartwheel about in the gloom for a short while, before disappearing from view, presumably lost in another thick fog.
Where to stay and eat
Set over rice terraces a short drive outside Sapa, the Hmong Mountain Retreat has small guest bungalows made from bamboo and thatched with palm. Set dinners (which are often vegetarian) are served in a traditional Hmong house nearby. The owners also offer trekking itineraries in the surrounding hills (from £37 per bungalow).
Hoi An: Best for food
Hoi An is a small town that likes a big breakfast. As dawn musters strength on the horizon, a small army of chefs sets to work on Thai Phien street – firing up gas cookers and arranging plastic furniture on the pavements. Soon, the city awakes to sweet porridges; coffee that sends a lightning bolt of caffeine to sleepy heads; sizzling steaks; broths that swim with turmeric, chilli and ginger. In Vietnam, street food is a serious business – a single dish prepared day after day by the same cook, perfected and honed by a lifetime’s craft.
‘Food in Hoi An is about yin and yang,’ explains Le Hanh, a young female chef scrutinising vegetables at the morning market. ‘It’s about balancing hot with cool, sweet with sour, salty with spicy.’
Carrying bags full of shopping, Le Hanh leads me to her cooking school in a quiet backstreet of Hoi An, where she quickly sets about chopping up green papayas and grilling fish in banana leaves. True to Hanh’s philosophy, cooking in Hoi An goes big on contrasting flavours; food that plays good cop/bad cop with the palate. The sharpness of fish sauce blends with the subtlety of fresh herbs; cool lemongrass makes way for the eye-watering panic of accidentally chomping on a red chilli.
Food tourism is nothing new to Hoi An. Japanese, Chinese and European merchants sailed here in the 17th and 18th centuries, trading in silks and ceramics and making off with sacks of spices, tea and sugar. Still standing in the centre of the town is a Chinese temple to Thien Hau – the Goddess of the Sea – with murals of her guiding cargo ships homeward through stormy seas.
The port’s fortunes waned, and Hoi An has long since slipped into a state of graceful dishevelment. Today, purple bougainvillea springs from mustardcoloured warehouses where merchants once kept their goods, and the teak and mahogany shutters creak on their hinges. Wire birdcages hang from the branches of tropical almond trees – pet pigeons, grackles and turtledoves cooing and trilling inside. It looks like the Orient as imagined in Graham Greene novels – a backdrop to period dramas involving khaki suits and grim telegrams from London.