I lost Stan at Bac Ha. Or perhaps he lost me...
The Buffalo markets are in full swing. Large doe-eyed beasts with threatening
horns, mill around the hilltop, not appreciating the view of the tableau of
stalls and produce in the marketplace below.
A steep flight of stone stairs had drawn us up to the mound, muddy and smelling unmistakably of bovine. I can’t tell if my boots are sticking to mud or to manure. Here, sage men, with noncommittal hands thrust deep in their pockets, nod to one another, knowingly. It is the domain of the menfolk. Behind the valley is a sleepy, hazy watercolour-backdrop of rural tribal life. The colours are desaturated and seem to melt into each other, as if the clouds in the valley have diluted all that they’ve touched.
A Hmong woman gives her baby a “horsey” ride on the back of a supine buffalo. It seems not to care at all. A pair of rival buffalo lock their gnarly horns, snorting menacingly, as they settle a territorial dispute. Each one tethered loosely to a rock by a ragged piece of rope. A man sits on his haunches nearby, a cigarette in hand, unperturbed. Stan is no-where to be seen.
I assume he has continued on without me.
Below me, the Sunday markets are a swirling palette of colour. A wagon train of red-roofed buildings encircle the blue tarps of the produce stalls. I negotiate stone stairs down to the dog market. I am at once fascinated and abhorred by what I see. I squeeze off a few frames, wondering if they will ever see the light of day. A puppy urinates as his new owner drags him along by a string tied to his collar. Dressed in black leathers, helmet perched on the back of his head, a man laughs to a friend, as he cradles a fluffy brown pup in his arms. I put my judgement aside, as I stumble over a basket of chickens. Village life can be harsh.
Every step presents another photo, and I am drawn into a massive tide of people rolling through the narrow aisles of the markets. I stop to photograph the meat stalls, bloodied carcasses and legs with the furry fetlocks and hooves still attached. I observe the fresh faces of the Hmong girls, with their apple-cheeked babies swaddled on their backs. Mountains of fiery chillies spill across blankets of tangerines, colours of eye-piercing brilliance. Piles of tobacco look like wood shavings. Men squat and feathers of blue smoke curl skyward from their ancient bamboo pipes.
Through a chink in a blue tarpaulin I can see back across the markets to the hilltop Buffalo yard. At the top of the stairs I can just make out a tiny silhouette of Stan. I zoom in with my lens, but he has gone. Could he have been there all the time? If so, he will not be impressed that I left him long ago, without communicating.
I swim against the tide of people streaming through the markets. I am pushed and pummelled as I duck and weave between baskets and babies, retracing my steps, past the smelly soup kitchens, the ground awash with offal. The Hmong people are here to barter, and I am just in their way.
Stan never left the Buffalo market. Waiting frustratingly for me with a lot less than patience. He tries to be angry, but it dissipates as quickly as the mountain mists.
Mr Tran meets us at our hotel. It is 7.30 pm. The train to Lao Cai leaves at 8.30. We spill out of our hotel like time travellers. Inside it is all cool marble and sophisticated decor. Through the glass doors we are met with the melee that is Hanoi's Old Quarter. The noise, the heat and the bustle. The footpath is only a couple of feet wide and a seemingly endless stream of people parades past. Our car is waiting, blocking half of the one-way street. There is no other place to park. Motorbikes and cars and people flow around us.
I know that it will take us just as long to drive to the station as it would to walk. Its not far. But Mr Tran’s job is to facilitate our departure.
Arriving at the station, he takes off at a cracking pace and we trot along behind him. We are travelling light. Sharing one carry-on bag, our camera bags on our backs. As we traverse the tracks to reach our train I remember that a friend of mine had his wallet lifted here, and take heed of the people crushing in around me. There is urgency and confusion around us, but Mr Tran delivers us safely to our carriage. He hands me two envelopes, one with our tickets to Lao Cai, and one with our return tickets to Hanoi. He tells me that his associate in Lao Cai will meet us on the platform with a sign. He holds up a piece of paper with “Lyons” written on it. “Like this.” He says. In case there is any confusion that I will not recognise my own name.
I have paid for the “Private King Deluxe 2 berths wooden cabin with soft sleeper berths and A/C”. Being acutely aware that Vietnam’s definition of Deluxe doesn’t always gel with mine, I have relatively low expectations. The cabin is actually a 4 berth cabin with two top bunks closed to the wall. A fact reflected in the fact that I hold 4 tickets for the berth. Red sheets, white pillow cases and a heart-shaped Christmas wreath hanging between the curtains at the window. It is small, cosy and quaint. On the table below the window, is a basket containing one complementary can of beer and one can of soft drink (for the ladies). I don’t intend to drink either.
There is something about train journeys that conjures up images of mystery, intrigue and romance. Perhaps it is the sense of adventure, combined with a sense of confinement... and the lineal nature of the journey. A train journey can only start, stop, and finish, it is unlikely to deviate.
We settle into our cabin, turning off the lights so that we can witness the activity on the platform.
There is a knock on the door. A Vietnamese man from the neighbouring cabin wants to swap his complementary can of beer, with our can of Pepsi. He thinks that because our lights are off, we’d already gone to bed. He apologises for waking us up. It is not quite 8pm.
We decide to leave the door open, so we can spy on our fellow travellers and the activity on the other side of the platform.
It is then that the Italians arrive. Big and loud, with big loud luggage. They crash their way down the narrow corridor, talking excitedly, as only Italians can. There are six of them. Three middle aged couples, they are tall and they are animated and now occupy the remaining three cabins of our carriage. I am immediately irritated by them. I resent their intrusion.
Meanwhile my travel companion, “Mr glass half-full”, the one who will find humour in every situation, reaches for his iPhone. Before I can muster full indignation for the Italian invasion, he sticks his head out of our cabin door and plays Dean Martin “That’s Amore”. There are peals of laughter from the Italians. They don’t speak any English, but we immediately become “friends” as we all start singing along to Dino.
The Italians have to pass our door to use the communal bathroom. Each time one of them passes, he plays another Italian love song for their benefit. He has the comic timing of Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful.
The train suddenly groans, lurches forward, and stops abruptly. I can feel the carriages all impacting on one-another down the line, It lurches forward again. Steel against steel. Slowly gaining momentum, its settles into a rhythmic clickety clack... in approximately nine hours we will be in Lao Cai.