When the train started to rattle and shake as it began to ease out of the station, I knew we were about to escape the bustling city. I was longing to experience the pristine landscapes and fresh air of the far north.
It was my fourth trip to Y Ty, but it seems a place that I always anticipate my return to. Despite visiting countries throughout Asia and Europe I still get that tingle of anticipation as I board the night train to Lao Cai, take the winding roads to Y Ty and think of the old house of Mrs. Si and the traditional herbal bath in a wooden barrel.
Y Ty is a commune in Bat Xat district, 80km away from Lao Cai city. The road to Y Ty used to be very bad, which raining season left it all but cut off due to the threats of landslides. But thanks to recent upgrades it is now easier for people to access and explore the wild and beautiful land.
Y Ty greeted me this spring with fluffy tufts of clouds that coyly caressed the mountain tops. At the height of 2,000 metres above sea level, Y Ty is relatively cooler than other regions and blanketed with mist almost the entire year around. Visibility can drop as the atmospheric pearly light covers the landscapes from March to April. During this time, Y Ty has a unique beauty. The roofs of the Ha Nhi people's houses lie hidden in while clouds, appearing like huge mushrooms from behind bamboo trees. They flicker and disappear as the wind sweeps the cloud cover across the hilltops. At noon, the sun rises high and clears the mist. Small villages appear, vibrantly lit up with pink peach follower blossoms, while colourful clothes hang on washing lines to absorb the sunlight.
If you travel to Y Ty in May or June, Y Ty provides another experience as its flooded terraced rice fields mirror the sky. Speckled among the giant stepped landscape are locals harrowing, embanking and starting the ploughing season. If you visit in the autumn, from September to October the land is swathed in the autumnal cloak of gold and the air seems at its sweetest as the aroma of rice tickles the nose. Harvest time sees Y Ty at its busiest as local people rush to complete their agricultural work, while in winter the slate grey and pristine white of snow fall leaves its craggy landscape all but isolated from the outside world. The harsh winter however still highlights the unforgettable beauty of Y Ty, making this small part of Vietnam one of the country’s best all-year-round destinations.
Nhi Cu San or Buffalo Horn, is the highest peak in Y Ty, reaching 2,660 metres above sea level. Nhi Cu San provides a dramatic backdrop as clouds scud across its valleys. The endless sky, giant mountain and banks of cloud seem to transform people into insignificant specks while the steep mountain slopes require careful motorbike driving during the ascent.
About a kilometre from the mountain stands the cardamom forest. The forest is a holy land for the local ethnic minority people that live here and the locals worship it. From generation to generation, locals here are taught to protect forest, because of the wealth it offers the community. It is the forest that gives them wood to warm themselves every winter and its delicate spice provides a living so they can escape poverty. They travel deep into the forest and find an area with enough water and sunlight, and annually at the end of October or early November they harvest the cardamom. After it is dried they sell the valuable pods to traders. While Y Ty may have benefited from a charming blanket of snow, the locals suffered greatly as this local source of income was all but ruined.
Soul of land
Y Ty is also characterized by a rich mix of ethnic minority people such as the H'mong, Dao, Giay and Ha Nhi.
Every week, the locals rise early to go to the market on a Saturday morning, which is held in centre of the commune. Like other mountainous areas, market day is opportunity for locals to gossip, sell produce and buy basic necessities. They bring chickens, vegetables and even home-brewed liquor to sell. The market also provides a beautiful backdrop from the vibrant local ethnic people’s costumes. Married Ha Nhi women are characterized by the fake hair they wear. The huge bun of hair is and made of wool to keep their heads dry and warm in the foggy atmosphere. The hair can be up to two metres long and is tied by blue thread.
When the market finishes, we follow the Ha Nhi women home to see their village. They are from Lao Chai, Chin Chai, Trung Chai and lie about two to three kilometres from each other. In the village, we can zoom in Ha Nhi houses, also known as Trình tường houses, a typical architecture of ethnic minority people in far north of the country. They receive the Trình tường name because their walls are constructed of clay and densely packed soil. The Trình tường houses of the H'mong and Dao people have rectangular shapes while the Ha Nhi favour square. They all share similar features with just one door and tiny window to keep the houses warm. In the past, roofs of these houses were made of straw but they would often rot and leak. So now the locals use fibre cement for roofing. The interiors of the Ha Nhi houses are normally very dark and they are heated by the cooking fire to provide heat and warmth.
In the front of the house, firewood is piled in a huge heap and it can be used to measure the hardworking character of the older girls in family. The bigger the heap, the more hardworking the girl. When the weather is better the children sunbathe and play together. 8-9 year old girls will carry their younger siblings to help the family but this doesn’t stop them having fun with their friends. The husbands mainly stay at home to take care of the children and enjoy at tipple of homebrewed wine. While the life of Ha Nhi people in Y Ty may be simple, they find happiness in simplicity. They just need enough rice to keep them full, and enough liquor to keep them drunk and enough wood to keep them warm. This simple approach to life probably explains why the why the elderly find it difficult to remember their age as they pass through a peaceful and happy life.