Saturday, July 15, 2017

Change and Continuity in Luang Namtha

                                    by Jim Goodman

bridge over the Tha River to the Tai Dam village
       After the first Friendship Bridge opened at Nong Khai in April 1994, connecting Thailand with Laos, the Lao government eased restrictions on individual travelers in the country.  Previously confined to Vientiane Prefecture, they could now go anywhere they wished (except Hua Phan for a while), without being part of an organized group or having a government minder along.  I took advantage of this a year later to visit Luang Namtha in the far north, mainly to meet the Akha minority, with whom I was working and doing research in Thailand, but also to see a part of the country I was just beginning to explore.
main commercial street in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha province lies adjacent to the southern part of Xishuangbanna prefecture in Yunnan, China.  In time, it would become a popular stopover for those on their way to or from Yunnan, but in 1995 it was not yet in the budget traveler’s consciousness.  Luang Namtha city was more of a small town, the commercial area stretched along the main road and residential quarters about three blocks deep on either side.  Only a handful of hotels were available, two of then Chinese-owned.  They were nearly all unoccupied and I was the only foreigner in town.
       I didn’t see any Akha around and learned a better place to meet them was Muang Singh, 58 km away.  Eventually I did go there and satisfied my research ambitions, but as I was not in a hurry I opted to first take a look at an unfamiliar part of Laos.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of temples.  By then I’d been to Houey Xai, Pakbeng, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Phon Savan and Luang Phabang and they all had temples.  But not Luang Namtha.  Were the Lao here totally secularized?
trapping fish in the Namtha
       Or was it because of the influence of the Tai Dam (Black Thai), who are animist and whose villages dominate the valley?   I never answered that question, but a Tai Dam village lies just across the Tha River, which runs alongside the southern suburbs of the town.  A bamboo bridge on piles spans the river and in the forest next to the village stood a stilted shed with thatched roof housing an altar.  Beside it was a colorful tall spirit image of some sort.
       The village sprawls out from the riverbank, the houses spaced a little apart from each other, neighborhoods connected by paths with lots of intersections.  People then lived in stilted houses of wood and bamboo, the roofs thatched, occasionally tiled, within a fenced yard.  Beneath the house they kept their looms, thread-winders and big tools.  And as it was dry season many of the looms were active.
Tai Dam woman dressed up for a city visit
Tai Dam village spirit shrine
       The Tai Dam traditional women’s outfit comprises a plain black sarong, a colored, long-sleeved blouse with vertical rows of silver clasps, and a long black headscarf, fully and brightly embroidered on the lower end.  No one was wearing it on my visit, only ordinary, printed Lao sarongs and blouses.  It was only years later that I finally saw a Tai Dam lady dressed that way for a trip to the market.
winding thread in the Tai Dam village
mother bathing her child in the river
The village’s fields spread out next to the residential area, mostly used for growing glutinous rice, the main filler.  Small vegetable patches lie around the houses.  Pigs and chickens roam the yards.  Villagers also supplement their diet with small fish trapped or netted in the river.  Most of the year the river here is very shallow.  People wade through it to set their traps and bathe in it late afternoons.  But during the monsoon the river swells and rises, occasionally even covering the bridge.  Strong currents make wading into it a little risky. 
Hong Loueay Yao village
       Luang Namtha’s market back then lay close to the bridge to the Tai Dam village, comprising a couple rows of thatched sheds and various tables and stalls on the street between them.  There was no special market day, but it was active every morning.  A couple of Hmông turned up while I was there, and on a subsequent visit I met a few Akha, but the most exotic folks in the market, looking very different from anyone else in town, were the Yao.
       The local people refer to them as Lao Huay, the River Lao, because, like the Tai Dam, they site their villages along one side of a river.  Actually, they are a sub-group of the Lantien branch of the Yao, who also live in Yunnan and northern Vietnam.  The Yao in Luang Namtha province have been here over 150 years in over twenty villages and are regular visitors to the city.
young Yao woman in Luang Namtha 
drying paper in Hong Loueay 
       The women dress in long-sleeved, hip-length black cotton coats, tight knee-length black trousers and white cotton leg-wrappers around the calves.  From girlhood they shave their eyebrows and upper forehead and wrap their hair in a tight coil on top, secured by a fancy silver clasp with coin pendants.  They weave the cloth themselves on narrow vertical looms and dye it in an indigo bath numerous times until they obtain the desired depth of color.
the new hilltop chedi in Luang Namtha
       The Yao visiting Luang Namtha most often come from Hong Loueay, about 5 km west on the road to Muang Singh.  As bicycle rental shops hadn’t come into existence yet, I took a bus bound for Muang Singh and got off as soon as I spotted the village.  It lay on the other side of the river, which was so shallow in the dry season that villagers simply crossed it by walking through it, rather than using the rickety bamboo suspension bridge.
       They live in rectangular houses that sit on the ground, aligned with the river, made of bamboo wattle with thickly thatched, angular roofs.  The roof beams on each side intersect at the ends, forming a row of several v’s along the top.  The houses are usually 5-6 meters wide and 8-25 meters long, depending on how many families live in it.  The walls are 1-1.5 meters high, without any windows. 
cooked food for sale in the new covered market
       The interiors consist of a single room, one space reserved for the kitchen and one area for sleeping on mats rolled up and stored in the corner during the day.  Except for a bamboo tray over the hearth, used for curing baskets and smoking meat, they have no furniture other than small stools.  They keep tools, baskets, traps, guns and sundry other items next to the exterior walls underneath the overhanging roof.
       A patch of forest stood beside the village and the farms lay beyond this.  They grew rice, of course, as well as cotton, and opium, too, which was still legal then and dried pods were on sale in the market.  This was dry season, so while the men were busy in the poppy fields, the women were mostly in the village, involved in winding thread, weaving or making paper.  Several racks held drying slabs of paper, but on this visit I did not witness the process.  People were shy, but polite and friendly.
market shop selling items made from bamboo
       I returned to Luang Namtha a few months later for a brief stop, in the middle of the monsoon, long enough to notice the bridge to the Tai Dam village was under water.  My concentration then, as well as another trip a year later, was on Akha villages around Muang Singh.  By my third trip Muang Singh had become a backpacker hangout and about a third of the Akhas in the market were there to beg money from foreigners.
       A decade and a half later I passed through Luang Namtha regularly, to or from Xishuangbanna while doing extended research in that prefecture.   Changes had taken place, of course, such as a paved road to Houey Xay that reduced the travel time to five hours by bus, compared to the twelve hours or more in the past on a dirt road by old station wagon.  A new covered market just off the main street replaced the riverside venue.  The most impressive addition was the new chedi on a hill just outside of town.  The style resembles one in Vientiane and no monastery compound exists next to it.  The area is animist (or atheist), so it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than as a symbol of the national identity of Laos as a Buddhist nation. 
Yao women in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha wasn’t much bigger, but was now more oriented towards the tourist industry.  An up-market hotel had opened next to the new city market, but there were several moderately priced guesthouses as well.  Most of these were clustered around the new Night Market.  This was not very extensive, with only a few stalls there selling handicrafts, mostly run by Akha who had moved to the city, and a few Akha women wandered around the market, like in Chiang Mai, selling trinkets they didn’t even make themselves.  The market hadn’t lured any Yao.
        Most of the stalls in the Night Bazaar were selling cooked meals.  Duck was a local specialty, for Luang Namtha has thousands of ducks and only dozens of chickens.  Since my first journey to Laos prices for food had risen enormously, but here a half a roast duck was the same price as a half a roast chicken in Thailand, even though the sticky rice filler was twice as much.
traditional p;aper-making in Hong Loueay
       With the increased tourist traffic, enterprising Lao residents had set up offices for excursions to minority villages in the mountains or destinations along the river, like caves, waterfalls or even an all-day boat ride to the junction of the Tha River with the Mekong, several km south of Houey Xai, the border crossing to Thailand.
       On my trips to or from Xishuangbanna and Thailand, I stayed two nights in Luang Namtha each time, just to slow down the journey, and amused myself by checking out the changes.  The Tai Dam village was still roughly the same.  Some houses were new, of wood instead of mostly bamboo, with metal roofs rather than thatch, but still in the Thai style, stilted, with the loom, etc. underneath.  The bridge across the Tha River was still in place, and if the villagers were less forward in engaging with the foreigner, well, thousands of foreigners had passed through the village since my first visit, so my presence was barely noticed.
Yao girl in Phin Ho
       The expanded tourist industry now also had motorbikes and bicycles for rent.  Since the Yao villages I intended to visit were just several km from the town, I opted for a bicycle.  After having to push it up a couple of steep hills on the way I nearly regretted that choice.  Soon enough, though, I arrived at Hong Loueay, still in the same riverside location, still with the same traditional style Yao houses.
       When setting out I’d wondered if it were still in place.  Since the beginning of the century the Lao government had made opium cultivation illegal and undertook a campaign to eradicate its cultivation.  Most of the time this just involved destroying the poppy fields and ordering the people to raise a different crop.  But in some cases, especially remote hills and faraway, secluded valleys, the government relocated the village to somewhere more accessible for monitoring.
       Hong Loueay wasn’t relocated.  The villagers stopped growing opium but stayed where they were and carried on every other aspect of their traditional lifestyle as they’d always done.  It was early February, the same month as my first visit years ago, and everything I saw was like a replay of that initial trip.  The women wore their traditional garments and engaged in winding thread, weaving and dyeing cloth and making paper.  As before, everyone was polite and friendly.
winding thread in Phin Ho
       Bamboo fibers, of four different kinds, are the raw material for paper.  Yao villagers crush the fibers, place them in a hollow trunk with quicklime in between each layer, fill the trunk with water and let the fibers macerate for several weeks.  Afterwards they remove the material, squeeze it dry, wash it in the river and boil it to make pulp.
       I observed a few women at this work.  They stretched a white cloth across a large frame, placed horizontally above the ground.  Using a gourd dipper, they poured the pulp carefully and evenly across the surface.  After allowing it to dry a few minutes, they moved the frame to the yard, and propped it up near-vertically facing the sun.  After three or four hours they removed the dry paper leaf from the fabric and cut it into smaller sizes.  They will use it for letters, cards, religious paraphernalia and packing and sell the surplus to the Hmông.
       This was not a craft specialty village.  A few km further on, the Yao village of Phin Ho was also engaged in the process.  Making paper from bamboo is a Lantien Yao craft specialty.  It’s something they’ve been doing for centuries, another part of traditional life that persists unchanged in spite of whatever modern influences might be emanating from the growing city just a couple of hours walk down the road.   Around Luang Namtha, continuity is as common as change.

Hong Loueay Yao village at paper-making time
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Monday, July 3, 2017

Beyond Sapa: the Ethnic Mélange

                                    by Jim Goodman

Giáy and Hmông en route to Tam Đường Đất market
       Several aspects of Sapa contribute to making it the most popular travel destination in Vietnam’s northern mountains.   At around 1600 meters altitude, it enjoys refreshingly cooler temperatures than the hot plains.  Phansipan, the country’s highest mountain, is visible from the town on clear days.  As a proper hill station resort, Sapa has attractive parks, lively markets, hotels of all kinds and restaurants offering a wide range of food.  Visitors can make day excursions to several different waterfalls or to villages in the picturesque valley below Phansipan.
       Sapa’s other principal attraction is the presence of ethnic minorities in town, mainly Black Hmông and Red Dao (pronounced zao).  Although there are Giáy and Xa Phô villages in the southeastern part of the valley, these people rarely visit Sapa.  Most of the district’s villages are Black Hmông and Red Dao, so these minorities are likely the only ones travelers will see during their short visit, unless they join the caravan of mini-buses to Bc Hà, in the eastern part of Lào Cai province, for the Sunday market day.
       For some travelers, the superb mountain scenery is just a bonus, for the prime draw of the far north is its ethnic variety.  All along the border live a great variety of ethnic minorities.  Short journeys over the passes west and north of Sapa offer opportunities to meet other branches of the Dao and Hmông, as well as Lừ, Giáy and Hà Nhì.
mountains west of Trạm Tôn Pass
Lừ village near Bình Lư
       From the junction just north of Sapa, National Highway 4D turns northwest for 13 km to Quý Hồ, where a road turns north to Mường Hun and the main road continues southwest, passing the Silver Waterfall on the right.  Close to the road, this waterfall tumbles a hundred meters and has a pathway halfway up to a pavilion for a close observation of the cascades.   
       The main road continues its ascent a few more kilometers to the Trạm Tôn Pass, at 1900 meters the highest in the country.  This is also the provincial boundary and the road now winds down the mountain into Lai Châu province.  The peaks of the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range are more picturesque on the descent.  Compared to the rather blunt peaks of Phansipan and its neighbors, those on the western side of the pass feature steeper sides and sharply pointed summits.
Lai Châu 1999, when it was still called Tam Đường
          At the foot of the mountain the road comes to Bình Lư village, where a turn south leads to a Lừ village, one of several ethnic minorities in eastern Lai Châu different from those anywhere around Sapa.  The Lừ are a Tai-Kedai group who migrated down from southern China in the 9th century, originally settling around Điệm Biện Phủ until forced out by the Thái and moving east a few centuries later.  In China they are classified as part of the Dai nationality and are the major Dai community in Xishuangbanns, Yunnan, and Buddhist.  But the Lừ in Yunnan became Buddhist long after Vietnam’s Lừ migrated out of China.
       The Lừ in Vietnam, like the country’s Thái, are animist, yet they garnered a separate classification as a minority.  They live similarly, in stilted wooden houses near rivers or streams, venerate ancestors and agricultural deities and are basically rice farmers.  But the women dress very differently, and much more elaborately, than the Thái.
Dao Làn TIên girl
Lừ woman in Tam Đường Đất
       The basic outfit comprises a tubular skirt, long-sleeved jacket and headscarf, all made of hand-woven black cotton.  The skirt features a wide strip of inlaid geometric designs around the hips.  For special occasions or market trips they will wear one with large rectangles of brocaded silk, in bright colors, attached vertically in the front and back.  The hip-length jacket is slightly flared above the waist, with a thin strip of red, white and blue embroidery around it, connected to another embroidered strip from the right side of the waist up to the collar.  Rows of small silver buttons run alongside this strip and down the front center of the jacket.  The headscarf is wrapped twice around the head, with thin white vertical stripes on the front.
       For jewelry they wear silver neck rings with silver chains hanging from the ends in front, similar to those worn by Dao and Hmông.  The ear ornaments, unique to the Lừ, consist of silver plugs with three or four small bead and pompom pendants.  In the past, the women also blackened the teeth, but this custom is now dying out.
White Hmông girl with typical jewelry
Flowery Hmông women in Tam Đường Đất market
       From Bình Lư Highway 4D goes west to Lai Châu city, the provincial capital.  Until 2005, it was called Tam Đường and Lai Châu was another city, further west, now called Mường Lay.  The city lies in abroad valley, surrounded by mountains, with tea gardens sprawling across the lower slopes.  Small limestone hills, devoid of buildings, pop up within the city limits and the suburbs.  Various minority people may wander into town any day of the week, but Lai Châu doesn’t stage a regular market day.  Instead, Thursdays and Sundays, the venue is Tam Đường Đất, ten kilometers east.
       Market day begins early at Tam Đường Đất and starts winding down by noon. It is, however, the best opportunity to appreciate the ethnic variety of this part of the province.  Most of those in attendance are women wearing their traditional clothing.  Lừ women will be there, dressed in their finest ensembles.  Women of the Giáy, another Tai-Kedai minority from the valleys and lower mountains slopes, will wear their pastel-colored, side-fastened jackets, with a band of contrasting color around the collar and along the lapel, over plain black trousers.
market day in Tam Đường Đất
       The surrounding hills are home to different branches of the Hmông and Dao.  Most of the Hmông belong to a local sub-group of the Flowery Hmông, whose women generally wear the signature Hmông knee-length, bulky, pleated indigo skirt, decorated with batik patterns and strips of appliqué along the lower third.  Over this they don a plain black velvet jacket with colored bands around the shoulders and tie a wide red sash around the waist.  A smaller number of women from the White Hmông sub-group will substitute a pair of plain black trousers for the traditional skirt.  Heavy silver neck rings and pendants are the preferred ornaments, while around their heads they tie simple scarves of checked or patterned cotton.
       Members of up to four branches of the Dao could turn up for market day here.  The most numerous are the Dao Làn Tiển, the women dressed in long black jackets, the edges trimmed in red or blue, and pantaloons loose above the knees and tight below them.  A skein of pink woolen thread hangs from the collar down the front of the jacket.  Younger females wear a round black cap, decorated with silver discs and colored pompoms.  The older women tie their hair in a chignon inside a silver crown wrapped in horsehair, but hidden from view by a tall black hat. The usual heavy silver ornaments complete the outfit.
       Dao Tuyền women also wear black jackets and pantaloons, but can be distinguished easily by the white apron in front and by their billed caps.  This Dao branch is more common further west.  The other two Dao groups likely to show up in Tam Đường Đất are the Red Dao and Sewing Dao (Dao Khâu). The Red Dao look similar to those around Sapa, recognizable by their tall red turbans.  The Sewing Dao are so named because of their embroidery skills.  Women cover nearly the entire surface of their trousers with embroidered patterns and sewing these onto the cloth, which can take a few months to complete, becomes their prime activity when not engaged in agricultural or domestic work.  The result combines certain motifs required by tradition with those created by the person making them, so that no two pairs are exactly alike.
Giáy girls leaving Tam Đường Đấ
Red Dao ornamented turban
       The Red Dao sub-group in eastern Lai Châu extends into Bát Xát district in Lào Cai province, north of Sapa, another homeland of several ethnic minorities, and are the most prominent group at the Sunday market day in Mường Hum.  To get there from Sapa, travelers take the main road northwest to Quý Hồ and turn north at the junction.  This road gradually winds down the mountains past Black Hmông and Red Dao villages to the valley of the Pĩ Hỏ River and the town of Mường Hum, appended to an old Giáy village.
       The market day in Mường Hum falls on the same day as the much better advertised and promoted one in Bắc Hà.  Consequently, nearly all the tour groups flock to Bắc Hà on Sunday.  The scene there is certainly colorful, but the experience is somewhat marred by the great numbers of Hmông and Dao women trying to peddle handicrafts to the foreigners. 
Red Dao women in Mường Hum
Red Hmông hairdo
       In contrast, market day in Mường Hum, equally colorful, attracts far fewer foreigners and has much more of an authentic atmosphere.  In recent years it has become better known among a more discerning set of travelers, yet still scarcely two dozen foreigners turn up on any given Sunday.  Other than friendly greetings and smiles, the minorities in the market generally ignore them and none of them bother the visitors to buy something.
       For the ethnic minority women managing stalls and layouts of handicraft products, the potential customers are of their own and other minorities.  The baskets and bamboo items they sell to people who will use them, not keep then as souvenirs.  The batik cloth the Hmông sell as skirt material goes to other Hmông women who don’t have time to do the work themselves.  And the colored thread the Hà Nhì hawk finds customers among all the ethnic minority women, as they are all embroiderers.
       The Red Dao of Bát Xát district live in the same way and share the same customs as the Red Dao sub-group around Sapa.  The women wear the same kind of long-tailed coat and embroidered trousers and the same silver jewelry.  But the coat and trousers feature less embroidery, mostly in white, rather than the yellow favored around Sapa.  The headgear is very different, too, being a tall tubular turban wrapped in bright red cloth or patterned cloth dominated by the red color.  Some women decorate the turban with silver chains and pendants.
Red Hmông woman in Mường Hum
Hà Nhỉ woman, Mường Hum
They are the only kind of Dao here, but up to five branches of Hmông might turn up on market day:  Black, White, Flowery, Red and Green.  The Black Hmông are the same as those around Sapa and come from the hills south of Mường Hum.  Their women wear a black jacket with bands of color around the upper sleeves and along the lapel, knee-length pants, plain black leggings and big hoop earrings.  The White Hmông sub-group here dress like their counterparts in eastern Lai Châu province, in black trousers and jacket, with a wide red sash around the waist, but nothing actually white.  White Hmông in western Lai Châu wear bulky white pleated skirts, but don’t venture this far east.
       The Flowery Hmông here are the same sub-group as in Tam Đường Đất and the Red Hmông women don similar outfits, featuring the pleated, heavy, batik-patterned, indigo-colored skirt.  The Red Hmông drape a hem-length, black apron, bordered in bright blue, over the front of the skirt, but what distinguishes them from other Hmông is the hairstyle.  Women retain the hair that comes off when brushing and then attach it to the living hair, lengthening the strands, and then tie red woolen thread to the ends and wrap everything around into a huge bouffant.
       The most dazzling apparel in the market is that of the Green Hmông women, so named because green dominates the jackets, skirts and leggings (though it could also be blue or a shade of blue-green).  The younger generation keeps their long hair uncovered, while the older women wrap it in a decorated turban or headdress.  The jackets and skirts are machine-made printed cotton and are also on sale in the market, but subsequently festooned with loads of glittering, spangled ornamentation.
Green Hmông woman
Green Hmông girl
       Besides the more sedately dressed local Giáy, the market also attracts Hà Nhì, who wear black, side-fastened jackets with broad blue bands around the collar, lapel, sleeves, cuffs and hems.  A Tibeto-Burman group linguistically, they are a spillover from the Chinese side of the border, the dominant Hà Nhì group in Jinping County, Yunnan.  A Hà Nhì village lies on the hill just north of Mường Hum, but most of those in the market come from further north and west and usually arrive the night before market day.
       Following excursions to Tam Đường Đất and Mường Hum, a traveler might find the return to Sapa, with only two minorities in the streets, almost anti-climactic.  But now endowed with a greater awareness of the variety of attractions in the area, new ambitions arise.  Beyond Sapa there is much to explore, to wonder at, appreciate and enjoy.

White Hmông shopping in Tam Đường Đất
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Bình Lư, Tam Đường Đất and Mường Hum are part of Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through the northern mountains.  See

Friday, June 23, 2017

Crossing the Climate Boundary: from Huế to Đà Nãng

                                    by Jim Goodman

looking north from the Hải Vân Pass
       South of Ngh An Province, the land of Vietnam narrows to a thin coastal plain with mountains rising immediately to the west.  A little north of Đà Nng the Bch Mã Range of these mountains swerves across the valley to the sea, ending in a shoreline hill.  On top of this hill is the Hi Vân Pass and until recently all north-south traffic, on foot or in vehicles, had to pass this way, so from posts on the pass all approaches were easily visible in advance.  Governments in the past, from ancient times down to the 20th century, established fortresses here.
An Cư Lagoon
        Besides physically separating the country’s north and south, the intersection of the Bch Mã Range with the East Sea also affects Vietnam’s climate.  The range blocks the cold winds and rainclouds coming down from the north.  Even in typhoon season the storms pummel the provinces north of the pass—Thừa Thiên Hué to Hà Tĩnh—more than Đà Nẵng or Quảng Nam.  Leaving Huế on a cloudy, misty day, after crossing the pass it may be only partly cloudy in Đà Nẵng, with plenty of sunshine in between.  
       In ancient times the Hải Vân Pass was also a political and cultural boundary between the Vietnamese in the north and the Chăm to the south.  Even while the north was under Chinese administration the two sides battled for control of the area north of the pass.  After Vietnam won back its independence in 938 the struggle continued.  By the end of the 15th century the Vietnamese had vanquished the nearest Chăm kingdoms and extended its borders to just north of Nha Tang.
fishing huts and nets on the An Cư Lagoon
       Vietnamese immigration south of the Hài Vân Pass, however, did not begin in earnest until the 16th century, when a protracted civil war ravaged so much of the Red River Delta that in many places life was no longer tenable.  With Vietnamese settled on both sides, the pass lost its symbolic and military significance until the colonial period.  The French built a railway line that skirted around the base of the hill and a road that ran over it.  Once the Vietnamese insurrection began, the French installed lookout posts and machine gun nests on the pass.  These were later used again during the American War, though they failed to stop the North Vietnamese Army from swarming over Hài Vân in the spring offensive in 1975 that would soon capture Saigon and conclude the war.
boats on the beach at Lăng Cô
       Years later, when tourists began traveling around Vietnam, the Hải Vân Pass was on the route between the popular destinations of Huế and Đà Nẵng.  From Huế the road ran southeast across the plain and then alongside the large Cầu Hai Lagoon on its left, with the Bạch Mã Mountain Range suddenly rising on its right.  A portion of this area, 22.000 hectares of evergreen rain forest, has been reserved as a national park.  Over 1150 species of plants have been discovered so far, 330 of birds and over 90 different mammals, including a few previously unknown species discovered in the 1990s.
bringing in a boat at Lăng Cô
       After passing Cầu Hai Lagoon, the road ascends slightly over low hills and then runs back down to the plain to the picturesque An Cư Lagoon on the western side of the road opposite seaside Lăng Cô village.  The mountains rise steeply on the other side and the railway line runs along the base of these mountains, on the opposite side of the lagoon from the road.  As this was roughly halfway between Huế and Hội An, tour buses always make a half-hour stop here for refreshments or a simple meal, which allows for a quick look at the lagoon scenery.
eyes on the prow of a Lăng Cô boat
       On my first journey on this route in the winter of 2005, after the Lăng Cô stopover, the bus climbed up the hill over the pass and immediately descended towards Đà Nẵng without even a momentary pause for passengers to take in the view.  Several months later, making the trip again and noticing at the Lăng Cô stop nearly all the travelers had cameras, I decided to enlist the support of some of them when we started climbing the hill to join me in demanding the bus make a ten-minute stop at Hải Vân Pass.  But my plan was foiled when we didn’t go up over the pass after all, but instead through a new tunnel at the base of the hill that had just opened since my last trip.
       The only way for me to get another, and more leisurely, look at the pass was to return to Lăng Cô and hire a motorbike.  The village certainly looked inviting, so it would be a pleasant excursion anyway.  Weather spoiled my first attempt, though, for low, dark clouds hung over the area, obscuring the pass and most of the mountains behind the lagoon.  It was a day to remind me of the meaning of Hải Vân—Sea of Clouds.  But it didn’t rain, giving me the opportunity to explore Lăng Cô on foot.
Lăng Cô village and beach
       The village lies on a long finger of land next to An Cư Lagoon, with sandy beaches just on the other side of the road.  The most densely settled part is at the south end, where the lagoon enters the sea.  The beach resorts and other hotels and restaurants are further up.  The ocean water is relatively clean, the waves usually moderate and, closer to the main village residential area, the beach is lined with small fishing boats.  Like other boats in Central Vietnam, the prows feature a pair of painted eyes.
lagoon waters as they enter the sea
       Few people stayed in the beach resorts, a couple of which included tennis courts and a swimming pool, not even when I returned a few months later and enjoyed excellent weather.  Perhaps it’s because people from Đà Nẵng, the nearest potential visitors, have plenty of beaches around their own city.  And while Lăng Cô restaurants do offer tasty fresh seafood dishes, that’s true in Đà Nẵng and all along the entire coast of Vietnam.
       The lagoon makes Lăng Cô a different kind of beach resort.  Only a short walk from the main road, the near shoreline has a paved road running beside it, while the railway line on the other side runs right along the base of the mountains’ steep cliffs.  The water is shallow, not more than waist-deep far out from the shoreline.  Small pirogues and basket boats, when not out on the lagoon, sit parked next to the land.  Stilted fishing huts stand out in the water not far from the shore, as well as some large fishing nets attached to poles and hanging just above the water surface. 
catching oysters in An Cư Lagoon
       Besides the lagoon and the Hải Vân Pass, the other attraction in the vicinity is Elephant Spring, in the lap of the Bạch Mã Mountains about ten km north of Lăng Cô and three km off the highway to the west.  A hot spring next to what used to be a thick forest, by the time I visited it, and that was over a decade ago, it was a failed and abandoned resort.  A disused, dilapidated guesthouse, its cottages in serious need of roof repair, stood on a clearing near the spring.  Boulders that roughly resembled elephants had been painted to accentuate those features.  Statues of deer and tiger peeped through the bushes around the spring, as well as one of, oddly enough, a giraffe.
the abandoned park at Elephant Spring
       As for the pass, sunny skies prevailed throughout my second stay in Lăng Cô and I could hire a motorbike to make the excursion.  The pass is not very high up, less than 500 meters above the sea, and the road winds along the slope facing the sea.  No roadside trees block the good views of Lăng Cô and its beaches to the north and the coastline south towards Đà Nẵng.  About halfway up, a waterfall spills through a forested slope and when its creek comes near the road, it flows over a stretch of wide, smooth, nearly flat boulders.
machine gun nest at Hải Vân Pass
       Besides the magnificent view, the Hải Vân Pass also features relics of its past military significance.  A couple of red brick watchtowers stand on the slope just above the road.  An empty machine gun nest sits on a spot overlooking the route up the hill from Lăng Cô.  A few concrete bunkers lie in the area, one of them converted to a small cave temple, with refreshments stands and souvenir stalls set up in front of the entrance.  
       After crossing the pass, it’s another 25 km or so to Đà Nẵng, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the northern limit of the country’s tropical zone.  City suburbs begin along the shore of the Bay of Đà Nẳng, while the main port and commercial area lie further east and up to the coast.  On the eastern side of the bay the large hilly Sơn Trà Peninsula stretches out north of the business district.  Also called Monkey Mountain after the primates living there, it is mostly an off-limits military zone, but does provide a nice backdrop to views from beaches.
wartime watchtower at Hải Vân Pass
       Known as Tourane in the French colonial period, it rose in importance from the beginning of the 19th century, replacing Hội An, where river silt had accumulated to the point commercial ships could no longer reach the port.  Đà Nẵng is now a thoroughly modern city, but a fairly relaxed one.  Traffic runs smoothly even in rush hour.  With no old town extant, the only buildings identified as tourist attractions are a couple of Buddhist temples, the French-built cathedral, a Cao Đài temple and the well-stocked, fascinating Chăm Museum.  For some travelers, this museum is the only reason to stop in Đà Nẵng, especially since it’s a short trip from Hội An.
       The city’s other main physical (and cultural) attraction is the group of five small hills, called Marble Mountains, just beyond its southern suburbs.  Non Nước, the village next to the largest hill, has long been a craft village specializing in marble sculptures.  Tour buses from Huế en route to Hội An often make a stop here, where teenaged girls immediately importune the passengers to purchase anything from a small carving that can be held in the hand to a heavy, life-sized statue of a lion or religious deity.  Marble deposits in the hills were played out long ago and now Non Nước imports its raw materials from Thanh Hoá.  The skill survives, though, and the business is still thriving.
boats in Đà Nẵng
       Each of the hills is named after one of the five essential elements.  The largest, nearest the beach, Water Mountain ̣(Thủy Sơn), contains several cave shrines that have drawn religious pilgrims since the time of the Chăm kingdoms.  Originally Hindu, the shrines now honor the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities popular with the Vietnamese, who added statues of gods and guardians, built temples and erected pagodas on the hill.
       Guides are available to the sights, but visitors can simply follow the pathways that wind around and up the hill to the temples, pavilions and pagodas and branch off into the caves.  One leads to a complex of several caverns, connected by two tunnels, with old Chăm stone carvings and more recently installed concrete Buddhas.  The most interesting is Huyên Không Cave, with a very high interior and a small opening to the sky at the top.  When the sun is overhead a shaft of light pours through this hole and strikes one of the altars.  During the American War the cave was a Viet Cong field hospital and the base of a Women’s Artillery Division famous for shooting down nineteen American warplanes. 
Huyên Không Cave
Buddha statue on Water Mountain
       The seacoast next to the Marble Mountains is lined with beaches, but around Non Nước and for several km towards Hội An walls belonging to a succession of resort hotels block public access.  The beaches closer to Hội An, a more popular tourist destination than Đà Nẵng, are usually quite congested.  But Đà Nẵng residents and visitors have a few prime beach alternatives right next to the city. 
one of the Marble Mountains near Đà Nẵng
       A long beach runs along the shore of the Bay of Đả Nẵng, frequented by suburbanites in the late afternoon.  On the eastern shore of the East Sea (a.k.a. South China Sea) the beaches offer a more scenic view of Monkey Mountain, but the waters are only calm enough for swimming in the summer months and a bit rough other times.   From mid-September through December, however, they are quite suitable for surfing.
       The northern beach just below the peninsula is called Mỹ Khê, while further down it is known as China Beach.  American Marines landed here in March 1965 in the first major commitment of U. S. troops to South Vietnam.  China Beach later became a popular R&R spot for U. S. soldiers, flown in by helicopter.  Nowadays, over five decades since the war’s end, with comfortable hotels and fine restaurants, for both Đà Nẵng residents and passing travelers, China Beach is once again serving its former purpose--rest and recreation.

China Beach and Monkey Mountain, Đà Nẵng
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Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through the country passes over this route. See