You can tell when it is winter in Hanoi - the country’s Northern capital - because everyone is wrapped up in puffer jackets, hats and scarves; hands are pushed deeply into pockets, elbows are kept straight and chins are tucked firmly into chests.
The only conversations seem to be: “It’s cold; so cold!” This means temperatures have dropped below 20⁰C.
Meanwhile, I browse pictures from home (England) – no doubt at some point there will be widespread snow across the country. My social media feeds will fill with pictures of snowmen and wooded landscapes wonderfully buried under a few inches of the white stuff.
In the UK — and I’m sure in any cold or colder countries — we keep warm. A brisk venture out into the freeze before rushing back inside to an open log fire, mulled wine, hot whisky, carpet, slippers and so on. It’s the cool humidity of a Hanoi winter that penetrates you. Tiled floors, lofty rooms, no heating. All abodes are built with the intention of keeping out the searing summer’s heat, but no consideration for keeping in the warmth during the winter months.
I get a call: “Do you want to come on a mission?” I am asked, “…up to the mountains in the north, to Sin Ho?”
“Well yes, but I’m busy complaining about the winter in Hanoi – surely it’s going to be bitterly cold up there?”
Never one to turn an adventure down, I pack my warmest clothing and not before long we catch the night train north. The task in hand turns out to be shooting videos and taking photographs of some trees, my favouritekind of job.
My good friend sells produce in Hanoi from the ethnic minorities that reside in and around Sa Pa, she also sells walnuts from Sin Ho province (Two of Vietnam’s most northern provinces).
Splendor and spoil
A rather bizarre scenario had emerged, in which an ugly social media activity had led to a slander of the walnut harvesters in the north. We sought to redress some balance in a very negative situation.
We set off on our motorbikes from Sa Pa: an Englishman, a Kinh Vietnamese and two Red Dao women – all wrapped up under many layers of warm clothing and head out into the near freezing fog.
It’s approximately a 120km drive and will probably take most of the day. Visibility is down to just a few meters, my sight is instantly impaired by thick droplets of water on my eyelashes, and the temperature is so low it immediately breaches every item of protection. I wonder if we will make it there by the end of the day.
Riding out of Sa Pa we pass the contrastingsplendor and spoil, one moment a glorious waterfall, the next a mountain munching cement factory or limestone quarry.
We pass Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s highest peak at 3.143 meters, and ride out onto Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam highest road at 1900 meters. This pass is known as Heaven’s Gate, and we are soon to discover why.
As we rise out of the murk — in bright sunlight above the clouds and fog — the views of the unfolding hills ahead enthral majestically.
Unlike the valleys of Sa Pa, with their quintessential rice terraces, these lands are much more desolate. The sheer scarps and steep blankets of forest remain uninhabited by man. I ponder what might live up there, high above these roads.
Towards lunchtime we descend down a corkscrew road to catch the first glimpses of the mountain city of Lai Chau, nestled amidst stunning limestone peaks. We pause to refuel both our motorbikes and ourselves and soon press on.
By chance we seem to have taken the old road to Sin Ho and are treated to further glorious ascents and consequent descents; at times the route deteriorates into mere muddy tracks. Just before sunset we eventually arrive at our destination.
We are greeted by our Black Dao hostesses and are quickly taken out to be shown some walnut trees before the sun fully sets. Somehow I had imagined orchards of the aforementioned trees, but contrary to my preconceptions we are taken to various farmsteads and small holdings where clusters of the walnut trees remain.
In the recent past these trees were presumed to have little or no value, and many were felled. As new markets have opened up in Hanoi and even as far south as Ho Chi Minh City, their worthiness has been revaluated.
New saplings are being planted, fresh grafts are being made. The Black and Yellow Walnut trees of Sin Ho live on.
The following morning we rise early and are taken to a magical site in the middle of one of the villages. We climb a small hill and I am surprised to find three large stone tablets, one written in Vietnamese, one in Hmong-Dao and one in pigeon English.
The story tells of an earth fairy that flew in the sky and visited this village. It left behind an umbrella that became encased in stone. It has become a spiritual alter for the local people and is a wonderful start to the day.
Soon we are back on our bikes and off to another neighbouring village. These tiny settlements host a curious assemblage of ethnic minorities: the Flower Hmong, Blue Hmong, Black Hmong, Lu, Black Dao and Red Dao.
For me, with fairy tales in my mind, it as if I’m in some wonderland – truly magical landscapes reveal themselves. This is some of the most unspoilt and original Vietnam I think I have encountered.
We reach our final destination and boldly ascend a rocky track through an idyllic community; dogs are barking, cockerels crowing, piglets squealing – a glorious fanfare for our parade.
At the highest point and at the very end of the village and here proudly stands a magnificent walnut tree; coated in mosses, lichens, ferns and bromeliads – as if to quantify its age.
My colleagues make their videos; I take my photos. All is overseen by an elderly couple peering over their fence.
Come, come and tell us your tale – the elders are invited. The old man disappears briefly and returns wearing a black beret and a loosely knotted tie – smartened for his camera appearance. He relates how this very tree has always generously given great yields of black walnuts, since his birth – in 1933.
I stand, lost in my own thoughts, and deliberate what it must be like to have lived with and known a single tree for 84 years.
Grant J Riley is a writer, photographer and freelance ecologist from the south-west of England. He is the author of A Journal from the End of Times and Marginal.