IN THE WILDS OF NORTH VIET NAM

You begin to realize you’re completely off the grid, positively removed from the beaten track, when you can’t find a single picture postcard. Not even any tee shirts for sale.

In fact, Shan and I were so far away from it all in northern Viet Nam that we needed not only a driver but two guides as we inched our way along the Chinese border. One, Nguyen, had been with us from the beginning, since we pulled away early one damp winter morning from the swank Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, and another whom we picked up in the north to interpret local dialects for Nguyen, who would then clue us in as to what was going on.

It was just a bit of a tough trip. Exhilarating but demanding. Out on the road one morning I’d wondered whether we were going to drop off the edge of the earth and into the Nho Quo River 1,500 sheer feet below us. Also to wonder was whether our tombstones, when and if they were established on the edge of the river, would be in English, Vietnamese, French or local language, as our battered and beaten Toyota Land Cruiser crawled along the seven kilometers of so-called “happy” road, built just two years ago with the volunteer labor of 15 ethnic tribes. The road served small vegetable plots worked by old men who pushed wooden plows and young boys dressed in indigo led cows into the fields. You could see why life here is “one roof, one cow, one water buffalo.”

The attraction for us was the people, the rural peoples who don’t speak Vietnamese. Mostly Hmong, they’re on the edge of the country’s society, with tribal descriptions such as Red Zho, Flowery Hmong and Long-dressed Hmong. They’re weavers and farmers, small people and bent, old women walking the roadsides with huge loads of firewood on their backs, hunched up to carry cabbages and potatoes and rice.

Part of the reason for our being here is that Shan is a collector of vintage fabrics and headdresses, pieces from Oman to Laos, from the Amazon to Siberia. The cold, harsh ethnic region of the Viet Nam north is a treasure trove for us, but it’s not hard to see that in these Vietnamese highlands life is not easy. Crops in the rocky highlands are grown in tiny spaces between boulders, just a few square feet of eggplant, then a small rice plot, perhaps a planting of peppers on the minute pieces of earth. Occasionally, there’s a glistening rice paddy, or a water wheel. It’s hard for us to imagine even climbing the steep hillsides planted to their peaks and standing upright, let alone working the land as these people do.

Some of the region is crisscrossed with rivers and forest-covered gorges. The narrow, twisting road climbs with difficulty up the mountainsides before dropping into the next gorge, the winter fog wafting ahead of us as we pass water buffalo slugging through the mud. The smell of wood smoke hangs in the air and decrepit blue Russian-made trucks lumber up the grades.

In the small towns where we’ve stopped for lunch, or at night for dinner, towns with names like Meo Vac, Ling Cu and Dong Van, meals are simple – since there is seldom more than one place from which to choose. The front of the restaurant is open, the food displayed on counters. It’s steamed and stuffed bamboo, rice noodle soup, roasted pork, boiled duck and rice. What we do is see what the locals are having, then point. Sometimes it works out well.

Behind the counter are bottles of Chinese vodka and Johnny Walker Red, and we’ll try a few thimbles of local rice or corn wine when we’re not drinking Chinese beer. Our first tastes of the local brews came when a local in a black leather jacket sitting in the corner recognized us (how could he not?) as foreigners, and sent over a sample. Breakfast is even simpler, with nearly everyone slurping steaming bowls of chicken, beef or rice soup.

The towns are not the quaint villages we’d imagined, but mostly government-built in recovery from the short-lived Chinese bombardment and invasion of this area in the 1970s. Not to mention the Indochinese wars. The towns have been rebuilt to maintain the Vietnamese presence along the border, with most of the buildings painted in butter-yellow tones, in a sort of modern French colonial design. The best hotel in town is $6 a night – that’s for the best room, which is ours – while the guides and driver sleep further down the chain. No linen on the beds, but the quilts are warm, even if they are of dubious cleanliness.

The really good news? Western toilets are nearly everywhere. Must be the French influence.