I told a man in nearby Sin Ho Township that not long ago a British travel company (Gecko Travel) rated this place as one of the top five trekking destinations in Southeast Asia. He looked doubtful.
To many Vietnamese, Pu Dao, a collection of villages in the northwestern province of Lai Chau, offers no touristic lure. A community of only 900 H’mong people, it’s isolated by woods, mountains, ignorance and poverty.
But the rating piqued my interest, and I wanted to experience the trails for myself.
After a three-hour bumpy ride from Dien Bien Phu City — the only city in northwest Vietnam — I got off the bus at Lai Ha Bridge, which spans a tributary of Vietnam’s longest river: Song Da. From there I watched oblong boats, the common means of transportation in the Northwest, drift by.
On the other bank, there was Chan Nua, a typical village of Thai people with stilt houses hiding under coconut fronds. Through the roofs, smoke rose, threading through the foliage, dispersing into the misty air.
From Lai Ha Bridge, I began the 15-mile trek to Pu Dao. The trail spiraled up into the woods, where millions of bamboo sprouts shot upward and thick groves were interwoven as it had never been touched by humans. In H’mong language, Pu Dao means high mountains.
Hong Ngai, the first village I encountered, was a light patch adorning the interminable flora of the region. Four or five wooden houses of Vietnamese teachers clustered around the local government building. Several bamboo houses of H’mong people squatted on the hillside.
I visited Ngo Thi Thanh Nuong, a 35-year-old woman, and learned about part of a teacher’s life working in a school in the mountains.
For 15 years in Pu Dao, Mrs. Ngo had been struggling to teach the H’mong children the national Vietnamese language, known as tieng Kinh. She visited every family, begging the parents to let their children go to school. To keep the kids coming back, she would buy them candy.
At the village’s communal water tank, I saw a group of H’mong women and kids bathing. Their naked bodies sparkled under the sun.
I ran into Pa Thi Lau on her way to get water. With a brown complexion, high nose and large eyes, Lau had the face of an Indian beauty queen. The little girl had nearly finished her elementary education when her older brother had another baby and made her quit school to run domestic errands.
Lau had nine siblings. Her older sister got married the year before and became pregnant at the age of 15, but the baby died at birth. Lau carried the 2-gallon cans toward the thatched hut at the corner of the soil path; her torn skirt tangled her feet.
I dropped in at the nearest house, where a villager was grinding corn. Around and around, the stone grinder lagged at every push and pull of the little woman, sifting layers of powder, fine and pure like flakes of snow.
Then I met Vu A Ca, the secretary of the local Communist party, on his way home from the field. A hoe hung loosely on his shoulder, sweat dripping from his wrinkled face. Nearby, a girl and a boy, about 9 or 10 years old, were crawling up a slope. The baskets of bamboo shoots on their backs weighed them down.
Night came in Hong Ngai quietly as if someone lowered a curtain. There were no electric lights, no TVs, no motorbikes. The village slept under a chorus of insect shrieks.
I spent the night in a small room with Vu Thi Quynh Hoa. The 24-year-old woman came to Pu Dao from Nam Dinh, 370 miles away, to work as the only accountant for the local government.
“A thousand years from now, Pu Dao will still be behind the present development level of the lowland,” my hostess said as she blew out the oil lamp before going to sleep.
The next day, I set off for the second village, Nam Doong, though Ms. Vu warned, “You’ll die halfway.”
I followed the only rugged trail linking the two villages; dry leaves cracked under my steps. In one stretch of glades, I could peek between the many tree trunks and admire white clouds and see mountain after mountain. Another time, I passed lawns full of rose myrtles with quivering young flowers.
I crawled along a narrow track between what seemed like a bottomless abyss and a topless cliff. Bubbling explosions resonated. From behind a hill, smoke spewed out — people were burning down the rain forest to prepare the field for a new crop.
This region — 350 miles to the northwest of Hanoi –still relies on slash-and-burn agriculture.
I approached Nam Doong to a chorus of goat bleats and cock crows.
A H’mong man named Hang A Pao came out to the dung-covered yard and said, “Hello.” He asked, “Where is it?” when I told him I was from Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and the nation’s largest city. Mr. Pao invited me into his home, offering me water from a soot-stained kettle. Then he went to the oil lamp at a corner, stuffing tobacco into the pipe-stopper. One moment later, smoke filled the hut, and the man indulged in delight. The sun receded behind the mountains. Dusk brought the village to its fullest animation. Following a buffalo, a boy carried a younger brother on his back and a parrot on his shoulder. A woman bent down under a bunch of firewood with a plastic can in one hand, a hoe in the other.
As I left Nam Doong, I had to climb over a communal bamboo gate. The last villager coming home from the field had knotted it too tightly.
The moon floated over the top of the trees.
I thought of the “wood ghost,” which for thousands of years was the utmost power in H’mong people’s spiritual life. A story about a gold miner dying of marsh fever, or about the many H’mong victims of cholera came to my mind. I visualized the corpses wrapped in mattresses, buried in the shallow holes right by the trail I was walking.
The fires on the field across the valleys flared up, flickering like will-o’-the-wisps.
The woods opened then closed. The moon poured mysterious moving patterns on the path. Hoots resonated from the abysses. Rattles rolled down from the hills.
I looked up at the Great Bear to keep my bearings. The starry sky was peaceful as ever.