Hiding out on the last stop in Vietnam

By Michael Tatarski   December 31, 2016 | 11:00 am PT
Trung Khanh, which sits at the fork of two roads that disappear into China, offers a quiet place to vanish for a few days.

The town of Trung Khanh is a long way from anywhere.

As the administrative center of an eponymous district, you'll find all the trappings of civilization -- moldy guesthouses, knock-off mobile phone stores, an Agribank branch -- at the intersection of two narrow district roads that disappear North into China.

Here, on one of the last stops in Vietnam, roughly 50,000 souls eke out a living in fields disrupted by stunning limestone karsts. Few outsiders ever bother to visit, save for the tourists seeking photos of the stunning Ban Gioc Waterfall, which straddles the border just 30 kilometers from Trung Khanh's central market.


The Ban Gioc Waterfall on Vietnam's border with China. Photo by VnExpress/Michael Tatarski

While far on the periphery, it somehow feels like the very heart of the country.

Vietnamese have held the line here in Cao Bang since the Bronze Age. Ho Chi Minh wintered here in a cave through the cold months of 1941, following the end of his formative years overseas.

It remains a great place to hide out.

A bus trip from Hanoi takes roughly 12 hours. Even the dusty provincial capital, Cao Bang City, is a couple hours away.

After stepping off the slow night bus, I took off on a motorbike through the web of tiny villages that surround Trung Khanh, down roads that went from asphalt to gravel to dirt.

Low-slung houses of cinderblock and wood gripped small creeks with water wheels. Yellow paddies lay fallow, their crops harvested before the onset of the dry season. Livestock scampered and lazed about: ducks, chickens, pigs, goats, mules, water buffalo, cattle and more.

At a speck on the map called Phia Siem, I stopped at the ramshackle, windowless home of a former village leader and lifelong farmer named Khon. Corn and piles of dried rice lay strewn about the room where cigarette smoke hung in the air and only a thin curtain delineated his bedroom.

Khon immediately began pouring tea into a chipped, stained tea set. After talking for a bit, he produced a bottle of home-made rice wine from thin air.


A farmer named Quy stands with his mules in a valley outside of Trung Khanh. Photo by VnExpress/Michael Tatarski

In Cao Bang, conversations that started with tea always seemed to end with booze -- even when those conversations concluded at 7:30 in the morning.

Trung Khanh’s hearty cuisine proved a decent sop for the area's liquid diet, scorching summers and deadly winters.

In the town's bustling central market, I slurped down noodles packed with duck, sausage and roast pork, a fortifying trifecta that left me feeling ready to harvest crops for 12 hours straight.

Instead, I trundled onto another bus back to Hanoi.

In the darkness I could feel us twisting along the mountainous roads of Cao Bang, and knew that come morning the stark beauty of the province’s forest-clad mountains would be replaced by the sprawl of the capital.

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