In the northern countryside of Vietnam, close to the border with China and high up in the mountains there is a road that feels like a scene from a fairytale. It’s the Ma Pi Leng Pass in the Ha Giang province, and we reached it one morning just as clouds and fog were breaking.
Ma Pi Leng Pass wasn’t listed in our travel itinerary as a destination. We had already driven up to another place called “Heaven’s Gate” and climbed hundreds of steps to the top of a tower to look across the mountains toward China. Our guide told us crossing the pass would be beautiful but I didn’t expect it to be the best of all the scenery. Arriving at the pass felt like driving up to the edge of the world. The road was windy, narrow and bumpy, but we had a good driver and guide to navigate our travel through the Ha Giang province and over the pass. I could see a green valley in between mountain peaks with a river running through it. There was a network of tiny walking trails for villagers to get up to the main road, with small homes and family farms off in the distance.
My husband and I visited Vietnam in September. Like typical Americans, our trip was squeezed into precious vacation days from our jobs, and we spent a few days sipping Vietnamese coffee, wandering around, and people-watching in Hanoi before our whirlwind four days driving through the rural north. Those days were full of excitement, exhaustion, and meaningful encounters with strangers.
One morning while waiting out some construction that made the road impassible, we struck up a conversation with a German traveler on a motorbike. He had been driving around Vietnam for two months and had another month to go. “Time is not what you are given, it is what you take for yourself,” he said when we explained how long we had for our trip, and that our work schedules prohibited three months of adventure. While I hope to someday have more time for adventures, for now I consider it a privilege to see as much of the world as I can with limited time.
The mountain villages we explored still seemed untouched by tourists and modern conveniences (though wifi was readily available). It was common to see families farming together in their fields wearing traditional Hmong dress, and people walking along tiny mountain paths with bundles on their backs.
The people we ran into were warm, friendly and welcoming. Whether it was smiling for a photo or offering us homemade corn wine out of a jug that looked like it had previously held gasoline, we found hospitality at every turn.
One afternoon on the road I saw a family harvesting rice and asked our guide if we could stop to take photos and watch them work. A woman and toddler were standing on the outskirts of the harvest. I’m always a bit shy about approaching people and don’t want to be intrusive with my camera, but when we walked over the women was excited to meet us and she scooped up the toddler so I could take a photo as the family worked in the background.
Red and yellow signs reminding citizens to pay their taxes dotted the countryside. Vietnamese and communist flags were common sights, too, popping out in contrast to the green and brown rural landscape.
I don’t want to romanticize things in retrospect, but there’s something about Vietnam that lingers with me now, months after I’ve landed back in Seattle. It’s a funny thing about travel: it creates a discontent that’s always in the back of my mind. The more places I go, the more I want to see and experience — and yet I feel like I’m leaving little pieces of myself scattered behind on every trip. Vietnam exceeded my highest expectations. I’d give so much to go back, not to retrace my exact steps but to dig deeper into a country and a culture I had only just begun to understand.
When I’m standing above the clouds in a place like the Ma Pi Leng Pass, I have to look around and know that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wholeheartedly, intentionally embrace the spot where my feet are planted and the air that I breathe in that moment. As much as I love capturing snapshots with my camera, my shutter can’t freeze the feeling of being present in a place I know I probably won’t ever see again. It’s bittersweet and impossible to document, and the thrill of it keeps my travel bucket list always growing longer.