Mountain people

Mountain people

Luke Nguyen
15 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson


Sapa is 336 kilometres north-west of Hanoi, a 12-hour drive, or eight hours by train. It is a popular tourist destination, not just for its beautiful mountain scenery, but also its ethnic minorities, notably the Hmong, Yao, Tay, Zay and Xa Pho people. Considered descendants of the grassy highlands of Tibet and Siberia, they were once nomads, practising slash and burn agriculture, hunting and foraging, before settling into the hills of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, where they have more recently become farmers.

Sapa was claimed by the French in the late 1880s and posted as a military-run frontier town, before slowly becoming a summer holiday retreat for wealthy French people, who enjoyed its cool crisp mountain air.

We begin our journey from Hanoi train station. We have a choice of three classes: hard seats, hard sleeper or soft sleeper. It is an overnight trip, so I opt for a soft sleeper, thanks. The train leaves at 9.30 pm; by 9.45pm I realise I am absolutely famished. Then I remember that I’d packed some fresh ingredients for the next morning’s shoot. So I take out my portable gas stove, wok and chopping board, then slice up some garlic, onion, tomato, chilli and beef to do a quick, cheeky stir-fry. My oil goes into my hot wok, then the garlic, chilli and onion. Thirty seconds later, Michael, our director, lured by the enticing aromas, pokes his head in, then the whole crew is in my room, all as hungry as me.

‘Hang on a minute,’ Michael says, ‘Why don’t we film it? Luke on the train from Hanoi to Sapa cooking a simple stir-fry!’

So we quickly set up our lights and begin filming in my cramped cabin. We didn’t get permission to film or cook on the train, so we only had one shot at it. It took less than 20 minutes to complete — our quickest recipe shoot ever!

We arrive at the Vietnamese–Chinese border town of Lao Cai at 5.30 am. Eyes only half open, we are ushered onto a 30-seater bus. We make our way up the winding mountain road, through thick, magical mist. The views are breathtaking. The cascading rice paddy terraces are works of art, created by families who tend to the fields almost year round, aided by diligent buffaloes. If you are lucky enough to visit just before harvest, you’ll see lush, watery terraces of gold and green, set across layers of mountains and valleys that twinkle in the sunlight.

At 6.30 am, lined up right in front of our hotel, is a group of Red Dzao ladies selling young bamboo shoots, fresh corn, honey and wild mushrooms. They are dressed in traditional garb, which brightens up the morning with their fire engine red headpieces, and heavy silverware around their necks and wrists. Their smiles are big, real and refreshing, so I buy a bottle of honey, harvested by smoking out wild beehives high up in the trees among the mountains.

For breakfast I simply dip a freshly baked crisp hot baguette into the fine, delicate wild honey. It is incredibly light and elegant — definitely the first thing you should try in the Sapa region! After finishing almost half the bottle, I make my way to the Sapa markets, where my senses are overloaded with excitement. Walking down the cobbled stair entrance, I’m instantly hit with the fresh aromas of food being fried, chargrilled, braised or steamed, then the vibrant colours and fragrance of herbs and vegetables. I then walk through the meat and seafood section, where vendors carve, chop and slice with grace. There don’t seem to be any pungent smells; everything is just so incredibly fresh.

I notice a lady filleting some meat, but it is not as red as beef. ‘Fresh buffalo meat,’ she explains. ‘It is much leaner than beef. Locals in Sapa actually prefer it to beef, and it’s not at all tough, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ I buy a kilo from her and continue on, inspired to find another ingredient I haven’t seen or tasted before. And there it is: a strange heart-shaped pale green vegetable, called kohlrabi. It is surprisingly crunchy and succulent. The seller’s name is Anh Thu, and I decide to make her a salad using both buffalo meat and kohlrabi.

Anh Thu kindly allows us to film right in front of her stall. First I slightly pickle some kohlrabi and carrot with sugar and white vinegar. Then I slice the buffalo meat as thinly as I can, as I want to cook it really quickly in a hot wok with some oil and garlic. As the super-hot wok begins to smoke, I add the buffalo and my wok lights up in a tall flame. The whole market seems to stop, then local ethnic groups rush over for a closer look. I add the buffalo to my salad of pickled kohlrabi, carrot, fresh mint, crispy garlic, red Asian shallots and a light fish sauce dressing. Anh Thu has a taste test, and gives the Black Hmong onlookers and me her nod of approval.

We begin chatting about their favourite Hmong dishes and they point out a stall selling only ‘black’ chicken, which is a breed of Silkie chicken, and I notice that these chickens have five toes, not four. They look very similar to the ones I saw in Hanoi that were steamed in a can, only these guys are much bigger. My Hmong friends suggest I chargrill the chicken with galangal and lemon leaf, as it will need fragrant roots and herbs to balance out its strong flavours.

I set up a tiny charcoal grill on the main street. As we begin to film, an elderly Black Hmong man approaches and asks what I’m cooking. He slurs his words and reeks of rice wine, and leans on me as he tries to stay upright. He then picks up my uncooked chicken and tries to take it. I snatch it off him and say, ‘I haven’t even cooked it yet! Why don’t you come back in 30 minutes and I’ll let you try some.’ He wanders off, so I make a marinade of galangal, shallots, fish sauce, lemongrass, lemon leaves, sesame seeds, and my leftover Sapa honey. I rub it all over the chicken and begin to chargrill it. The aromas are incredible — so much so that our drunken Hmong man returns for his promised taste!

He heads straight to the chargrill and tries to pick up the chicken, but it is way too hot to handle and he drops it — luckily onto my bench and not the ground. I finally chop up my black chicken and garnish it, and pass him a piece to try, but instead he snatches the whole plate out of my hands and walks off with it! The whole crew burst out laughing. What else could we do?

The next day, I head high up in the hills to the village of the Red Dzao people. The scenery here is spectacular. Throughout the morning a magical mist rolls in and out across tall mountains and waterfalls. I spend my day outdoors, jumping in ice-cold water to catch my own salmon, trekking up mountains to pick wild shiitake mushrooms, and then finishing the day bathing in an old wooden barrel set among old tall trees, filled with hot water and 17 medicinal herbs and plants. I absolutely adore the picturesque northern Sapa regions — the people, the culture, history, produce and, of course, the incredible food.

Bac Ha

Only nine kilometres from the Chinese border, and about a three-hour drive from Sapa, is the small township of Bac Ha. Its famous Sunday livestock and craft market draws hundreds of Hmong, Red Dzao, Flower Hmong and Zay villagers from the surrounding mountains, dressed in vivid and often intricately embroidered garb. Almost everyone walks to the market, some of them incredible distances, most accompanied by their livestock: piglets, puppies, cows, calves, ponies, ducks — you name it, you can buy it.

At 6 am, Bac Ha is already buzzing with thousands of people. It feels more like a festival or bazaar than a Sunday market. Absolutely everything is up for sale. There is a separate area for livestock, another for fruit and vegetables, another for fresh flowers, dry goods, clothing fabrics and handicrafts — and of course a food section, where vendors are cooking on extremely large charcoal-fuelled woks, filling the entire market with steam and smoke. One of the cooks tells me she is cooking a local specialty called ‘Thang co’. In response to my puzzled look, she kindly scoops a few ladles of the stuff onto a plate for me.

It has every texture imaginable. Some bits are soft, some chewy, some gelatinous, crunchy and bony. I still can’t work out what I am actually eating. ‘Well,’ she explains, ‘it’s a slow-cooked stew of horse guts, horse penis, and a medley of medicinal barks and herbs — delicious isn’t it?’

I suddenly find it extremely difficult to swallow, so I return my plate and quickly move on to another store, where I happily find the tastiest ginger chicken ever served with an unusual accompaniment of chickpea jelly, which is eaten instead of rice. Several drunken men with ruddy red faces keep offering me shots of their homemade corn wine. The first shot almost rips my throat out, burning my chest like rocket fuel. The second shot isn’t as bad, but still not pleasant. By the third, I begin to enjoy it. The fourth, well I can’t really remember…

Their wives make the potent corn wine during the week. On Sundays, while the men sell their livestock, the women are busy selling their home brew. At the end of the day, when the men sell all their livestock, they all gather together at the food stalls, eat horse penis and drink lots and lots of corn wine. But if they don’t sell all their livestock, they still all get together, eat horse penis and drink lots and lots of corn wine. When all the corn wine is polished off, the men pass out along the side of the dirt roads! The wives then track them down and physically throw them on the back of their horses and walk them home. I can’t believe the strength of these women — a hilarious and memorable thing to see.

Just outside Bac Ha village are rolling hills carpeted with green tea plantations. Two young girls in conical hats come running after me, wanting to take me around their family area. After a quick tour they pass me a small bag of dried green tea leaves. On the front is a handwritten note in English that reads: ‘Hello, this green tea is from Phong Hai town, made by my family. Can you help me? This tea only costs 20,000 VND. Merci beaucoup!’

A cute note like that is hard to resist, so I head down to the house to meet the family and pay for the tea. The girls’ parents offer me some corn wine, but there is no way I can drink any more of it. However, the father insists I try it, saying his corn wine is more refined than most, as his mother has been making it for 40 years and is the best wine distiller in town. So I take some tiny sips, and the man is right. The corn wine is actually really nice and reminds me of a premium Japanese sake. Excited and impressed I ask what makes his mother’s corn wine so different to the ones I tried at the markets. He replies, ‘You should ask her yourself; her house is not far away. She can show you how it’s done.’

He makes a quick phone call to his mum and draws me a small map. I pay for my tea and set off to find her. Our bus arrives at her village, but our grumpy driver Truong refuses to drive the bus down the narrow hilly dirt road that leads to her house. He turns off his engine and demands that we go in by motorbike. So we have no choice but to hire a few motorbikes and ride in.

The lady’s name is Xuan and she is from the Flower Hmong tribe. She has a huge smile, dark leathery skin and a great laugh. Xuan walks me into her cute mud house, which looks like a medieval hobbit house, and for once I feel tall.

I walk through her very low doorway to find a great big wooden barrel sitting on an oversized wok full of rapidly steaming water. Xuan explains that the secret to her wine lies in the fermentation of her dried corn, which takes an entire week. Xuan scoops her fermented corn into the barrel, along with cold water, turns up the fire, then allows the gases to evaporate and condense, creating the corn wine. The distilling process takes two hours, so while we wait for the wine to drip into the empty drum, I decide to make a dish for Xuan using her son’s green tea. We rustle around in her kitchen trying to find some dry ingredients and cooking equipment. I manage to find some rice, star anise, cassia bark, sugar, a wok, some foil, and a duck running around outside. And that is all I need for my dish of green tea-smoked duck.

An hour later, we finish filming the recipe just as the corn wine completes distilling. Xuan hands me a bottle of the wine and in exchange, I offer her my smoked duck dish for dinner. She takes a bite and is amazed how much smoky flavour and aroma permeates into the duck meat from such a simple recipe, which she says she will now cook often for her family. We share a glass of her fine corn wine, then we begin to pack up our filming gear.

Outside, we discover that it has been pouring with rain so hard that the dirt path to her house has turned into soft wet mud. Our motorbikes get bogged straight away, so our only option is to walk all our gear back to our bus.

We take our shoes off, roll up our pants, and endure the rain and the steep trek back. An hour later, we are almost there — only one more hill to get over. Our legs are shaking from walking in the deep mud, our arms tired from lugging heavy equipment. We almost reach the top of the hill, but it is too steep and way too slippery. One by one, we slide back down the hill, some of us losing our balance, rolling down and getting completely covered in mud. The boys carting our heavy generator cop it the worst. It takes them six goes to reach the top without rolling back down again. I feel so guilty laughing after every failed attempt, but it is just so funny watching them roll down that wet muddy hill.

Finally, completely covered in mud, we all make it back to the bus, where our bus driver Truong has the nerve to say, ‘I told you so…’

Mai Chau

Mai Chau is 160 kilometres south-west of Hanoi, and home to the White Thai people. Descendants of migratory Thai hill-tribe communities, they are also scattered through all the countries through which the Mekong River travels. I am very eager to meet them and learn about their history and culture.

Our bus ride from Bac Ha to Mai Chau is spectacular. We make our way down a narrow road that snakes around a huge mountain, passing several beautiful tall waterfalls. But suddenly our bus stops, the brakes slammed hard. In front of us are large heavy boulders that have rolled down the mountain, blocking our way.

We have endured a fair bit on our trip, so a few big rocks aren’t going to stop us now. With four to five guys to each rock, we combine our strength and manage to clear the road — all except for one boulder, which is just too big and heavy. But I’m confident that we’ve moved enough rocks to just allow the bus to squeeze through. The tough part is convincing our lovely driver, Truong.

As I measure the width of the bus with my arms, he begins to understand my plan. ‘There is no way I’m driving my bus past this rock,’ he says. ‘The bus is too wide. And it is far too slippery — can’t you see all the water on the road from the waterfall? The right wheels will slide off the side of the cliff, and then the bus will roll off, crashing 1000 metres to the bottom!’

Now I must admit, he is right about the dangerous slipperiness of the wet road, but I try to reassure him that if he drives carefully and with a steady hand, the bus could make it past, no problem. But I need the whole team’s support — so as a team, we all have words to him, and finally convince him to drive the bus through. We start walking to the other side of the rock to direct him through..

But then he shouts: ‘Where do you all think you’re going? If you want me to risk my life by driving this bus through here, then I’m going to risk all your lives too. If the bus goes down, you all go down with me — we die together. Now everyone, get back on the bus!’

Where did we find this crazy driver, I ask myself. He is a real piece of work — but he has a point. So we all hop back on the bus and sit on the left-hand side, so all our weight is away from the cliff ’s edge.

He starts the ignition and begins to drive steadily through. None of us dare to look down as we are extremely close to the drop. The right wheel is millimetres from the edge, we narrowly make it past the rock — and then he suddenly puts his foot down on the accelerator! He didn’t want to prolong the experience any longer, but we’ve made it, thank god. He pulls up in a safe place and rests his head on the steering wheel in relief. We all give him a group hug, then off we go, continuing our journey to Mai Chau.

The surrounding landscape must be seen to be believed, with emerald-green rice fields set against a backdrop of soaring mountains. Mai Chau is a stunning place to visit — but it is hot. Really hot.

We pull up to a typical wooden Thai stilt house to meet Nhe, who is going to show us his village. To deal with the intense heat, his stilt house sits two metres above the ground, supported by legs of logs and wooden beams which hold a massive open-plan interior where all of life’s activities unfold. This allows airflow and ventilation throughout the house, making it slightly cooler in the evenings. Some houses have a small partitioned sleeping room, but there are no individual rooms — just one large space where all the extended family sleep: babies, parents, siblings and grandparents.

One by one, each family member comes down the stairs to greet us, all the ladies wearing colourful tops of light green, sky blue or pink, but most of the men topless. Nhe is in his late twenties. He doesn’t speak much Vietnamese, and I don’t speak his Thai dialect, but we can communicate just fine.

I explain that I am here to discover how they live, what they like to cook and how they cook it. He nods, then fetches two long sharp machetes, hands me one, and off we go into his bamboo jungle, which is only a few hundred metres from his house. He points to where he wants me to chop, and where he is going to chop, then we both go at it. Five minutes later, we have chopped down one of the thickest bamboo trees to use as a cooking utensil.

Next we harvest fresh turmeric root, lemongrass, dill and young coconut, then proceed to his family pond where we net some beautiful fish. The water is extremely cold, but refreshing. I make a marinade with our collected ingredients, coat the fish, then place the whole fish in the bamboo. I pour young coconut juice into the bamboo, enclose the end with a banana leaf, then grill the bamboo on an open fire for half an hour. It grills and steams at the same time. I am so excited by this organic, rustic way of cooking. All of the ingredients are from the land, nothing has been purchased, and everything is available from his village — total self-sufficiency!

While the fish is cooking, we head off to find jackfruit trees to pick young green ones, to make a young jackfruit salad with tofu. Nhe then suggests we pick some pomelo leaves as well to roast some suckling pig. I am like a kid in a candy store, overwhelmed with joy.

Mai Chau is a remote village, but the local White Thai people don’t need supermarkets or department stores. Everything is available to them from their land. They build their homes with bamboo or wood, they grow their own fruits, roots and vegetables, they farm their own fish, raise their own pigs, chickens and ducks, train water buffaloes to plough their rice field, and they even have their own ice-cold, pure, clean and clear spring-fed lake.

I am in awe of their totally sustainable way of living. I love Mai Chau for its rustic existence, the silence of the valley, and the simplicity and humble nature of the people who live here.

My culinary journey through Vietnam has been incredible, and I couldn’t think of a better place to finish it. The cultural pull of this country constantly draws me back. Food is my passion, but the people of this country inspire me to learn more. Resilience, sustainability and family unity are the three attributes of Vietnamese life I respect and hold close, and I am so incredibly proud to call myself a Vietnamese–Australian.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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