Finally persuaded by my friend’s appealing invitation, I decided to participate in a motorbike tour to A Lưới – the wild yet distinctive land of the Ta Ôih, K ‘tu, and Vân Kiều clans. It is a place also well-known for attractions such as Ashau, Aso, Apia and the famous “Hamburger Hill”.
 We started our journey across the Trường Sơn mountain range to A Lưới in the early morning, It is about 80 kilometres by road from Hue, but less than 60 kilometres as the crow flies. On the route along Highway 49, our group stopped at Tuần Bridge (also known as Paul Bridge, in memory of the French officer who built this bridge during the Nguyễn Dynasty) before continuing our journey on Highway 14, the second longest road in Vietnam.

Looking at the chain of mountains, I saw clumps of virgin forest as well as plantation forest; they blended together to create dark and light green streaks on nature’s beautiful carpet. Our convoy travelled slowly over Aso Pass and Cù Mông Pass (which shares its name with another famous pass in Phú Yên Province) and crossed some slopes before arriving at A Lưới. We stopped at a local market to buy some supplies for our trip into the forest, such as sandals made from caoutchouc, a kind of rubber; pieces of cloth with knots at the top and bottom to protect our lower legs from leeches, snakes, and so on; tai bèo hats (these are the green canvas hats with circular brims that were widely used by Vietnamese soldiers during the last two wars: the name comes from the crown’s six triangular segments that resemble the leaves of the water hyacinth, or  tai bèo); and finally, tobacco fibres to thwart the leeches. A Lưới welcomed us with a particularly peaceful mood of calm. It is said that more than 60% of population here is of Tà Ôih ethnicity. In addition, there are also Kinh, Pa Cô and Vân Kiều people in this area. They live very harmoniously together in A Lưới.
Generally, A Lưới is a poor and undeveloped land. Some women smoking pipes were piggybacking their children on their way to buying sundries or bringing firewood to sell in the market. They looked weathered and time-worn. According to what I was told, A Lưới by night is chilly and people here are used to sleeping with a fire in their house. They seldom use blankets at night, so smoking to warm up the body and to avoid getting bored while they work in the forest is not uncommon.

We were treated to a tasty lunch with specialties such as sour soup with stream fish and forest bamboo shoots, and grilled A Lưới beef with salt and chilli in the Gươi common house in the centre of the district. We continued towards Ashau, the site of a former US Army airfield. This base was built here, close to the border between Laos and Vietnam, to prevent Vietnamese soldiers from intruding. Not even traces of this airfield exist any longer; there are only patches of land covered with clusters of rose myrtle and red baron, dancing in the wind as if waving to greet us. Not far from Ashau, there is a stream with a chilling name: “Blood Stream.” It is said that over 40 years ago, a fierce battle occurred here, in which many people lost their lives, causing the stream to flow red with blood. Now, with the war long over, the stream flows peacefully in a brilliant afternoon. There were seven or eight ethnic minority children happily swimming in the clear water. They looked adorable. Two of our co-travellers, Mr. Martin and his wife, blew balloons for these kids. Initially they were shy, but later they became friendlier, taking the gifts from the foreigners and playing with the balloons.
The convoy carried on to A Roàng, which has a spring whose water used to be taken by military physicians for spa and medicinal use. The water is quite hot and sulphurous. Ms. Phương, one of my companions, said that you would become dizzy if you were to take a dip in this water for more than 10 minutes, because of its dense mineral concentration. After this, everyone took their turn posing with a beautiful pink confederate rose to remember the time they spent at A Roàng. We then drove directly to the border area of Nhâm. After completing all the required procedures, a soldier bowed to wish us a good trip. 10 minutes later, we got off our motorbikes and took our luggage to the Nhâm common house to join a party with the locals.
Nhâm is a village located in the border area, and the scenery is little wild. Around the village, there are some stilt houses lying along the slope of the mountains, so high that clouds drift lazily past. It looks like the scenery in an ink and wash painting. In front of their houses are old ladies, pipe-smoking women with children on their backs, and others weaving dèng, a type of brocade worn by Vân Kiều and Tà Ôih people for the AzaKoonh Festival, that is woven on simple bamboo looms. There are a lot of young children in this village because women here have babies at a very young age. Children diligently crush the rice or cut sugarcanes to eat. Most of them are thin, weak, sunburnt and undernourished. They can pound rice, catch fish in the stream, or pick up firewood as well as the adults in the village, but studying is a blue-sky dream to them.
That evening, we sang and danced together with the locals who had slaughtered a goat for dinner, and we drank Đoác wine. Đoác is a type of plant in the local forest which has a particular liquid inside its stem, which is brought home to be fermented into wine. The night air turned cold quickly, and the fire we had lit gradually burned down. Rolling up in a warm blanket, we soon fell asleep in the primal atmosphere of these forests and mountains.
Thao Nguyen