Words and Photographs by Carlota Caldeira.
The road ahead was terrifying, so narrow that, certainly, no sane person would dare drive along it. And yet it was in this direction that Tiem turned our motorbike.
"Hang on now!"
I grabbed hold of my seat and turned to see my sister on the back of Thao’s bike, following right behind us. I could sense she was smiling, even under her black helmet. The road kept withering down until all that remained was a thin thread of cracked concrete, dancing along the cliff. To our right a rocky wall disappeared into swirling clouds. To our left the road dropped away completely.
I’ve always had the tendency to imagine the worst case scenario. So as I glanced down, heart in my mouth, I immediately started conjuring images of our motorbike tumbling into the green abyss. But the thought was fleeting, for the beauty of that alien landscape was all I could contemplate. It left me speechless, filled with awe. I opened my helmet’s visor, allowing the wind to wash across my face as I took it all in - the pure mountainous air, the stream of clouds moving above us and the endless intoxicating green of it all.
Tiem - born and raised amongst those dramatic roads - drove confidently, intimately aware of the intertwining paths. “Almost there," I heard him say, his soft young voice blending with the wind.
We finally came up to a high cluster of black boulders. A couple were slowly making their way down with a guide, awkwardly grabbing hold of the rocks as they attempted to descend.
“There is the Lion King rock,” said Tiem with a shy smile, as we parked the bikes.
Amongst the cluster was a slightly triangular rock, reaching out, a suspended arm above the void. I looked at my sister, wide-eyed. “Are we supposed to climb this thing?”
Tiem noticed my nervousness. “You don’t have to go, of course. Many guys do but, actually, only one girl I know has been up there so far.”
Just like that, my competitive mind switched on. "Well, that does it then, this girl can’t be the only one!”
We were looking up, observing the couple still making their way to safe-ground, when I heard steps on the gravel. With flowery striped neon clothes, the Hmong girl was like a dot of red and yellow painted on to that melange of greens. She was carrying a collection of leaves that could have almost swallowed her whole. She was perhaps 10 years old, though her face was strained, a harshness stealing her childlike features. As she sat down by the cliff, next to a young boy with the same rigid look, her brother perhaps, I noticed a bandage on her finger, touched with blood red. She didn’t seem to pay attention to it though, nor did she appear to acknowledge the scene before her as she chatted away - this etherial setting a simple backdrop, part of her everyday.
Watching her, it dawned on me. I was here as a passenger, an outsider, someone who would never truly understand what it is like to live in their world. What would it have been like if I had been born amongst these green mountains? I would grow up by the abyss of those massive cliffs, undaunted by heights, trusting the natural structures of my universe. Maybe I would pass hours waiting out by the roads, reaching out my hand to passing riders in hope of a high-five, wearing the most genuine of smiles. Work would no doubt dominate my days, walking along those winding roads built by the sweat of my ancestors. Maybe I too would not always notice those vast mountains or the bruises around my hands.
I looked at my sister. There we were, at the last frontier of Vietnam, with China creeping up before us. The clouds kept rolling on, the wind softly howling, dancing its way around the rocks. The mountains were alive, vivid and entrancing. I took a breath of cold air, now somehow heavier, and gazed up ahead.
“Alright, let’s do this then”.