Journalist and author who has worked with newspapers like La Vanguardia and the South China Morning Post. With his wife he is the owner of the PIZZA HERE chain of pizzerias in Vietnam
Landscape and culture
I used to travel because I liked being shocked by new things, and here it feels like this every day I’m surrounded by beautiful green mountains, normally covered by clouds and mist in the morning
Why did you move to Vietnam?
I loved the culture and here I met the person who’s now my wife. The first time I came here was in 2017, for four months, and I discovered something that nobody talked about: the hmong ethnic minority, who used to grow opium in the mountains of Vietnam and Laos, and I wanted to know and write about them. So I came back many times and wrote a book, The Heirs of Opium. Life in the Remote Villages of Indochina. After a year apart because of Covid, my partner and I decided to build a life together here.
Are you happy with the job opportunities in Vietnam?
If you’re a foreigner here, you don’t have many opportunities to earn a living unless you work for an international company or as an English teacher, and I wanted something different. I studied journalism but I also have experience in marketing, and I wanted to open a business and create a successful brand. So we opened a pizza restaurant, then another, and we’re doing really well. Vietnam is less formal, on a personal and business level. It is much easier to become an entrepreneur. I’m sure that if I’d started the same business in Barcelona, I’d now be living under a bridge: there are so many regulations, taxes, paper work... Here you don’t pay tax in the first year, you can try new things and if you’re not successful, you don’t lose all your money. It’s safer to invest.
What’s the best thing about living here?
l fell in love with the place in 2017, and I swore I’d come back. Hà Giang is one of the best regions in Vietnam and in South East Asia: breathtaking landscapes, high mountains, an amazing culture and history. The local ethnic minorities have a different language and culture and it almost feels like a different country. Life here is much more relaxed. I’m constantly learning something new. Before coming here, I travelled constantly because I liked being shocked by new things, and here it feels like this every day. Also, the hospitality of the locals. It’s one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, but people always try to make you feel like home.
What is your neighbourhood like?
I live in a small alley that leads to the river that splits the city in two. I’m surrounded by beautiful green mountains, normally covered by clouds and mist in the morning. The people next door don’t work much. That’s something that still shocks me. Some are retired soldiers who fought against China 40 years ago, and who live off pensions or sell honey. Others stay at home taking care of the children or growing vegetables in the backyard.
What’s the best-kept secret about the area?
Mainly that it’s not the land of folklore that travel agents sell. It’s been a land of messiahs and revolutions, of massive opium trading and smuggling. One proof of this is the hidden palace called Nha Ha Sung. The history of the family is not clear, but locals say they were the richest people a hundred years ago. The house is in typical Chinese architecture, with Ying yang roofs, wooden doors, and columns and walls where the opium flower is sculpted.
Do you plan to go back to Catalonia?
Not for know. I came to build a life here without a deadline, but you never know.
CATALANS ABROAD Ha Giang (Vietnam)
What do you consider the highlights of any brief visit for the first time?
As a tourist destination, Ha Giang basically consists of a road trip of around three to four days. The main spots are Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate, Yen Minh pine forest, Dong Van Karst Plateau, and Ma Pi Leng Pass.
And if visitors have more time or make a return visit?
I would strongly recommend them to get lost. To penetrate the lost valleys, to explore the Trump-style fence recently built all along the border with China, or villages like Pho Cao, Pho Bang, and Lung Tao, where beautiful houses were built with the money earned from opium during French colonisation.
Are there any places to avoid at all costs?
If tourists want to have a responsible impact in Ha Giang, they should consider not putting their feet in fake resorts built by big construction groups. A couple of them are Hmong Village Resort and Pa Vi. In the case of the first, built on the top of the mountain, it has been causing trouble for local people who live in the surroundings. They get all the dirty water coming from this resort and that is affecting their crops and livestock.
What do you take with you as a present from your new home when you go back to your own country?
There’s a typical drink from Ha Giang popularly called ‘Happy Water’. It’s a variety of wine made from corn, which is one of the main crops in the borderlands. Whenever you are invited to have a meal you have to drink a few shots with the host as a sign of respect. So every time I go back home I bring a bottle for my family and friends to try. Even if it has such bad taste, to be honest.
Where are the best places for visitors to stay?
The authentic homestays are run by local families in the most remote areas of the province. By sleeping there you provide extra income to these poor families and help to keep up the traditional architecture of the area as well. For example Ma Le Homestay, Nha Co Dong Van, or Bong Bang homestay.
Can you recommend a place to have lunch with friends?
Well, If you are craving a good pizza, made from scratch and with the freshest ingredients, then PIZZA HERE is your place. My wife and I started this restaurant a year and a half ago and we are proud to say we have already become a small chain. I’m always excited when I see Catalan people coming to eat with us and normally spend hours speaking with them, sharing recommendations about the area. For me, it’s like a gift.
Where would you have a special dinner for two?
It’s actually quite hard to find good food in Ha Giang city, but there is one Japanese restaurant called Sakura, which is fantastic and very romantic. The prices are a little bit high but most of the dishes are made with local ingredients. They actually have different projects to support the ethnicities and even work hard to export it to other markets like Japan (where the founder is from).
When is the best time of year to plan a visit?
The best weather is from February to April. But, in fact, every season is beautiful and different. The flowers, the crops, the people’s dress, what they eat, everything changes depending on that… Personally, I love the hard winter of the highlands, when it’s foggy and I can get a big hot bowl of soup for breakfast and warm up.
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