Monday, January 15, 2018

Qujing to Zhaotong: a Look at Northeast Yunnan


                                    by Jim Goodman

Qujing's reconstructed ancient gate
       Throughout the 90s I made repeated excursions to Yunnan province, fascinated everywhere I went.  By the end of the decade the only area I hadn’t visited was the northeast-- Qujing and Zhaotong prefectures.  Little information was available, for neither place drew tourists in significant numbers.  Those looking for something different from the ordinary Yunnan itinerary might venture to the Colored Sand Forest or the Duoyi River area, home to the Buyi minority, both in Qujing.  Zhaotong was only a stopover for those coming to Yunnan from Sichuan or Guizhou.    
       A new highway has opened in 1999, so the journey from Kunming only took two hours.  Qujing lies on one of the broadest plains in Yunnan and is the province’s second largest city, after Kunming.  The prefecture was one of the earliest settlement zones for Han immigrants, even long before the Ming Dynasty officially sponsored migration. 
Ashima and Ahei statue
       The city was clean and well laid out, but nearly every building was new and in modern style.  No traditional neighborhood of wooden shop-houses flanked the business district, as in Yuxi and Kunming.  The residents seemed to be all Han and I spotted several old-fashioned elderly women wearing turbans, embroidered bibs, plain aprons and embroidered shoes.   Some attempt had been made to give the city a Chinese look, with traditional pavilions and bridges in the parks and the impressive recreation of the South Gate, erected in the mid-90s. 
the park at  historic Liaokuoshan
       The gate, with its massive, two-tiered tower, stood at what was then the southern city limit, in a park decorated with flower gardens and fountain and flanked by a stream.  The wall extends about 40 meters each side of the entrance, with watchtowers at each end.  At night, lights illuminated the fountain and gate.
       The main east-west street—Qilinlu—is named after the city’s mythical mascot the unicorn (qilin).  In fact, the city is more commonly referred to by residents as Qilin.  At the eastern roundabout stands a statue of the Unicorn Fairy, holding a pitcher of pouring water.  Further up, at the western roundabout, was a statue of the Sani Yi heroine Ashima, riding a horse with her brother Ahei behind, using his bow and arrow against the enemy. 
Meng Huo and Zhuge Liang toasting their agreement
       For me this was an odd statue to see, being familiar with the Sani story already.  Both figures wore the faces of grim and resolute determination, very much in the old socialist-realist style. According to the myth, the two were actually fleeing in terror from a demon chief who had tried to abduct Ashima.  He subsequently used his magic power to thrust up the stone pillars of the Stone Forest and then sent a flood through it to drown her and her brother.  And anyway, that all happened in an area far from Qujing and no Sani Yi lived in the prefecture. 
       While its connections to the famous Sani myth are suspect, Qujing historically was the site of two important events in Chinese history, both taking place in Baishijiang, just north of the city.  In the 3rd century Three Kingdoms wars, upon the death of the western state of Shu Han’s leader Liu Bei in 223, revolts broke out in Nanzhong, corresponding to today’s southern Sichuan and most of Yunnan.  Shu Han’s chancellor Zhuge Liang, led his Southern Expedition to quell the revolt, but in a manner that would win the hearts and minds of the people.
Duoyihe RIver and village
Buyi girl near Duoyihe
       His final opponent was the popular tribal leader Meng Huo.  According to legend, and the 14th century Three Kingdoms novel, six times Zhuge Liang captured Meng Huo, but when the latter refused to admit defeat, he let him go and try again.  On the seventh capture Meng Huo submitted.  The victor offered him palatable terms.  Meng Huo acknowledged Shu Han’s sovereignty and agreed to send regular tribute.  In return, he remained in charge of internal affairs.  This was the forerunner to the modern policy of autonomous areas in areas dominated by non-Han peoples.
Jinji Peaks in Luoping County
       A broad stone relief sculpture of the event stands at Baishijiang today.  The central panel depicts Zhuge Liang and Menghuo toasting their agreement.  Other panels render scenes of Shu Han troops, bull fights and other Yi customs.
       Over a millennium later, the Ming Dynasty launched a campaign in 1381 to expel the remnant Yuan Dynasty forces from Yunnan, their last refuge in China.  Dispatching 300,000 Han and Hui troops against the Mongol and local Hui forces, the final battle in January 1382 took place on the same field at Baishijiang.   The Ming side annihilated its opponents.  The last Yuan survivors held out briefly at Liaokuoshan, a wooded hill that is  now the city’s largest and finest park, outside the southwest corner of the city, for just a few days longer. That was the end of Yuan resistance and the hill’s name translates as Peak of Victory.
Jiulong Waterfalls, Luoping Coiunty
       No memorial of any kind exists around Baishijiang commemorating this event, which marked the final triumph of the Ming Dynasty over all of China.  Two relics of earlier periods, however, in the form of inscribed stone steles, stand in pavilions in the courtyard of the No. 1 Middle School.  The earlier, dated 404, is famed for its calligraphy, supposedly a transition from the ancient style to the contemporary.  The other, erected by the King of Dali in 937, records details of the state’s eastern expedition and lists its tribal allies.
Qianfota, Luliang
       Among its natural features, Qujing Prefecture is the site of the origin of the Pearl River, 47 km north of the capital in Luyi County.  The source is a spring, the waters directed into the Huashan reservoir.  It wasn’t very impressive, but other places in the prefecture, particularly Luoping County in the southeast, certainly are.  The most extensive scenic area is near the junction of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces, marked by steep limestone mountains, with one range named the Sea of Ten Thousand Forested Peaks.  The lovely Duoyi River valley lies near here, with its numerous water-wheels and friendly Buyi ethnic minority and the Lubu artificial lake, created by filling in a gorge.
       About 12 km east of Luoping is the county’s most famous natural attraction—the Jinji Peaks, a broad cluster of small hills dotting the plain south of the highway.  They are not very tall, averaging 200 meters, nor irregular in shape.  But spaced close to each other over a wide and utterly flat plain they make an appealing sight, especially in February and March when the canola flowers (also called rapeseed flowers) carpet the plain in bright yellow.  Hordes of tourists show up to photograph the landscape.  
central Zhaotong, 1999
       After another 20 km or so the highway comes to a junction turning north.  After a route through pleasant rural scenery several km this branch road terminates at Jiulong Waterfalls, the widest and most visited falls in the province.  The cataracts spill over two broad ledges about 8-10 meters high and perhaps 20 meters apart.  Forested hills provide the backdrop.
       A different kind of mountain attraction exists west of Luoping, in Shizong County.  Lying 30 km from the county seat, it’s called Mushroom Mountain after the abundance of edible mushrooms growing there, especially in rainy season.  In the center of Shizong itself stands the White Pagoda, with nine tiers and a column of dark, arched windows on each of its eight sides.  In the western suburbs lies the Xihua Temple, a large complex of buildings originally constructed in 1610.
traditional-style Han in Zhaotong
Miao herbal doctor in Zhaotong
       The next city west, Luliang, had some quiet, old-style neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and wooden shop-houses back then. In the southern suburbs is the Dajiao Temple, a Ming Dynasty compound erected four years after Shizong's Xihuasi.  The temple itself is a modestly decorated building.  But the compound contains one of Yunnan's most interesting pagodas--the Thousand Buddha Pagoda (Qianfota).   Seven stories tall on a hexagonal base and pale yellow-white in color, the pagoda gets its name because of the thousand square niches on its exterior walls, each of them containing a small Buddha image.
Zhaotong old town, 1999
       To get to Zhaotong from Qujing I traveled via Weining in Guizhou, with a stop at Xuanwei en route.  Lishan, at 2678 meters the highest mountain in Qujing Prefecture, towers just north of the city.  Xuanwei was famous for its ham, but not interesting otherwise.  Neither was Weining and its cement buildings and much of it under construction.   Weining is a Yi, Hui and Miao Autonomous County, but I didn’t see anyone dressed in clothing associated with any of the three, neither in the city nor on the road out to Zhaotong next day.
       After the boring streets of Xuanwei and Weining, I found Zhaotong a pleasant city.  At that time the southern and western quarters were all modernized, but traditional architecture, markets and lifestyle still dominated the northern and eastern quarters.  The city had a strong Hui presence, indicated by the mosque standing above the neighborhood houses at the southeast entrance to the city.  A tall sculpture of a black-necked crane, the city mascot, stood on a pedestal near the man bus station.
basket shop in the old town
       The former old town, little of which remains, comprised wooden shop-houses down narrow lanes, brick and tile private dwellings, shops selling the whole range of split bamboo handicrafts, from furniture to winnowing trays, or ceramic vessels.  Though the buildings lacked the carved embellishments once replete in Kunming's old town, they did create a setting of Old China.  Traffic was largely pedestrian, plus some three-wheeled pedicabs with bright yellow frames and fenders.  The traditional feel of the area was augmented by the old-fashioned clothing style favored by the older generations of the Han--women in big turbans, side-fastened jackets and long aprons; men in ankle-length, side-fastened coats, slit on the sides, with long wispy beards on their chins.  They were the only ones in town dressed in traditional style, save for a few Miao women marketing herbal medicines and Hui women in white headscarves.
old houses in Zhaotong,1999
       The old town and new city meet in the north at the Qingguanting Park.  Just inside the entrance is the modest but attractive Qingguan Pavilion, of gray brick and red wood, beside a big tree next to a small pond.  It was built in 1809 and is the one  major historical structure extant in the city.  A stream from this pond passes into an adjacent park under an arched bridge to a larger pond, with a long pavilion and rest-house beside it. 
       Most of the prefecture’s population is Han, both in the towns and the countryside.  Besides the Hui in the towns and in some plains villages, the more mountainous districts are home to Yi and Miao.  They are not as colorful as their counterparts elsewhere in the province and have assimilated much to modern Han culture.  Most Miao and some Yi became Christian after vigorous American missionary efforts in the Nationalist period.  Coincidentally, at that time the province was under the control of Long Yun, a Yi warlord born in Zhaotong.
Qingguan Pavilion, Shaotong
       North of the city the mountains rise quite steeply.  Having time for but one excursion I opted for Daguan, 63 km north.  But that was the year new roads were under construction all over Yunnan and the normal route to Daguan was closed.  My ride instead was a long bumpy, 170 km detour via Yilong Country, then east and north again and finally, 12 hours later, I arrived in Daguan.  The city is on a spur beside a river, but 300 steep meters above it.  No parks or old quarter existed, but the location was superb, backed by high mountains, the slopes studded with Miao villages.
       The reason to be in Daguan was to see the Huanglian Falls, several km south of the town and a wonderful morning walk with views of steep, majestic, jagged mountains all around.  Paths in the park led in several directions among the different cataracts.  A few of these tumble from high precipices.  Others seem to have been artificially directed, like the one that passes over a ledge where one can walk and see the waterfall from the inside.  Another path leads to a cave with three elephant statues at the entrance and illuminated stalactites within.  One path leads to a viewpoint high above the cataracts, while another branches off to the Miao villages.  The area is thickly forested and full of flowers in the spring.
terrcaed cataract of Huanlian falls
Huanglian Falls and its forest
     
Following this pleasure I took an overnight bus back to Kunming, over the same slow, grueling detour.  Our early morning stop was somewhere in northern Qujing Prefecture.  Before me stretched a landscape of relatively barren auburn hills and rich reddish soil freshly plowed in the nearest fields.  It was not the best place to see this Yunnan phenomenon, yet a reminder of other attractions in northeast Yunnan.  There were still scenic spots and ethnic minority districts I had not yet visited.  As with every other part of Yunnan, a first look just provoked ambitions to see more.

red soil landscape in northwest Qujing
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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ethnic Territory—the Honghe Borderlands


                                    by Jim Goodman

Flowery Miao stall in Mengla
       Yunnan can boast of a great range of scenic wonders, but its unique ethnic diversity inspired my own extensive exploration.  The province is home to 24 ethnic minorities, comprising one-third of the population and occupying two-thirds of the land.  Some of then consist of two dozen or more separate sub-groups, with their own distinctive clothing and customs.  An aspiring ethnologist in Yunnan could never run out of places to go, people to meet and cultures to record.
       The fact that many of the ethnic minorities live in areas of great natural beauty was just a bonus.  The appreciation of scenery depends on weather conditions, with sunny skies critically important; not so when the focus is on ethnic minority encounters.  One can have a memorable time among them even when clouds obscure the mountains, fog envelops the valleys and sunlight fails to illuminate the landscape.  This is especially true where ethnic traditions remain strong and the women still dress in their traditional clothing.
Hai  with shoulder board, Jinshuihe
Sha Yao in the Jinshuihe market 
       The greatest ethnic variety is in Honghe, a Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture.  Yi sub-groups are present all over the prefecture, while numerous Hani sub-groups mainly reside in the southern counties.  Honghe’s minorities also include different kinds of Miao, Yao, Dai, Zhuang and Lahu.  Together they dominate the mountainous counties south of the Red River—Honghe, Luchun, Yuanyang and Jinping.  Here the Han are the minority, basically restricted to urban centers, along with some Hui.
       Of the southern counties, Jinping is a Miao, Yao and Dai Autonomous County.  Together they outnumber the Hani and Yi, though Jinping has plenty of Hani and Yi villages as well.  On market day in Jinping city the local Hani are as numerous as the Yao.  The women wear loose, side-fastened dark jackets over trousers and coil their hair on their heads in a braid that is lengthened by the addition of black woolen yarn.  They also show up at market day in Adebo, north of Jinping, but rarely at markets south of Jinping,
Flowery Miao girl in Jinshuihe
White Miao girl, Jinshuihe
       Market days in the county are fixed according to the 12-day animal cycle, held every sic days.  Ethnic minorities form the overwhelming majority of participants and so to observe, photograph and meet them the easiest program is to follow the market day schedule.  Having witnessed the action in Jinping, which holds it on horse and rat days, the next day, sheep or ox day, the venue was Jinshuihe, 25 km south of Jinping.   Mengla holds it the following days—monkey and tiger days.  Next, on rabbit and chicken days, it is the turn of Sanguocun, about halfway between Mengla and Zhemi, while the latter stages it dragon and dog days.
Guozuo Hani in the Mengla market
Dai Lu young women in Mengla
       Jinshuihe, which local people more often refer to as Nafa, is a small border town of basically two long streets.  Tropical shade trees—banyans and royal palms—line the upper street, which starts at a riverbank and ends by meeting the lower street at a roundabout with lotus-shaped street lamps.  A street branches here to the bridge on the Laomeng River and the international boundary.  Only a border post stands on the Vietnamese side, backed by hills, with villages barely visible in the distance.
bathing pool at the Xinmeng hot springs
       Not much cross-border trade happens here, so Jinshuihe is ordinarily a sleepy and boring town.  But on market days the lower street and the plaza at the western end fill with stalls and ethnic minorities from the district and even from Vietnam.  When I witnessed it, Yao, Miao and Hani sub-groups made up the bulk of those in attendance, most of them women and all the females, young and old, dressed in traditional attire.
       Among the Yao, some were from the Hongtou (Red Head) Yao prominent in Jingping, selling cloth as they did the day before in jinping’s market day.  Their name comes from the pointed red cap married women wear. They also wear long-tailed coats and shin-length trousers that they heavily embroider with cross-stitched patterns.   A few others were Landian Yao, who dress mainly in plain black, with a skein of magenta woolen thread suspended vertically along the front of the jacket.
 
Guozuo Hani  village above Xinmeng
     
The largest contingent was the Sha Yao sub-group, who live in villages in the hills between Jinping and Jinshuihe and over the border in Vietnam.  Their women wear black jackets and trousers and a skein of pink woolen thread down the front, but also long white aprons and a bulky cap with a bill and pink trimming.  Silver neck rings and arrow earrings, like those of the other Yao, were the most popular ornaments.  Unlike the Miao and Hani, who often wandered the market alone, the Sha Yao walked around in groups of four to eight. 
       Two Miao sub-groups turned up.  Flowery Miao women dressed in bulky, pleated, indigo-dyed skirts, the lower half covered in bright red or orange embroidery and appliqué and V-neck black jackets.  The White Miao wore nothing white, but long black coats and black trousers.  The coat lapels were heavily embroidered, as were their caps.  Besides the vegetable displays, the Miao took most interest in stalls selling thread and Miao clothing components.  Miao men also wore their traditional black jackets and blue trousers
Hani woman spinning thread in Sanguocun
Laowo  Yi woman in Sanguocun
       A few Hani from Jinping came down to run stalls, but most were from the Guozuo sub-group prominent around Jinshuihe and Mengla.  The women and girls wore long blue-black coats, fastened on the right side, shin-length trousers and leg wrappers.  Patches of embroidery and silver studs decorated the jacket along the lapel and above the left breast.  The headgear consisted of three red rattan strips across the front, pink tassels dangling on each side, colored cloth strips across the top and a black flap over the back, festooned with buttons or silver threads.  Many of them carried pack-baskets attached to a wooden shoulder board to more evenly distribute the weight.
Hani women in Sanguocun
       The crowds began dissipating after one p.m. and I headed west for Mengla, a much larger town of mainly White Dai, on the north side of the Laomeng River, in a broad plain with several Dai villages around it.  Market day began early next morning, attended by Hongtou and Sha Yao, White and Flowery Miao, Guozuo Hani and a few down for the day from Jinping and, of course, the Dai.
       Most of the latter around Mengla are White Dai and animist.  Their women wear plain black sarongs and long-sleeved blouses, in dark colors for the older women and bright ones for the younger, with twin rows of silver clasps down the front.  They live in villages of stilted wood and bamboo houses with thatched roofs with one area reserved for their simple ancestral altars.
Landian Yao woman, Saguocun
Kucong woman in the Zhemi market
       They are not the only Dai in the area, though, for a few km across the river, around the hot springs near Xinmeng, lie a few villages of Dai Lu, immigrants from Xishuangbanna.  They live in the same kind of houses, though many had been replaced by concrete modern structures when I visited, and are Buddhist.  Young Dai Lu girls in matching blouses and sarongs, in bright colors, wearing flower wreaths in their hair, stood out as an extra, unexpected attraction of Mengla’s market day. 
Kucong village near Zhei
       Following the market activity I opted for a night at the hot springs in a ramshackle guesthouse, close to the main bathing pool.  “Come here in mid-afternoon,” the proprietor told me, ‘and you’ll see women bathing without any tops.’  The pool measures about 60 m circumference, surrounded by concrete walkways.  The hot spring sits just above it, enclosed by a stone wall, its water bubbling over it into the meter-deep pool, rendering the water comfortably warm, never too hot.
       It began filling up with bathers right on schedule and yes, many females bathed topless—those over 60 and under 6.  This was the most popular pool, though other smaller ones existed in the vicinity, as well as brick bathhouses.  The main Dai village lay a short walk away from the biggest pool and a trail from there ascended into the hills, passing water-filled terraces, to reach the Guozuo Hani village of Tawmazhai.  Stilted houses of wood and bamboo prevailed, very similar to those of the Dai in the plains and very unlike the ‘mushroom houses’ of the Hani in Yuanyang County, though their dialect, lifestyle, customs and festival schedule were the same.
       Early next morning I caught a minibus headed west for Zhemi, which would hold its market the following day.  About halfway there, at a village called Sanguo, the vehicle had to stop for a couple hours to offload a passenger’s merchandise, probably for what turned out to be market day in Sanguo.  I found this scene just as colorful as other county market days.  The Yao here were of the black-clad Landian sub-group and the Flowery Miao of the same branch I saw in Mengla.  They differed from those in Nafa by their side-fastened black jackets with wide rows of embroidered strips along the lapel and around the upper arms and neck, plus the plain black tubular turbans.
White Dai village near Zhemi
Alu Yi girl in Zhemi
       The Hani were of a different sub-group.  The women wore a shorter, side-fastened, indigo-dyed cotton jacket over plain trousers and leg warmers, with two Yao-style silver buckles.  The lapel was lined with colored strips and coin-pendants and most women also sewed a large silver French colonial piaster over the left breast.  Many Hani women spun thread while they roamed the market or ran stalls.  Hani houses on the edge of the village had dyed yarn hanging out to dry in their yards.
       The Laowo branch of the Yi were also present.  Their women wore long black coats trimmed with colored strips and a big black turban embellished with very large colored pompoms on either side.  This sub-group also lives in Laomeng district to the northwest, where they dress in brighter colors.
Shangpinghe Yao village
       As a town, my next stop Zhemi, was not very pretty, for all the buildings were newly made concrete structures.  But the area was attractive, surrounded by hills and old-fashioned White Dai villages nearby.  Zhemi is a Lahu Autonomous District, for the main community here is the Kucong branch of the Lahu.  Looking south from a hill above Zhemi I could spot Kucong villages, lying in cleared areas of forested knolls, about 40-50 houses per settlement, single story, mud-brick, with corrugated iron roofs.  Houses lined up almost like military barracks, in neat rows, spaced evenly apart.
       Though they are the most numerous ethnic minority in the district, they were the smallest group coming for market day.  The women wore long black, shin-length, right side-fastened coats, usually with multi-colored striped sleeves, over plain trousers and a tight cap liberally festooned with colored pompoms.  The outfit closely resembled that worn by Lahu women over the border in Mường Tè, Vietnam though very different from that of the Kucong in Xishuangbanna or Laos.
       Others in town for the affair included local White Dai, the Alu Yi from the mountains northeast, the Goho Hani, the same sub-group living around Huangcaoling, directly north in Yuanyang County, and the Landian Yao.  The Alu, running layouts selling vegetables jungle herbs and edible insects, were quite shy, as they were in Laojizhai, their main concentration.  The Hani, managing cloth stalls and selling bundles of split bamboo and palm fiber, were more ready to engage with the stranger and seemed to be the most self-assured people in the market.  In the end, it was another memorably colorful day in an otherwise nondescript town.
sunrise near Pinghe
      The last stop on my borderlands run was Pinghe about 25 km west, inside Luchun County.  The road follows the river alongside Zhemi until it crosses the county boundary and veers into the mountains.  The small town of Pinghe lies on the western end of a long ridge, not very attractive itself and offering only the most basic accommodations.  The original Hani village is adjacent to its northeast side and the women wear the same outfits as the Hani in Zhemi or Huangcaoling.  The immediate area, and especially the mountains to the north, features the spectacular ancient irrigated terraces sculpted all along the sides of the mountain slopes, equally impressive as the area around Panzihua in Yuanyang County that was recently declared a World Heritage Site.
       Above a picturesque set of terraces 4 km west is the Landian Yao village of Shangpinghe.  Unlike the simpler mud-brick, thatched homes of the Landian Yao elsewhere, the homes here were sturdy, two story hillside buildings with flat roofs.  Male and female Yao were both dressed in traditional style when I visited and as they rarely saw foreigners, if ever, they proved to be quite hospitable and cooperative.  Invited for a meal, I sat with the household head, while the others ate separately, the usual Yao custom.  They were easy to photograph, even volunteered to pose, and the day is still lodged in my memory as another typically interesting and congenial adventure in the borderlands of Honghe Prefecture.
Landian Yao men at Shangpinghe
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Jinping is a major stop; on Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical tour of Yunnan’s Honghe Prefecture.  See the itinerary at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/honghe-prefecture      

   
      
      
      
      

       

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Getting to Know Bắc Hà


                                                                  by Jim Goodman

Hmông handicrafts stalls in Bắc Hà, 2000
       Around the turn of the century, when Sapa had already established itself for several years as the leading destination in the mountains of northern Vietnam, Bc Hà was basically a sideshow.  Tour company posters advertised it as a ‘non-touristic destination’.  They basically touted it not as a separate area worth exploration, but as a particular event—the colorful Sunday market.  Buses packed with tourists left Sapa early Sunday morning for the 100-km ride and arrived just as the market was getting into full swing.  They left mid-afternoon for Lào Cai and an overnight train ride back to Hanoi.
Bắc Hà in 2000
       Having spent several days in Sapa on my first trip to Vietnam December 1999, on the next journey a couple months later, entering the country from China at Lào Cai, I made Bc Hà my first destination. .  Nestled in an 800-meter high valley, with modest mountains on all horizons, it is not as spectacularly sited as Sapa.  Nor does it have near as many guesthouses and restaurants.  No park exists in town, but the hilltop behind the market provides good views of the surrounding scenery. 
       The town then was rather small and quiet.  Most residents were ethnic Vietnamese (Kình), but the Hmông Hoa, who comprise 65% of the district’s population, live in the suburbs and nearby villages.  Villages of the Tày and Phù Lá minorities are within hiking distance, while the Dao live further away.  The ’downtown’ area, such as it was, featured buildings in the Franco-Vietnamese style, with a small Buddhist temple roughly in the center, opposite a colonial-era clock tower.
Hmông girls in Bắc Hà
Hmông girl in the Sunday market, 2000
       I arrived on an early bus from Lào Cai over an hour before the first tourists from Sapa.  Folks were already setting up stalls on the streets and mountain dwellers were arriving from several directions, mostly Hmông, but also some members of the Dao, Tày and Phù Lá ethnic minorities.  Just from their apparel, this was a very different scene than Sapa’s Saturday market.  The Hmông and the Dao also dominate Sapa, but their female counterparts in Bc Hà belong to different sub-groups and women  dress in completely different outfits. 
a busy Bắc Hà lane on market day, 2000
     
The Black Hmông of Sapa are called thus because the dominant color of their clothing components—jacket, cap, shirt, leggings and shorts—is black.  The women of the Flowery Hmông  (as it translates) don bulky, ankle-length, patterned blue skirts, lavishly embroidered and appliquéd, bright jackets, belts, leggings and aprons.  They embellish their outfits with heavy silver neck rings, chunky finger rings and necklaces and big round earrings.
       The Red Dao women around Sapa wear highly embroidered trousers and long-tailed jackets with bright red caps or turbans on the heads.  The Dao of Bc Hà are also a Red Dao sub-group, but wear outfits dominated by plain black, with no embroidery, with a wide vertical band of silver studs on the front of the jacket, colorful tassels attached at the bottom, and a round, mostly red-striped turban on the head.
young Red Dao woman
Red Dao women in Bắc Hà
       The Tày women dress in long black jackets and trousers, while the Phù Lá women wear a light or dark blue, side-fastened jacket, occasionally with a heavily embroidered bib over the front.  They are relatively few in the crowd, which is dominated by Hmông women as soon as they start to arrive.  Older women lead heavily laden ponies.  Young women carry woven pack baskets of split bamboo.  Some lead dogs on leashes.  Others bear pigs wrapped in a split bamboo harness and carried in the pack basket.  These they sell in the square at the end of the market street, while others set up stalls all along the way. 
group gardening in Bản Phố village
       By the time the tourist groups show up the streets are packed.  In 2000, though, the other notable difference from the Sapa market scene was the interaction between foreigners and locals.  Sapa’s Hmông and Dao women and girls were already the most aggressive souvenir and handicraft sellers one could encounter in Vietnam.  Bc Hà’s Hmông all but ignored the foreigners.  The handicraft and jewelry stalls they set up were for other Hmông and nobody pestered a foreigner to buy anything at all.  They just smiled for the photographs.
Hoàng A Tưởng Palace
       As for the tourists, they rarely initiated any interaction with the locals, except maybe to ask if it was OK to take a picture.  They stayed in their groups and all departed around 3, just as the market was winding down.  Only two other visitors stayed the night and we hiked together to the nearest hill for a view of the valley and the sunset.  But they left early next morning and for that day I was the only stranger in town.
       The nearest minority settlement is the Hmông village of Phố, 4 km up the mountain behind Bắc Hà. Not all the Hmông of Bác Hà live in big villages.  The path passes by hamlets of a handful of houses and occasionally a lone household off by itself next to newly cleared land.  The houses are sturdy, roomy, wooden structures of usually one story, with roofs of thatch or wood tiles.  Besides rice, corn and vegetables, they also raise ponies for transport and pigs and dogs for the market.
Hmông weaver at Hoàng A Tưỡng Palace 
       In the 90s the Hmômg began cultivating plums and other fruits in hillside orchards.  This brought them prosperity not yet experienced in Sapa, despite the tourist income there.  Bc Hà plums are now highly prized and locally eaten with salt, black pepper and chili.  The Bc Hà Hmông then lived in better houses, looked healthier and cleaner and their women had several sets of clothes.  They smiled politely when I passed by, invited me for tea when I stopped to photograph collective gardening and no one offered me anything for sale.
       I pressed on to other destinations next day and as years passed my research took me elsewhere in Vietnam.  But I kept hearing about changes in both Sapa and Bc Hà from friends in the motorcycle touring business.  The biggest change in Bc Hà came in 2006 with the opening of the renovated Hoàng A Tưởng Palace.  Now the town had a distinct historical relic of its own.
Tày woman and child
Tày woman, Bản Liền
       The palace sits on a mound one kilometer from the town center and dates its construction to 1914-1921.  The French colonialists appointed a local Tày chieftain, Hoàng Yến Chao, as ruler of the area and conscripted French and Chinese architects to design his palace.  The result was a very baroque combination of French and Oriental styles, occupying 4000 square meters, two stories high, mostly yellow walls, arched entries and a railed balcony, offering a view of the town and surroundings. 
painted rafters of a Tày house in Bản Liền
       The palace compound comprises the former residential palace, occupying 420 square meters, and subsidiary buildings on its wings.  These used to house a military detachment, but now the ground floor rooms are used to display local art works and Hmông handicrafts.  The upper floor rooms, of both the wings and the main house, were for private use and today hold furniture and old photographs.
       The palace was one of three the French commissioned for their allies in the northern hills.  The others were near Đồng Văn, Hà Giang, for the Hmông chieftain, and Mường Lay, Lai Châu, for the Thái chieftain.  So long as they kept the frontiers peaceful, these chieftains could rule without interference.  And in the case of Hoàng Yến Chao and his son and successor Hoàng A Tưởng, this meant unchecked exploitation of the people under their rule, as well as economic monopolies on all essentials of trade.
Tày stilted house in Trung Đô
       When the Việt Minh began seizing control of the northern mountains, Hoàng A Tưởng fled and subsequently disappeared from the history books.  The palace fell into disuse and disrepair until its 2006 restoration.  Now it is the most popular attraction in town after the Sunday market.  And there is no admission charge.
       By 2017, on my return to Bắc Hà, the nature of the Sunday market had come to resemble that in Sapa in the past.  Tourism has grown exponentially this century and nowadays foreigners may even outnumber locals in Bắc Hà on Sundays.  A much larger part of the market consists of souvenir handicrafts stalls, usually run by Vietnamese rather than Hmông, while the latter badger tourists in the lanes to buy whatever they are carrying.  In return, the tourists are more inclined to very intrusive photography, zeroing in for repeated close-ups of every lady with a wrinkled face and lots of silver jewelry.
       But they don’t all leave afterwards.  The district’s additional attractions, its ethnic mix and other market days, have recently inspired more travelers to schedule a longer stay.  The number of hotels is still small, but it’s still a very laid back town, without the plethora of handicraft shops and sellers that characterizes Sapa.  Visitors can take treks of two to four days in the mountains and see and stay in villages of the Hmông, Dao and Tày.  They can also opt for a home-stay visit to a single Hmông, Tày or Dao village.

planting rice in Trung Đô
     
One such Tày village is Bản Liền, 23 km southeast of Bắc Hà, lying in a valley backed by forested hills.  The Tày are Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority.  They are not colorful dressers, preferring plain black jackets and trousers, with a bit of blue trim on the jacket lapel and a blue belt for the women.  Yet they are still very traditional.  All Bản Liền families live in stilted wooden houses with angled roofs of thatch or tiles.  The rooms are spacious but sparsely furnished.  The rafters supporting the roof interior often feature painted designs of flowers, birds, butterflies, arabesques and other symbols.  They follow a kind of Buddhism mixed with animist practices, such as making caps for their babies with special protective medallions.
       Another popular Tày village is Trung Đô, about 15 km south of Bắc Hà, entered via a tree-lined road until the rice fields before the village.  A little larger than Bản Liền, with only about half the houses traditional stilted ones, it also features a fine old village temple and the remnants of the former chieftain’s residence.  Trung Đô lies close to the Chày River, where boats take passengers upriver to the market villages of Bảo Nhai and Cốc Ly.
buffalo market in Cốc Ly
       Bảo Nhai holds its weekly affair on Thursdays, in and around the covered market in the center.  Mainly Hmông, Tày and Vietnamese Kình attend, and once in a while a foreigner.  It’s rather small and caters strictly to locals, so free of the tourist-oriented products and stalls that dominate market days in Bắc Hà and, to a lesser extent, Cốc Ly.  It’s also an early riser market, which starts winding down by noon
       Market day at Cốc Ly, on the Chày River 20 km southwest of Bắc Hà, falls on Tuesdays.  The venue has two sections.  The stalls hawking the usual market goods sit on a mound on the east side of the road and the livestock market, mostly buffaloes, is in a shallow on the west side of the road.  The market stalls on the mound are mostly run by Hmông and Hmông are most of the shoppers as well. 
Hmông herbal medicine stall in Cốc Ly
       Because it’s just two days after the Bẵc Hà market day, some foreigners extend their stay to include witnessing this event--but a few dozen at most, not several hundred.  As a result, though, the market includes many stalls selling the kind of tourist souvenir handicrafts seen in Bẵc Hà now and Sapa, yet without the hard sell, pestering manners common to the other two places.  Still, other layouts are of more traditional Hmông products, from vegetables to medicinal herbs to homemade maize liquor.
       The maize liquor sold there could very well be from Bãn Phố, above Bắc Hà, which has a district-wide reputation for it.  One of their production centers is a short walk outside town, where visitors are given a tour of the processing methods and facilities and a sample of the liquor.
       North of Bắc Hà, Cán Cấu, a 20 km-ride through beautiful hills, has market day on Saturdays, drawing mostly Flowery Hmông, some Tày and hardly any foreigners.  Lùng Phìn, just 10 km north of Bắc Hà, holds its market day on Sundays, attracting Hmông and Phù Lá.  Other than the Lùng Phìn area, the easiest place to visit the Phù Lá is Chỉu Cái, a few km south of Bắc Hà.  Most houses have converted to modern style, but the females still wear the side-fastened traditional jacket, in pastel colors for the younger ones and darker shades for the older women.
Phù Lá woman in Bắc Hà, 2000 
Phù Lá woman, Chìu Cái, 2017
       In 2000 Bắc Hà’s reputation rested on the town’s market day.  The authenticity of that has eroded since then, but the result has been to find that authenticity elsewhere in the district, in far-flung market venues and remote ethnic minority villages.  For anyone looking for genuine traditional life styles, the district is worth an extended stay.
Hmông girls on the northern rim of Bắc Hà district
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       Bắc Hà is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through the northern mountains.                 See the itinerary at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/other-tour-options