Sunday, July 5, 2015

Refuge and Revolution in Cao Bằng

                                                    by Jim Goodman

typical landscape in Cao Bằng province
       The northeastern border province of Cao Bng is one of the most rugged in all of Vietnam.  Mountains and forests cover 90% of its 8440 square kilometers.  Steep limestone hills 600 to 1300 meters high jut up around every little narrow valley.  Such a terrain offers people on the run many places to hide and that factor and Cao Bng’s remote location, far from both Hanoi and the nearest sizable Chinese city, combined to periodically make the province a magnet for both refugees and revolutionaries.  Historically, Cao Bng has been a sanctuary for ethnic minorities fleeing wars and civil disturbances in neighboring Guangxi province, China, for remnant forces of the Mc Dynasty after their expulsion from the capital in 1592 and, more recently, for Vit Minh cadres organizing resistance to colonialism.
       Cao Bng’s modern claim to fame is its role as the cradle of the Vit Minh, whose precursors set up bases here in the 1920s to direct insurrectionary activities throughout the northern provinces.  H Chí Minh established his first headquarters inside the country in 1941 at Pác Bó, just across the Guangxi border in the northwest, where a Party Congress later that year officially founded the Vietnam Independence League—the Viết Minh.  But Cao Bng’s role in Vietnamese history goes back a long way, to when it was a small but powerful little state of its own in the 3rd century BCE, and in fact conquered the first indigenous Vietnamese kingdom.    
Nùng woman
       This event was a consequence of the last stage of China’s turbulent Warring States Era.  Triumphant Qin armies, having beaten all their rivals, marched into the plains of Guangxi, then part of a non-Chinese state called Nan Yue.  Its ruling class fled to Cao Băng, at that time a small state called Âu Vit, ruled by a lord of the Tày ethnic group.   The Qin occupation of northern Nan Yue looked not only permanent, but threatening to expand southward.  Âu Vit’s ruler decided that his best chance of strengthening his defense was in his own expansion southward.
       His target was Văn Lang, the state covering most of the Red River Delta and its surrounding hills, ruled by the Hùng Kings, allegedly for 18 generations since its founding in the 7th century BCE.  They had a capital in the hills northwest of Hanoi and had successfully repelled several northern invasions in the past.  This time, though, the northerners from Âu Vit won.  Its king moved his capital to C Loa, near modern Hanoi, renamed himself An Dương and his expanded country Âu Lạc, a combination of Âu Việt and Lạc Việt, the traditional name for the Red River Delta lands.
        An Dương’s kingdom did not experience any trouble with the Qin state, but when that dynasty fell and its Han successors concentrated on consolidating power in central and northern China, states on the southern periphery, like Nan Yue, rose again.  Under its new king Zhao Tou, in 196 BCE Nan Yue invaded, defeated and annexed Âu Lạc.  This state lasted until conquered by the Han Emperor Wu Ti in 111 BCE.  All of northern Vietnam now fell under Chinese subjugation until the country finally regained its independence in 938 CE.
       Cao Bằng slips off the historical records for this period, reappearing in the 11th century Lý Dynasty chronicles of a revolt in the province, led by the ethnic Nùng chieftain Nùng Tồn Phúc.  Cao Bằng at the time was autonomous or anyway not directly administered by the Lý regime.  Whether it was a revolt over tribute demands or a push for independence, King Lý Thái Tông led an army to crush it.  He captured Nùng Tồn Phúc and all but one of his family, took then away to his capital Thăng Long (today’s Hanoi) for execution and formally annexed Cao Bằng.
Táy houses in Cao Bình
       The sole escapee was 14-year-old Nùng Trí Cao, who fled to join kinsmen in Guangxi and later organized a rebellion against Song Dynasty authority.  This failed and resulted in a wave of Nùng and Tày refugees into Cao Bằng.  The Nùng and Tày are ethnically related.  Their languages are both members of the Tai-Kedai linguistic family and in China they are both considered sub-groups of the Zhuang. 
       The immigrants were not interested in sedition in their new homeland, however.  And apparently Vietnamese administration was neither harsh nor resented, under the Lý regime or under their successors the Trần Dynasty.  During the three Mongol Wars of the late 13th century, Cao Bằng’s Tày and Nùng were faithful allies of the Vietnamese and were instrumental in helping to inflict heavy casualties on Mongol armies in their disastrous retreats across the northern border.
Mạc Dynasty relic in Cao Bình
       Relations did not proceed smoothly from then on, though.  Serious revolts broke out in Cao Bằng in 1352, when the Trằn Dynasty began sliding into decline, and twice in the 1430s at the beginning of the Lê Dynasty.  Less than a century later the Lê Dynasty fell to a usurper from Hảu Dương, Mác Đang Dung, who established a new dynasty that lasted until 1592.  Lê restoration forces drove Mạc defenders out of the capital that year, but did not totally defeat them.  Remnant Mạc forces fled to Cao Bằng and established a rump state in this province that enjoyed Chinese protection,
       The Lê king was officially back on the throne, but his allies fell out among themselves.  The Trịnh Lords took effective control of the government and their rivals the Nguyển Lords established themselves in northern Central Vietnam.  The two sides fought intermittent wars with each other until a truce stabilized the situation in 1672.  Meanwhile the Mạc established their capital at Cao Bình, 12 km northwest of Cao Bằng city and were strong enough in 1623 to launch a campaign against the Lê that advanced as far as Gia Lâm, across the river from the capital, before finally stopped and forced to retreat to Cao Bằng. 
bamboo rafts on the Bằng Giang River
Nùng woman in Cao Bình
       Two years later the ruling Trính Lord launched a punitive expedition into Cao Bằng, but did not try to conquer it, fearing Chinese retribution.  After the 1672 truce with the Nguyển, though, Trính Tráng could turn his attention north.  By that time the Manchus in China had already established the Qing Dynasty and were in the process of extending their authority southwards.  This led to a new wave of Tày and Nùng immigrants escaping the disruptions of the fall of the Ming Dynasty, but this augmented source of manpower for the Mạc did not help the Mạc in their final contest.     
Bản Giốc Waterfalls
       The last Mạc ruler made the mistake of backing a rebellious governor against the Qing authority.  The Qing abruptly withdrew their protection of the Mạc state.  This gave Trịnh Tráng his chance to finally settle some leftover business.  In 1677 he attacked and wiped out the Mạc state, whose ruling class fled to China, where they disappeared as a political force.  The only trace of then in Cao Bằng today is a ruined palace at the edge of Cao Bình.
       Things remained calm and stable in Cao Bằng until 1833, when the Nùng staged a revolt against Nguyển Dynasty officials that took three years to suppress.  Peace returned, but in mid-century the province experienced another wave of refugees fleeing the chaos of the Taiping Rebellion in southeast China.  Besides the usual Tày and Nùng, the immigrants included Dao and Hmông. 
one of the cataracts of the Bản Giốc Waterfalls
       The next major development in local history came with the French conquest of the province in 1884.  They built a fortress on the long peninsula between the Bằng Giang and Hiến Rivers, which grew into Cao Bằng city and became the capital at the end of the century.  From 1905 it was also a French military base, one of the four major bases in the north.  The garrison didn’t guarantee long-term French security, though. 
       Whatever differences the Tày and Nùng had had with the Vietnamese had vanished by this time   Cao Bằng’s population was united in nationalist sentiment against the French colonialists.  The province was one of the earliest centers of Communist activity and Party cadres were largely ethnic minorities.  Hồ Chí Minh’s base at Pác Bó, for example, 56̉ km northwest of Cao Bằng city, was a Nùng-inhabited area. 
water-wheel on the Quầy Sơn River
       Nowadays Pác Bó is one of the province’s domestic tourist attractions.  Visitors can see the cave and jungle hut where Hồ Chí Minh lived and worked, as well as a small museum, war memorials, etc., all in a day’s excursion from Cao Bằng city.  The route is quite scenic, especially after it climbs into the mountains, passing Tày, Nùng and Hmông villages.
       The top scenic attraction in the province, however, is in the opposite direction, 94 km northeast of Cao Bằng city—the Bản Giốc Waterfalls.  Fed by the Quầy Sơn River, which forms the border here with China, the falls are over fifty meters high and three hundred meters wide.  Since the border runs right through the center of the river, half of the falls actually lie inside China.  Unfortunately, no hotels exist on the Vietnam side, making it a rather long excursion from Cao Bằng city, though a quite pleasant one, especially the last stretch along the Quầy Sơn River with views of water-wheels against a backdrop of jagged limestone hills.   Just a few kilometers from the falls is the entrance to Ngườm Ngao Cave, a 3 km-long cavern that reaches nearly all the way to the Bản Giốc area.  
Thang Hen Lake
       In general, Cao Bằng’s scenery comprises small valleys hidden among clusters of oddly shaped hills, but it also features two attractive lakes.  Hồ Khuối Lái, the smaller one, lies 2 km off the Highway 3 route southwest of Cao Bằng city and is being developed as a resort.  The larger, 3 km by 1 km, is Hồ Thang Hen, on the road north to Trà Lĩnh, 25 km from the city.  This lake’s waters emit from a cave at the north end, visible in all except the rainiest months of the year.    
       As for the provincial capital itself, it was all but completely destroyed by the most recent disruption in Cao Bằng’s history—the 1979 Chinese invasion.  Only a handful of colonial-era buildings survived, none of them very noteworthy, in the southwest quarter.  The remains of the former fortress were taken over by the Vietnamese army and are now part of a restricted area.    
       The town has been rebuilt and enlarged since then, but the heart of it is still the strip of land between the Bằng Giang and Hiến Rivers, the currents of which flow in opposite directions.  The town now boasts a capacious, covered central market building, one of the largest in the country.  But the original Green Market (Chợ Xanh), along the Bằng Giang River near the bridge, is still popular, especially in the morning, when bamboo rafts convey merchandise to and from the riverbank and Nùng women from nearby villages set up stalls in the early hours. 
the riverside Green Market (Chợ Xanh)
Nùng woman in Chợ Xanh
       The Nùng are the second largest ethnic group in the province, comprising about 31% of the population. Their villages lie around most of the scenic and historic places in the province, in relatively level areas in between the hills.  The Tày, at 41%, outnumber them, but are more modernized and except in remote areas unlikely to wear traditional clothing.  Nùng women, by and large, still prefer their traditional outfits of black, side-fastened jacket and trousers.   
Hmông woman in Trà Lĩnh
       The Nùng presence in the morning market gives visitors a hint of Cao Bằng province’s major characteristic—a population dominated by ethnic minorities.  Besides the Tày and Nùng, the Hmông number 10% of the inhabitants and the Dao another 10%.  The Vietnamese, despite a government program in the 80s to encourage ethnic Vietnamese migration, still form less than 6%.  Cao Bằng city is about the only place they make up a large proportion of the population.
       Besides its natural wonders then, the main lure of the province is its ethnic minorities.  They dominate the scene when small towns north of Cao Bằng city hold their regular open markets every five days.  Trùng Khánh, on the way to Bản Giốc, holds theirs on dates ending in 5 and 0; Trà Lĩnh on dates ending in 4 and 9; Nước Hai and Na Giang, en route to Pác Bó, on dates ending in 1 and 6 (except the 31st). They may not be as colorfully dressed as those in northwest Vietnam, but they do not experience anything like the mass tourism in the northwest.  Perhaps as a consequence they are friendly, hospitable, honest and easily approachable, as curious about the foreigner as the foreigner is about them.  With such an attitude, a mutually fruitful interaction is guaranteed.

Nùng women selling their goods in Cao Bằng's Green Market (Chợ Xanh)
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