Saturday, December 26, 2015

Jianshui Through the Ages

                                                        by Jim Goodman

14th century Chaoyang Tower
       Of all of Honghe Prefecture’s thirteen major cities, Jianshui is by far the most interesting.  Lying on a broad plain, with mountains only a distant view, it hasn’t got the striking natural setting of cities south of the Red River, that lie on ridges flanked by slopes of irrigated terraces.  But those cities—Luchun, Xinjie, Honghe and Jinping—are all relatively new, built adjacent to existing Hani or Yi villages.  Aside from a couple of nice parks, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about them, aside from the population, which is mostly colorfully dressed minorities.
       Jianshui, however, is the oldest city in the prefecture, founded under the Nanzhao Kingdom in 810, with the name Huili.  It became a main trading link between Kunming and everything south and southeast of the new city.  That role continued during the centuries of the Dali Kingdom, Nanzhao’s successor, as well the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, down to modern times.  It became Jianshui under Mongol rule, Lin-an under the Ming, and back to Jianshui with the Qing.
Sea of Learning at the Cinfucius Temple
       Alone among Honghe cities, Jianshui has retained much of its classical architecture.  The mosque and the Confucius Temple date from the 13th century.  The imposing Chaoyang Tower was erected in the late 14th century.  Buddhist temples and pagodas have been standing since the Qing Dynasty.  The city has expanded much since dynastic times, especially in recent decades, but still features a large old quarter of traditional houses and neighborhoods.
         The most impressive of Jianshui’s old buildings is the massive, three-tiered Chaoyang Gate, towering over a long, high red wall.   Erected in 1389, not long after the Ming Dynasty had expelled the last Mongol forces in the province, it is the sole remaining vestige of the old walled city, and served as its eastern entrance.  In style, it resembles Tiananmen in Beijing, though it was built 28 years earlier.  Similarly, it is the single building most associated with the city.
Chongwen Pagoda
       Jianshui’s next most famous monument is the Confucius Temple in the southwest quarter, originally constructed in 1285, when Yuan Dynasty Muslim Governors of Yunnan had a policy of promoting both Islam and Confucianism.  Expanded and renovated several times since, it is the country’s second grandest Confucian temple, after the one in Qufu, the sage’s birthplace.  The long rectangular compound encloses not only the temple buildings but also a gymnasium and middle school.  In the front part of the compound lies an oval pond called Xuehai—the Sea of Learning.  A causeway and arched bridge connect a small island in the rear of the pond, with a graceful pavilion in its center.  
       Behind the pond an ornamental gate, with carved dragons curled around its posts, marks the way to the halls.  The smaller halls are lined up facing each other across the compound garden and its manicured lawns.  Small paintings of Confucius hang from the walls and one building houses a modest collection of gilt bronze images from the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties.
meditation at Rendengsi
       The Great Hall of Magnificent Achievement, which houses statues of Confucius, is the most impressive building.  It is supported by 28 pillars, 20 of them of black stone, with the front two entwined by stone dragons.  The front wooden screen doors are intricately carved and on the temple porch stands an incense burner, with dragons wrapped around each of the four posts supporting the multi-gabled roof.
       Within the city limits, Jianshui authorities have listed over fifty buildings as historical monuments.  Ming and Qing Dynasty temples makeup a good proportion of these, but the list includes secular buildings and private houses.  The quiet, winding lanes in the old quarters feature traditional urban architecture, with tiled, upturned roofs and compound gates embellished with woodcarvings.  Occasionally a stroller passes by a larger, more ornate building, drafted for contemporary use as a schoolhouse or neighborhood library.
street in the old quarter
       Among Jianshui’s legacy of religious architecture are its two Qing-era pagodas, each totally distinct from the other.  Two blocks south of Chaoyang Gate, in a courtyard of old temple buildings, no longer in use, stands the Chongwen Pagoda.  It rises to 14 thin tiers and its style differs completely from the Wenbi Pagoda, which stands in an open field south of the city.  That pagoda is shaped like an ink-brush (wenbi), with smooth sides and no tiers.  From a distance it resembles the smokestacks of the kilns used in Jianshui’s thriving ceramics industry.
       The most venerable Buddhist temple in the city is Zhilin Monastery, in the vicinity of the Confucian Temple in the western quarter.  It dates back to the Yuan Dynasty and features intricate woodcarving on the brackets and compound gate.  But it is no longer in use.  The most active Buddhist temple is Rendengsi, Lighting the Lamps Temple, on the other side of town in the northeast quarter.
       Not far from this is the city’s biggest mosque, in the classical Chinese style, originally serving early Muslim immigrants and traders from southeast China.  After Kubilai Khan conquered Yunnan, Central Asian Muslims, who were part of the occupying army and later settled permanently, augmented the original Jianshui Muslims and eventually became part of the Hui minority nationality. The mosque now dates only to the Qing Dynasty, but the original, constructed before the Mongol conquest of Yunnan, was certainly one of the oldest religious buildings in the city.
Hui elder reading the Quran
       The list of historic secular buildings includes neighborhood gateways, old administrative buildings converted to contemporary police stations and law offices and the warren of connected compounds called the Zhu Family Garden, the third most famous attraction in Jianshui.  Originally the property of a rich merchant from the late Qing Dynasty, Zhuyuan covers over 2000 square meters, with 218 pavilions.  The buildings are simple, with clean, regular lines, almost minimalist in their spare furnishings and lack of adornment.  But they provide a perfect backdrop to the variegated shapes of plants and flowers in pots and gardens adorning every compound.  It’s like a setting for the 18th century novel A Dream of Red Mansions.
neighborhood gate in the old town
       One of the halls features a display of large color photographs of the major attractions of both the city and the county.   Among the spots featured in the photo collection are secluded hillside temples in the remote corners of the county and three of the finest extant traditional bridges in central Yunnan. One of these—Daxingqiao—crosses a small river 5 km east of Qujiang, in the northern part of the county.  Tianxiangqiao spans a stream several kilometers northeast of Jianshui, while Shuanglongqiao—Double Dragon Bridge—lies a few kilometers west of the Confucius Temple, just past a village of gravestone makers.
compound in the Zhu Family Garden
       Shuanglongqiao is the most picturesque.  Originally built in the late 18th century, expanded to a length of 153 meters a hundred years later, it features 17 spans, eight to each side and one under the graceful, three-tiered central tower.  A smaller, two-tiered pavilion stands at the end of the bridge on the north bank.  The bridge seems to have been put there for its aesthetic value rather than any commercial reason.  The waters beneath do not flow and didn’t when the French were there in 1867.  They deemed it purely ornamental.  Vegetable gardens lie right against its base.  It sees little traffic all day and probably never did bear much.  Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful bridge.
Shuanglongqiao--Double Dragon Bridge
       Another county attraction, of growing popularity, is the historic village of Tuanshan, about 13 km west of Jianshui.  Situated on a leveled hillock, it was originally Yi, but has been a Han majority village since the Qing Dynasty.  Tuanshan has preserved its original architecture and this is a perfect opportunity to see what practically all Chinese villages in Yunnan used to looked like, undiluted by modern buildings.
        While the classical Han legacy dominates the attractions of Jianshui and its immediate vicinity, the county is also home to, besides the Hui, some of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities; in particular the Yi, Dai Hani and Miao, mainly in the east and south.  Most of them still largely follow their traditional lifestyles and their colorfully dressed women often turn up in Jianshui’s daytime markets. 
Dai from Guanting
       Many of these will be Dai women from Guanting, 45 km south.  They dress in black sarongs and long-sleeved jackets, heavily embroidered in the back and around the waist.  Two rectangular patches, white with red and blue diamonds, are appliquéd over the jacket front.  Animist, like their Dai relatives along the Red River, they live in flat-roofed houses of unbaked mud-brick, like the Yi and Hani villagers further south.
       Jianshui was one of the first counties opened to foreign travelers in Yunnan.  Until then, the only Westerners Jianshui people had seen were members of the French Mekong Expedition who passed this way in November 1867.  The party had split up in Yuanjiang to allow Francois Garnier, second in command, to explore the Red River.  But rapids forced him to abort his journey and arrive in Jianshui two days earlier. .  Quite soon he was subjected to the intense scrutiny of a swelling crowd of local residents, whose curiosity knew no bounds.  Shut up ion his room, nothing Garnier did could satiate this crowd, which eventually started hurling stones at him.
entrance to Yanzidong--Swallow Cave
At that point Garnier took out his pistol and fired into the air.  After a pause the crowd resumed throwing stones, so he fired again. That surprised them because they did not see him reload.  One man sniffed that he had seen pistols with double charges, so now the foreigner was finished.  It was time to rush him. But Garnier then fired off three successive shots, which terrified and scattered the multitude. They had not heard of any kind of gun that could do that.
       That night Garnier escaped over the wall and joined the rest of the expedition encamped beyond.  The arrival of the French came to the attention of Liang Daren, Jianshui’s strongman, who took the group under his protection and issued edicts, widely announced, that anyone bothering his foreign guests would be executed.
inside Yanzidong
       Travelers visiting Jianshui in the 1990’s, when it was opened to foreign tourists, did not experience anything like that.  Jianshui was Hello City and its people friendly, polite and hospitable.  The journey from Kunming took much longer then, so most visitors used Jianshui simply as a stopover on the way to Yuanyang.  If they did stay an extra night it was to visit Yanzidong, or Swallow Cave, about 40 km east. 
       Supposedly the largest karst cave in all of China, its entrance is a huge mouth with stalactites dripping overhead like irregular icicles.  Attached to some of these stalactites are message banners, mounted by sure-footed cave climbers.  Nowadays local youths demonstrate for Yanzidong’s tour groups how it was done.  The same technique is used to gather the edible birds’ nests built by swifts high up on the cave walls.  This is a bustling business here, for the dish is one of those exotic foods irresistible to Chinese.  Restaurants on the road and even inside the cave serve a soup made from it.
       A subterranean stream runs through the grotto and small boats take back those who at the end of the walking tour are too tired to return on foot up and down the same walkways.  The touring trail glides by unusual limestone formations, often given fanciful names like Two Elephants Playing in the Water or Jade Pillar Supporting the Sky.  Lights of different colors illuminate the scenery and there’s a refreshment bar halfway along the walking route.  At the end of the cavern is a stage where every hour or so a troupe of Yi perform lively dances.
caoya--Jianshui's special vegetable
       However salubrious it might be, bird’s nest soup is not very filling.  But back in Jianshui are a number of Hui restaurants serving beef specialties, several noodles shops, grilled tofu stands and a variety of Chinese restaurants.  One local specialty here is qiguoji, a chicken soup flavored with pseudo-ginseng, cooked in an earthen pot.  The local vegetable specialty is caoya, a water-grown tuber resembling an elephant tusk, with a taste and consistency similar to bamboo shoots.  As for fruit, pomegranates from Jianshui are considered the best in the province.
       Local food specialties (qiguoji, caoya), natural attractions (Yanzidong) and ethnic culture (Guanding and south) do not make Jianshui County much different from other parts of Yunnan.  What distinguishes it from all the others, even those Han majority counties that have modernized to the point of nearly obliterating their heritage, Jianshui has proudly preserved it.  In a province dominated by either the ethnic minority aspect or the modernized Chinese entity, Jianshui represents that original Han culture, one that began in the north, spread to the center and southeast and eventually encompassed Yunnan.

Yi dance troupe in Swallow Cave

                                                                        * * *    
              for more on Jianshui and Honghe cities, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tales of Cát Bà Island-- Old and New

                                                        by Jim Goodman

typical islands of Hạ Long Bay
       Most of the islands studding the waters of H Long Bay, Vietnam’s premier scenic wonder, are small, limestone promontories jutting out of the sea, largely uninhabited.  But dominating the southern edge of the bay, with its own archipelago of 365 islets, mostly on the northern and eastern sides, lies Cát Bà Island, with the atypical size of 285 square kilometers.  Though much larger than any other island in the vicinity, about half of it is a preserved forest area and the rest is mostly too hilly and rocky for agriculture.  Fishing is the main livelihood of the island’s 13,000 inhabitants and the 4000 or so in offshore floating villages.
central pier at Cát Bà harbor
       Administratively, the Cát Bà Archipelago is part of Hải Phòng City, from where boats make daily trips to the harbor at Cát Bà town, on the southeast corner of the island.   Home to about 8000 of the island’s population, the town lies on a narrow strip of flat land between fingers of hilly land, with even higher hills right behind it.  Hotels of various sizes (and room rates) dominate the waterfront, for Cát Bà’s main change in the 21st century has been the growth of the tourist industry.
       Most tourists are part of groups that spend at least a night in Cát Bà town after coming from H Long Bay.  For those who’ve spent the previous night in Hạ Long City, it’s quieter, less congested and the restaurants offer equally delicious fresh seafood.  Cát Bà’s great advantage, though, is its harbor. A long dock, almost in the center of the waterfront, services the big boats coming from Hải Phòng.  Sprawled out on either side are innumerable fishing boats, usually moored during the day, interspersed with sampans gliding among them, some with attached roofs, some without, some fishing with nets. 
boats in Cát Bà harbor
       The land reaches out on either side of the harbor to partially enclose it.  Lighthouses stand on rocky promontories on either side of the outer edges.  On the eastern side several floating houses lie just offshore.  Small hilly islands lie out in the bay.  The brightly colored boats in the harbor can be anywhere from two to twenty meters long.  Most are anchored individually, but sometimes two to ten boats of the same size may lie side by side in a single row. 
       The nicest aspect of a harbor like Cát Bà’s is that, except days of squalls and storms, it is never completely inactive.  The bigger fishing boats might rest there for a few days without setting out to sea.  But you will still see individual boats go out on their own.  And the harbor scene will always feature the smaller sampans and dinghies gliding around the boats, taking goods or passengers from the docks to the boats and vice versa.  Occasionally you can spot someone rowing the boat by using his feet to move the oars.
sampan and tour boat, Bên Bèo
Among the small vessels plying the waters will be basket boats, unique to Vietnam.  Round, big enough to hold four passengers, made of split bamboo and caulked with pitch, basket boats are more common in Central Vietnam.  There dozens of them on a day of good weather may put out to sea at the same time to go fishing up to a kilometer and more from the shore.  Around Cát Bà they usually serve as ferries and if they do see use for fishing, they stay close to the shore.  If there are two using oars, they sit on opposite sides and row as if on a sampan.  If only one person is on board, forward progress comes by paddling in an S-pattern.
fishing vessel and basket boat
       The abundant seas around Cát Bà Archipelago have nourished its people well over the centuries.  In the 1930s French archaeologists discovered human remains and other evidence indicating that people had been living on the island since 6000 years ago, perhaps the first human inhabitants of the offshore territory of northeast Vietnam.  It was never heavily populated, nor an important factor in the economy or commerce of the area.  When, during the period of Chinese rule, marine trade began to develop, the focal point was Văn Đồn Island, far from Cát Bà. 
rowing with the feet
       The old historical records, Chinese or Vietnamese, make no mention of Cát Bà.  There must have been some sort of government authority, but probably not enough to interrupt the basic self-sufficient lifestyle of its people.  One can only speculate on what role they might have played in the great historical events in the area.  Were they aware of the invading Chinese fleet in 938, dispatched to quell the rebellion led by Ngô Quyền, that ended with the fleet impaled on hidden stakes in the Bạch Đằng River? 
       A generation later, did they witness the newly established Song Dynasty’s fleet sail into Hạ Long Bay and get stuck on the same stakes in the same place?  Did they observe the third Mongol invasion in 1288 as its ships swept aside resistance and sailed upriver to the capital?  Were any of them recruited to join the rebuilt Vietnamese navy that later sank all the Mongols’ supply ships and forced their evacuation of the country?  Did any of them participate in the third trick on the Bạch Đằng, when the Vietnamese impaled the retreating Mongol ships on hidden stakes, burnt all the vessels and slaughtered all aboard?
one of the Cót Cô baches
       There doesn’t seem to be any local legend about Cát Bà heroes in the Trần Dynasty’s Mongol Wars.  But the island’s name dates to an incident from that time.  According to local tradition, the corpses of three women, killed for one reason or another, each washed ashore on one of the three small beaches on the southeast corner of the island.  Local residents retrieved them and built temples to them.  Whatever its name was before, from then on the island was Cạt Bà.  In Vietnamese cát means ‘sand’ and means ‘woman.’  Cát Bà is short for ‘women landing/washing up on the sand.’
       All three of these beaches—Cót Cô 1, 2 and 3--are popular with visitors, for they are within walking distance of the town, connected by a cement walkway along the rocky coast.  They are relatively small, but with fine sand, clean and clear water and views of the Lan Hạ Bay islands.  From March through October, if the weather is fine, they can fill up with weekend or holiday visitors from the mainland.  Temperatures are too cool the other months for swimming or sunbathing, and visitors fewer, but it’s rarely cold and usually a few degrees warmer than inland.
cheô drama in the Cát Bà park
       The most crowded time will be around 1 April, the day commemorating Hồ Chí Minh’s 1954 visit, marked by Cát Bà’s biggest annual festival.  The program includes processions, boat races and public performances.  In the park near the harbor’s long pier, troupes stage skits from the indigenous chèo drama and Chinese-derived tuồng opera.  Theatrical shows also take place in the park on other local and national holidays.
       The island’s weather can be quite changeable, though, starting out with clear morning skies and clouding up and raining by noon.  The entire northeast coastal area and its waters are subject to sudden storms and occasional typhoons.  At such occurrences boats stay docked at the shores and neither sail to Hạ Long City nor leave the Cát Bà pier for Hải Phòng.  But it doesn’t mean travelers are trapped until the seas calm.  They can take a bus to the west coast, passing craggy limestone hills that look good even in the rain, then board a hydrofoil for a quick ride across the channel to a waiting bus on the mainland that goes all the way to Hanoi.
Chicken Rocks, Hạ Long Bay
       In reverse, that’s actually a quicker way to reach Cát Bà from Hanoi than to go first to Hải Phòng and take a boat.  Weekend visitors from Hanoi often choose this option, but the far more interesting route is from Hạ Long City across the World Heritage Site (since 1994) of Hạ Long Bay.  The inexpensive morning ferry service from nearby Hòn Gài ceased several years ago and so now the only option is to hop one of the dozens of fancy tour boats.  In general they are attractive vessels, though, with redwood sides and pale yellow sails, resembling the warships that traversed these waters in the centuries before boats had engines.
       The first boats leave about 11 a.m., while others wait an hour or two later for the tour buses to arrive from Hanoi.  They follow similar routes, though some range further than others.  Hạ Long Bay has nearly 2000 islets, mostly limestone, small, fairly close to one another, usually uninhabited, often jutting straight out of the water with steep vertical cliffs, or with shapes suggesting animals, like the pair of Chicken Rocks (also known as the Kissing Cocks). 
floating village, Hạ Long Bay
typical island karst cave
       Several islands feature big karst caves and every tour boat makes a lengthy stop at one of them.  It takes nearly an hour to hike up and down walkways past all the stalagmites and stalactites, illuminated by different colored lights all along the way.  The most famous is Đầu Gỗ Cave, allegedly a secret storage site for the wooden stakes the Vietnamese planted in the Bạch Đằng River to impale and immobilize the Mongol fleet.
       Continuing south, the boat will pass by one of the larger floating villages in the bay, nestled among the islets.  The villagers have their own modest fishing vessels, but they also raise shrimp and other edible sea creatures.  Some of what they raise or catch goes to the kitchens of the tour boats.  After passing by still more islets the boat eventually docks at the Gai Luân pier on the northern part of Cát Bà Island.
Lan Hạ Bay, viewed from Cannon Fort
       From here travelers take a bus across the center of the island south to Cát Bà town.  The road passes through Cát Bà National Park, a huge preserved area of forested limestone hills, lakes, mangrove swamps and incredible biodiversity.  Altogether the park holds 1561 species of plants and trees, 55 mammals, including the endangered Cát Bà langur, of which only about 70 are left, 160 different birds, 66 reptiles and amphibians and 274 insect species.  The parks waters contain 900 species of fish, 167 of coral and even 21 kinds of seaweed.
       Further towards Cát Bà town, about 10 km north, is the most famous of the island’s several caves.  It’s called Hospital Cave, because that’s what it was used for during the war with America.  Nearby Hải Phòng was a prime target during the periodic bombing campaigns.  As a strategic lookout point in the north’s defenses, the bombers hit Cát Bà also.  Residents hid in the caves for safety.  Hospital Cave was built up with three levels and could hold over three hundred beds in what was virtually a bomb-proof shelter.  Perhaps fearing a possible resumption of the bombing even after the American withdrawal began, the hospital remained operational until the end of the war in 1975.
       While Hospital Cave can be a quick excursion, it takes a lot longer to trek through the park.  Motorbikes, unfortunately, are not allowed inside the park.  But it’s worth renting one from town for a ride around the southern side of the island.  The roads are good and the scenery always pleasant and changing.  West of the town is much less settled, a quiet countryside with occasional small beaches, rugged hills, stray fishing vessels and always groups of lumpy offshore islands. 
boats passing through Lan Hạ Bay
       Even lovelier is the southeast corner of the island, from Cát Bà town around the edges of Lan Ha ̣Bay to the wharf at Bên Bèo.  This is a starting point for kayaking trips through the bay’s picturesque island scenery.  Tour boats take visitors on excursions to nearby Monkey Island, where you are more likely to experience a simian encounter than by trying to track down one of the elusive, vanishing langurs in the National Park.  Bên Bèo itself is a charming, quiet village, part of it floating houses, with a couple excellent restaurants along the docks and an active river scene. 
       With its collection of closely clustered islands in an endless variety of shapes, Lan Hạ Bay is like Cát Bà’s very own Hạ Long Bay.  It may not be quite as dramatic, but in one sense it is easier to appreciate.  A good road leads to Cannon Fort, high up on a hill overlooking the bay.  During the war years this was obviously an important lookout post, where soldiers nervously scanned the skies for the approach of planes. 
       Nowadays we visitors instead scan the panorama of Lan Hạ Bay.  We watch the tour boats and fishing vessels glide among the islands and the big cargo ships sail around the rim of it.  Cannon Fort has long been abandoned.  The main task around here now is to revel in the splendid natural combination of sky, land and sea.
Cát Bà harbor
                                                                               * * *


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Meetings with the Mường—Cousins of the Vietnamese

                                                       by Jim Goodman

Xóm Mô Mường village, HJoà Bình
       The Mường people of Vietnam are the country’s third largest ethnic minority, behind the Tày and the Thái, and numbering 1,268,000 in the 2009 census.  They mainly inhabit the low hills around the western boundaries of the Red River Delta: Phú Thọ, Hoà Bình, Ninh Bình and Thanh Hoá provinces.  The Mường language, though split into several distinct dialects, is related to Vietnamese.  Since the grammar, syntax and much of the vocabulary is similar to Vietnamese, some scholars speculate that the Mường language is actually ancient Vietnamese, unchanged since antiquity because of the Mường people’s separation from the main body of what was to become the Vietnamese people.
       Exactly when this happened is not certain.  Some say it occurred when some of the original inhabitants of these hills moved into the Red River Delta to clear the swamps and established settlements, which would be prior to the foundation of the first indigenous state.  Those who stayed put became the Mường.  Others contend it was more recently, during the aftermath of the 9th century invasion of northern Vietnam, then under Chinese rule, by the Nanzhao Kingdom northwest of Vietnam.
Mường woman
Xóm Mô village
       Many northern Vietnam inhabitants supported Nanzhao and when the Chinese were able to expel the invaders and re-establish control, parts of the plains population, fearing retaliation, fled to the nearest hills, remained aloof from the plains people and thus, according to this more plausible theory, evolved into the Mường nationality.
typical Mường stilted house
       This sense of a separate identity has persisted because, though the Mường are linguistically close to the Vietnamese, by living outside the perimeter of direct Chinese influence, they were less influenced by it culturally.  Materially speaking, they more resemble their western neighbors the Thái, living in stilted houses in villages surrounded by forests.
       I first visited the Mường in the village of Xóm Mô, about 13 km north of Hoà Bình.  This was over a dozen years ago, when there were still restrictions on foreigners staying overnight in rural villages.  Xóm Mô was the officially designated Mường minority village for tourists, so it was permissible, after paying the entrance fee, to stay overnight.  I opted for this, hoping to at least get some insight into the Mường lifestyle, however commercial the arrangement might turn out.
filling the rice mortar
       In general, villages that authorities choose to promote as cultural attractions for foreigners meet specific requirements.  The architecture, layout and basic domestic lifestyle of the village must still conform to traditional norms.  In the Mường case, that meant stilted wooden houses with thatched roofs.  No modern concrete houses stand in Xóm Mô.  As for the village layout, Xóm Mô’s houses lie behind a relatively flat set of rice fields and in front of slopes of hills used for slash-and-burn farming.  A concrete path runs from one end of the village to the other, but other than electricity, this is the only major modern innovation.
       On the other hand, being designated the official minority tourist village adds a whole new dimension to the local lifestyle.  Every house becomes a shop and the whole purpose of inviting in a stranger is to sell something.  I was prepared for this and had actually brought along a load of Vietnamese currency in hopes of finding an interesting Mường artifact or antique.  But all the items on display in the houses I visited, generally after vigorous importuning, were identical to products sold in Hanoi shops.  While they were certainly disappointed that I didn’t find anything worth buying  (so was I), they were more than mollified by my willingness to exchange the small denomination of dollars they had gotten from tourists for Vietnamese đồng.  At the end of my stay, I returned to Hanoi with over $150 in $1 and $5 bills.
Mường villagers planting rice
       The same monetary preoccupation prevailed at the house of my hostess, who wanted to fix the price of my meals, depending upon what I wanted to eat, the bed, the activities, etc. before she even found out from what country I came.  Nevertheless, once that was fixed things went well.  I was put in a separate building to sleep, smaller than the main house, but in the company of the very congenial husband.  It had its own hearth but we didn't use it, instead consuming a small bottle of liquor instead.
       The next day I explored the area, hiked to a nearby Dao village, watched the fieldwork around Xóm Mô and enjoyed another simple but filling evening meal.  On my final morning my hostess dressed her daughter in full Mường garments, assuming I wanted some photos.  This consists of a black sarong, tied with a multi-colored belt, a long-sleeved jacket and a wide headband.
Mường house in Thành Sơn district
       I can’t say I had a bad time in Xóm Mô, but left it feeling I didn't really have an authentic Mường experience.  Advised by friends at the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi, I headed by motorbike, with a Vietnamese guide along, for Thành Sơn, in Phú Thọ province.  After a night there, folks informed us of a market day about 15 km west into the rolling hills, passing tea gardens and lots of flooded fields full of farmers transplanting rice seedlings. 
       The market activity was mildly interesting, mostly for the reactions of the people to seeing a foreigner for the first time.  My guide got a lot of questions about me and when one man found out I was American he shook my hand and asked me if I would like to meet his village’s heroine.   Why is she your heroine?  Because she captured the American pilot shot down over the village.  Lead the way.
threshing indoors
       So we took our motorbikes on a half hour ride across inter-village footpaths to a large Mương settlement, one of about thirty in the district, with about 75 traditional stilted houses, and straight to the home of the heroine.  By chance, she was just returning from the field.  After our new friend introduced us, delighted by the attention, she scurried to make tea and settle us in comfortably in the middle of the capacious room, with baskets filled with the winter rice harvest and a threshing machine to our side.  Then she joined us and recounted her story.
       Aged 22 at the time, she was in the field on 30 July 1967, when an American plane crashed into a nearby hillside.  The pilot ejected, but got caught in a tree, injured and in no condition to resist when, armed with a long chopping knife, she arrested him and marched him off to the nearest military unit.  She didn’t know what happened after that. 
       The room soon filled with neighbors of all ages curious to see the first American in their village since that fateful day of the plane crash.  They were all polite but had lots of questions.  One asked me if I had come here because I was the pilot’s son, which was rather flattering since I was nearly as old as the heroine.   
weaving cloth on a traditional loom
Promising to return later, we headed next to the house of the man we met in the market.  This house had no thresher inside, but a crossbow hung over the fireplace and a loom stood in one area.  The most unusual piece of furniture, though, was the tea table.  It was a part of the gear from the airplane motor; round, with regular, notch-like serrations around the circumference, that rotated on a swivel underneath.  Nice to see war debris put to good use.
       We couldn’t stay too long, for a messenger soon arrived with an invitation to meet the headman.  Our host led the way.  The headman’s house resembled all the others in the village with one difference:  inside hung a huge drum, which the headman beats when summoning people to an assembly.  All smiles and handshakes, the headman greeted us warmly, then asked to see our documents.  Pronouncing himself satisfied, he invited us to enjoy a welcoming feast and asked me to choose between duck and chicken.  I replied I’d like duck, just to see how they prepared it.
the village heroine
village scene, Thành Sơn district
       Portions of the duck they skewered and stood upright next to the fire, leaning slightly towards the flames.  The rest they deep-fried or stir-fried.  The meal also included pork and bamboo shoots and cabbage steamed with plum.  When the Mường have guests, the men dine with them and the women and children eat separately.  They all eat at the same time, but the men take longer because they often interrupt the repast with almost ceremonial shots of rice liquor.
Mường house, Khảnh village
       The headman started with me, the special guest, pouring shots for each of us.  Then, to honor the guest with the highest respect, he clicked the rim of his cup to the bottom of mine before we drank.  When it came time for me to drink a cup with each of the other dinner guests, I found them waiting for me to click their cups.  I thought by clicking the rim of mine to the bottom of theirs, as the headman had done with me, that would make me appear to regard them as more deserving of respect than our host.  To click the bottom of my cup against the rim of theirs seemed to force acknowledgment of my higher status.  So I clicked the rim of mine against the rim of theirs, as my way of declaring equality with the other guests.  The headman commented that I knew about Mường customs.  Not really.  I just guessed right.   
cutting cassava
       After our meal and a brief examination of the weaving on the family loom, our friend from the market offered to take us to a nearby waterfall.  After that, we would return for dinner and a song and dance show the headman promised to organize for us.  Unfortunately, on our way two local policemen stopped us and informed us that foreigners were not permitted here, for security reasons.  The told us to return to Thành Sơn.  Hearing of that, the headman told us not to fret, for he would take care of everything.  So off we went to the police station at the market venue we’d been to in the morning,
       Proper credentials, arguments, the headman’s intervention—none of this worked.  To every point raised, the police responded that it was unsafe for foreigners to be here, so for security reasons we had to leave.  I couldn’t fathom what danger I could possibly face in the village.  In the end, the headman, having failed to right the situation, left without saying goodbye.  He’d obviously lost face and I speculated that he had had some recent quarrel with the local police and this was their way of getting back at him and it had nothing to do with my safety.  Our friend from the morning market saw us off, apologizing and wishing us well.
       Travel restrictions relaxed somewhat over the next several years, but I haven’t returned to Thành Sơn.  My interests took me elsewhere, but some years later, while visiting Cúc Phương National Park in Ninh Bình province, I learned there were Mường villages just northwest of the park boundary.  A common trekking route was from the center of the park to a Mường village just inside Hoà Bình province.  This was going to be a village well used to foreigners, but, if only to compare it with Xóm Mô, I decided to have a look. 
freshly woven Mường waistband
       Mường villages in this area are rather small, of 20-25 houses.  Our stop was at Khảnh, along the Bưởi River, backed by wooded hills.  The streams running down the slope flowed into pipes, both metal and bamboo, that channeled the water to the fields and houses.  These have replaced the water-wheels that once lined the river.
       Houses were all stilted, traditional types, big interiors, with a two-shaft loom near the hearth.  The first woman who saw us invited us inside, but not to sell us something, just to have tea and chat. No Hanoi craft products on display, though in the end I bought one of the colorful waistbands she was weaving.  In the yard outside a cage held a pair of roe deer that the family raises to harvest its antlers every year, used for medicine.
       We called on a couple other families, bought cassavas from one, and n general enjoyed typical Mường hospitality.  It reminded me more of Thành Sơn, where I was the first foreigner since the captured pilot, though in Khảnh I was probably just the first one this week.  Uncontaminated by the up-front commercialism of a place like Xóm Mô, this is the Mường norm for dealing with outsiders—polite, accommodating, warm and good-natured—qualities prominent throughout the country among so many communities, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.

Mương village, southern Hoà Bình province
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