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
                                                                            * * *


No comments:

Post a Comment