Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Heart of the Mekong Delta

                                         by Jim Goodman

river scene in Vĩnh Long province
       Travelers to the heart of the Mekong Delta—the three popular tourist destinations of M Tho, Vĩnh Long and Cn Thơ—find themselves impressed with how well organized, developed and thriving everything seems to be.  They see roads and waterways busy with traffic, farms neatly laid out on the lands between the canals, orchards filling the river islands, bustling city markets and boats of all kinds lining the piers. 
       Four centuries ago, though, this very same area was mostly swamps, peat bogs and thick forests, very sparsely populated by a few stray Khmer villages and river trading posts, mostly run by Chinese down from Cambodia.  That was true of most of the rest of the Delta at that time.  The only heavily populated parts were at the mouth of the Mekong, today’s Sóc Trăng and Trà Vinh provinces.  Khmer communities had lived there for centuries, but the next nearest concentration of Khmer settlements was close to today’s Cambodian-Vietnamese border.  The salient feature of the Delta in those times was its under-population.
boats at the pier in Mỹ Tho
       That began to change from the middle of the 17th century, due to events far to the north of the area.  In China the Ming Dynasty fell to the Manchu from the north, who founded their own Qing Dynasty.  The Qing did not establish authority over the entire country at once, but by the 1670s had vanquished the last of the Ming loyalists in the south.
       In Vietnam, the decades-long, off-and-on war between the Trịnh Lords of the north and the Nguyển Lords of the south came to a halt in 1672 with a formal truce and a fixed boundary at the Gianh River in today’s Quảng Binh province.  While they still kept a wary eye to the north of their realm, the Nguyễn Lords were now free to turn their attention south.  With peace and its resultant prosperity and population growth, the Nguyễn Court began to conceive its southern ambitions.
Vĩnh Trang Pagoda, Mỹ Tho
       Central Vietnam, the part of the country under Nguyễn control, was too narrow for the kind of agriculture associated with the Red River Delta in the north.  Rice cultivation could never be sufficient to support its increasing population.  But if the wilderness of the Mekong Delta could be tamed and transformed into a rice production area, that would solve the problem. 
       Before the Nguyễn Court could formulate a cohesive strategy to satisfy this ambition, though, a contingent of 3000 Chinese Ming Dynasty loyalists, recently defeated by Qing forces off the south coast of China, arrived in Nguyễn territory seeking asylum.  The Nguyễn Court was uneasy about allowing an armed body like this too near the capital, but arranged for the refugees to be settled in Biên Hòa and Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta.  Ostensibly this required securing permission from the Cambodian regime, which had nominal jurisdiction over the area.  But the Cambodian Court at that time was favorable to Vietnamese interests and so agreed.
Mekong Delta mudskipper
       The Nguyễn regime assumed that by settling the Chinese refugees in the south they could count on them to, in return, develop the commercial potential of the region and promote Nguyễn interests.  This proved to be true in Biên Hoà, but not in Mỹ Tho, where the Chinese established pirate gangs that preyed on the river commerce.  They even allied with a new, anti-Vietnamese Cambodian king and the Nguyển side had to send down a military force to drive out the Cambodians and subdue the Chinese pirates. 
       To insure the safety of ever more Vietnamese immigrants to the area, the Nguyễn regime took over the administration of both Mỹ Tho and Saigon before the end of the century.  Things more or less settled down after that and in the 18th century a regular influx of Vietnamese pioneers came to clear swamps, cut forests, make farms and set up villages.  Permanent settlements began to spread between Saigon and Mỹ Tho, then down to Vĩnh Long, Cần Thơ and further upriver. 
Delta riverside houses of split palm leaf
       This slow and steady conquest of the tropical wilderness continued on into the 1700s despite the steady disintegration of the Nguyễn Lords regime after mid-century.  But after the outbreak of the Tây Sơn Revolt, the capture of the Nguyễn capital and the flight of the royal family to Saigon, a new phase of history developed.  The Tây Sơn forces pursued the Nguyễn family, eventually caught up with them and killed all but one in 1777.  The sole escapee was Nguyễn Ánh.
       Organizing loyalists, over the next several years he led the recapture of Saigon, was expelled again, took it once more, and then was driven completely out of the country.  He took refuge in Bangkok, where he persuaded King Rama I to back his cause.  In 1784 the new ally dispatched 30,000 infantry and 300 warships with 20,000 sailors and marines in support of Nguyễn Ánh’s contingent of less than 4000. 
bridge over a Vĩnh Long canal
       After some initial success, the Siamese fell into a Tây Sơn trap on the river at Rạch Gầm Xoài Mút, near Mỹ Tho.  Tây Sơn forces destroyed the entire fleet, and then attacked the invaders’ infantry with such success that only a few thousand managed to escape and return to Bangkok. 
       Nguyễn Ánh also escaped.  But the Tây Sơn victors turned their attention to the north and soon conquered the rest of the country.  Meanwhile Nguyễn Ánh returned to Saigon again and this time made it his base in a long, relentless struggle with the Tây Sơn until his final victory in 1802.  Then he made Huế the capital of his new dynastic regime and turned over the administration of the Mekong Delta provinces to his favorite general.  
Cái Bè floating market and cathedral
       For a long time to come, though, this was still the least populated part of the newly unified country.  Most towns were hardly more than that, even after the French colonized the Delta in the 1860s.  In their own census of 1900, the population of Cần Thơ was about 9000.  But after taking control of the north, they sponsored farmers there to move south to open new lands.  From then on the population began to multiply at an accelerated rate.
       Today in the heart of the Delta it seems there is no place uninhabited.  The former tropical wilderness of past centuries has all but vanished completely.  The conquest of the frontier has meant a transformation into an intricate relationship between the use of land and water.  The best hints of this fascinating environmental interplay come with a boat ride from the piers of one of the three cities.  
making spring roll wrappers
canal in Vĩnh Long province
       Just 70 km south of Hồ Chí Minh City, Mỹ Tho today retains only a few square blocks of its Chinese quarter, on the other side of the Bao Đinh canal that divides the city.  The city lies on the Tiền Giang River, one of the main branches of the Mekong as it approaches the sea. Vietnamese have long dominated the population here and for them the great attraction of Mỹ Tho is the Vĩnh Trang Pagoda in the northeast part of the city.  The compound resembles a palace more than a temple, its buildings a light yellow color, with gold and orange trimmings.  In the park beside it are large images of a standing Buddha, seated Maitreya and Reclining Buddha, all in white.
Munirangsyaram, a Khmer temple in Cần Thơ
       The road west of the Bao Đinh canal flanking the river is the only other attractive part of the city.  It has its array of boats, a couple of colonial-era buildings and at night becomes filled with convivial outdoor restaurants.  Most visitors don’t stay the night, though, but take a boat ride through the canals of the province for an intimate look at rural life on the water.
       The ride takes the traveler out of the urban riverside environment into the backwaters of the area.  The cargo vessels carrying loads of sand or bamboo give way to medium-sized boats, with big painted eyes on the prow, carrying everything from furniture to fruit.  The tour boats inevitably stop at selected villages because they produce a special food or other product.  But on the walk through the woods to get there one can sometimes spot one of the Mekong Delta’ s most unusual creatures—the mudskipper.
Cái Răng floating market near Cần Thơ
       About 15 cm long, shaped like a torpedo, with disproportionately bulging eyes on its smooth head, it has a pair of thick fins resembling forearms.  In fact, it looks like a creature evolutionally transitioning from a fish in water to a legged animal on land.  They are certainly fun to watch as they scoot across the land, battle each other on occasion or sit motionless with their tails in the water to keep some part of the body moist.
       It is a fish, but spends much time on land, using its fins like crutches to slowly ‘walk’ across the mud or sand and even climb the trunks of bushes and thick plants.  If it wants to move quickly it uses its tail to help propel it forward.  On land they can breathe by mixing the air with the water still stored in the gills, but after a while have to return to water for a refill.  They are likely to be spotted anywhere shallow water meets dry land.
       Vĩnh Long, the next stop 72 km west of Mỷ Tho, is about the same size, just as bustling and with an equally pleasant, quieter quarter along the Cổ Chiên River, a branch of the Tiền Giang.  The riverfront road between the two canals flanking the town features a street market at one end, the boat and ferry piers in the middle, and a row of fine French colonial buildings past the piers.  A few km southeast is the Văn Thành Miếu, a rare example of a Confucian temple in the south.
business in the Cái Răng floating market
      The prime traveler activity here is to take a boat journey around An Binh Island to the floating market at Cái Bè, then back through narrow canals to Vĩnh Long.  The tour itinerary may include stops at a ceramics production village, making bricks, tiles, pots and other vessels and a ride through the floating market at Cái Bè.  This phenomenon exists in other parts of the Mekong Delta, but usually only in the early morning.  While more active in the morning, Cái Bè’s floating market runs all day.  Like other venues, here the boats tie a sample of the product they sell attached to a mast on the boat, as a signal to buyers in the area.  
       A prominent Catholic cathedral stands on the shoreline here and for the rest of the day’s journey the passengers will notice that there are as many churches as temples along the route.  In the 18th century, when Vietnamese immigration to the Delta was just getting started, a large proportion of the pioneers were Christians fleeing periodic campaigns of persecution by the Nguyẽn Lords’ governments.  Saigon actually had churches before it had any Buddhist temples.  
early morning at Cái Răng
       Since it’s an all-day tour the boats also make a lunch stop where the main dish is grilled elephant ear fish, so named because of its shape, and served mounted upright to show off that shape.  Boats also make stops at a snack-producing village making sweet cakes, popcorn and rice paper pancakes used to wrap spring rolls.  On the way back to Vĩnh Long the boat enters narrow canals full of cargo boats carrying longans, pineapples, coconuts and other products oft the many fruit orchards on the islands.  Some of the side canals are too narrow for the tour boats, but passengers can see the sampans on them, which sometimes stop to gather palm leaves along the shore, used for the walls and roofs of simple houses along the river, much like the Khmer dwellings at the mouth of the Mekong.    
Cái Răng floating market activity
       The third stop, Cần Thơ, 86 km southwest of Vĩnh Long, is the largest, sprawling along the south bank of the Hâu River, another major branch of the Mekong, with a population now exceeding 1.2 million.  The main attraction here is the floating market at Cái Răng, several km downriver.  Activity here begins at dawn and starts thinning out just a few hours later.  Like at Cái Bè, masts on the boats advertise the product for sale, but besides the far greater number of merchant boats here, the scene also includes innumerable small boats peddling snacks, drinks and other merchandise to those on the big boats.
       Other than the early morning floating market, Cần Thơ has a couple of Chinese temples, Chùa Munirangsyaram,--a  Khmer pagoda compound, plus the expected bars and upscale restaurants of a big city.  The outstanding feature of Cần Thơ, however, is its size and prosperity.  This is a place that grew from an overgrown village a century ago into the fourth largest city in the country.  Traveling in the heart of the Mekong Delta today, it is hard to realize that just two centuries ago it was mostly a swamp.  Mỷ Thơ, Vỉnh Long and Cần Thơ today represent the stunning legacy of those initial Vietnamese pioneers.

sampan on a Vĩnh Long canal
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Vĩnh Long is one of the stops on our cultural-historical journey through Vietnam.  See the itinerary at                   


Monday, April 4, 2016

The Enduring Attraction of Sapa

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

Sapa as the morning fog lifts
        By 1918, the French had been in control of northern Vietnam for three decades.  That year a French missionary, wandering around in the mountains along the Chinese border, discovered Sapa.  He believed this was a good place to spread the Word of God and several years later oversaw the construction of a church in the Hmông village there. 
       His compatriots, upon learning about Sapa, had more secular ambitions.  They viewed the mountain town, 1640 meters above sea level, as a great place to escape the heat of the plains in summer and soon developed it as a health resort.  The French promptly expelled the Hmông residents, who subsequently resettled in Sinchai, several km north, built villas, tennis courts and parks, even a small hydroelectric complex next to the Cát Cát waterfall near Sinchai, and by the 1930s Sapa was a popular French tourist site. 
Sapa in 1930
       After 1945 the French ceased coming.  Their unpaid corvée labor demands on the local minorities had turned all these people into Vit Minh sympathizers and Sapa became a guerrilla stronghold throughout the anti-colonialist struggle.  
       Afterwards Party officials took over the abandoned French villas for their occasional vacation use, but the Chinese invasion in 1979 destroyed nearly all of them, as well as the church. The government paid for the church’s reconstruction, but otherwise Sapa didn’t recover until it became touted as a tourist destination in the early 90s.
Sapa Catholic Church
       By then villas had been restored and turned into guesthouses.  Shops and restaurants lined the main street, some offering unusual choices like venison, antelope, apple wine and the far stronger snake wine.  When fog was absent a visitor had a magnificent view of Phansipan from the end of the town.  A picturesque pond at the town entrance, fountain in the square just inside the city, a mini-stone forest on Hàm Rng Hill behind the church, with an array of small caverns and weirdly shaped boulders jutting up from the ground, and a grove above the town full of birds in the mornings completed the list of Sapa’s physical attractions.
Red Dao in Sapa for market day
       The great majority of Sapa’s residents are ethnic Vietnamese, but they only constitute 15% of the district’s population.  More than half, 52%, are Hmông, 25% are Dao, with a few Giáy and Xa Phô as well.  For travelers this was a very different kind of Vietnam, full of colorful minorities and mountain scenery.  Very few Hmông and Dao lived in Sapa, but they were always around, for their villages are not far away.
Lừ woman visiting Sapa 
       Saturday is market day in Sapa and ethnic minorities swarmed into town.  Not only Hmông and Dao, some Giáy and Xa Phô, and even Lfrom Bình Lư west of Sapa, would turn up as sellers, buyers or both.  It was a great day to mingle with the natives, even if you didn’t have a camera.  The streets were jammed with color, for Sapa’s minorities, male and female, still preferred their ethnic clothing.
       The most numerous in attendance are the Hmông from the nearest villages like Sinchai and Lao Chi, members of the sub-group the Black Hmông, who dominate the district.  The women dress in long-sleeved black jackets of indigo-dyed hemp or cotton, embellished with embroidered collars and cuffs, knee-length black pants, leg-wrappers, a round black cap, big round, filigreed earrings and silver neck rings.  Men wear full-length black trousers and a side-fastened jacket and also like to don neck rings.
Black Hmông women, 1930
       More colorful are the Red Dao  (pronounced Zao and known as Yao in neighboring countries), whose women wear long-tailed jackets and shin-length trousers, both heavily embroidered, and bright red, tasseled turbans.  They keep their heads shaved under those turbans, wear silver earrings and neck rings and have silver buckles on the jacket.  The men dress more sedately, mainly in black, but may have heavily embroidered jacket cuffs.  Dao women run shops in the main market center that sell ethnic Dao clothing and embroidered pieces to other Dao as well as tourists and Vietnamese merchants.
Black Hmông today, same basic clothing
       Throughout the 90s visitors to Sapa could observe one particularly charming custom called the Love Market.  Actually it was just a gathering of Hmông and Dao youths after market day, characterized by music and dance.  Some romances may have developed in this context, but it was not the principal motivation for those involved.  It was more like a public party.  By the end of the decade, tourist groups outnumbered the locals and the custom fell into abeyance. 
       It was in these years that Sapa’s people first began interacting with foreigners.  They were rather shy and reserved in the beginning, but so were the visitors, for the most part.  Then the foreigners started buying things from them for souvenirs and that encouraged a more forward attitude.  But it wasn’t always driven by the prospects of economic gain.  Some of them, especially the youth, were just plain curious about the foreigners.  They even learned foreign languages to be able to converse.
young Red Dao woman
Dao men also favor traditional clothing
       The most delightful encounters then were with Hmông girls aged 10-15.  Usually in small groups, but sometimes solo, they approached foreigners offering to sell them the little brass mouth-harps (đàn m
i) they were playing.  If they didn’t get a sale, and generally they didn’t, it didn’t matter.  They put them away, asked what country the foreigner was from and spouted off a few phrases they’d learned in the foreigner’s language.  If it was a country they hadn’t met anyone from yet they responded with something along the lines of  “How do I say ‘hello, how are you?’ in your country’s language?  How do I say ‘where are you going?’ and ‘do you like’?”
Phansipan, tallest mountain in Vietnam
       Besides encounters in the town, foreigners could also meet the minority people by visiting them in their villages.  A few were within walking distance.  Motorbikes could be rented for settlements further away, while tour companies offered organized treks of 2-5 days where customers stayed overnight in Hmông, Dao and Giáy villages. 
       The companies also took hardy travelers to the top of Phansipan, the towering mountain several km above Sinchai, where they camped overnight.  Rising to 3141 meters, Phansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam, at the lower end of the range here called Hoàng Liên Sơn.  Flanking the right bank of the Red River, this range begins in the center of Yunnan, where it is known as Ailaoshan and its highest peak, Mt. Ailao, at the upper end of the range, is just 25 meters higher than Phansipan.
       Ailaoshan is famous for the proliferation of irrigated rice terraces climbing up the mountain slopes.  Streams above the terraces feed water into them all year round.  While not in such profusion as north of the border, and not always irrigated by adjacent streams, the terraces in Sapa district are a definite part of the area’s scenery.  Pictures of them appear on posters advertising Sapa in tourist offices throughout the country.  And every trekking route passes by photogenic sets of them.
terraced fields in Sapa district
       The people who farm them live in villages of 30-60 families.  Their houses are simple, one-story buildings of wood or mud-brick, with roofs of thatch, wooden tiles or, more recently, corrugated iron.  Few villagers are by any measure wealthy, but they are self-sufficient, grow their own food, raise chickens and pigs for their meat and make their own clothes.
       The Hmông weave their own hemp cloth, while the Dao and Giáy purchase the materials in the market and cut and stitch them at home.  Turning hemp plant stalks into thread usable for a loom is a laborious process.  It’s more complicated than spinning cotton thread.  Hmông women often carry loops of hemp string with them to the field or markets, splicing, twining and winding it into satisfactory thread while on the move and carrying a full basket on the back.
Hmông woman twining hemp thread
       After bleaching the thread the women weave it on a narrow loom, producing a long strip of cloth 25-30 cm wide.  They dye this with indigo several times until it is a deep blue-black.  Then they cut it up and sew the pieces together to make the components of their clothing. The last step is to embroider extra pieces for the collars and cuffs, another prime free-time activity.
       For finding time for embroidery no one does this more than the Dao.  Unless everyone is out in the fields for planting or harvesting, whenever visitors come to a Dao village in relatively clement weather, they will see pairs, groups or individual Dao women and girls sitting outside busy with their needles.  Frequently changing the thread colors they embroider cross-stitched designs in floral, geometric and other patterns on black cotton cloth for their next coats and trousers.
       Besides creating the most attractive and exotic clothing ensembles in the area, Dao embroidery skills are considered a personal asset for a young woman’s marriage prospects.  To be a good embroiderer requires paying attention to detail, a sense of balance and proportion, long-term planning and a good measure of patience.  These are also qualities desirable in a good housewife.      
       Trekking companies arrange itineraries to include stops in different ethnic minority villages.  Travelers can also rent a motorbike and turn south out of the south end of Sapa along a road above a long valley backed by high mountains.  In a single day’s drive they can visit Hmông, Dao and Giáy villages.  They can also make a stop at a peculiar set of boulders next to the main road above the Giáy village of Tả Vân.  
inscribed stone
       These feature inscribed lines, straight and squiggly, on the surface of the stones, though nothing that resembles any kind of pictograph.  Local publicists tout these as an ancient Hmông alphabet, but none of these inscriptions, if that’s what they are, are in the shape of a text.  If they were meant to be magical, that knowledge is lost.  The world still waits for the researcher who finally deciphers them and solves the mystery.  Meanwhile, people will believe they must mean something.
       Excursions in other directions out of Sapa are also worthwhile.  Several kilometers out on the road back to Lào Cai a left turn on a branch road takes one to Tả Phìn.  It’s a gradual uphill road for 3 km to the ruins of a French monastery built in the 1930s.  The French eventually abandoned it and then bombed it as a Việt Minh base during the Vietnamese war for independence. From here the road descends for another 3 km, passing jagged hills and Hmông villages to the north, and ends at the large Dao village of Tả Phìn in the valley.  
       A final option is the high road heading west to Lai Châu province.  There are picturesque waterfalls along the way, one near the road, another requiring a long walk down the mountain slope to see.  The road zigzags over the mountains and then descends to a plain and the Lừ village of Bình Lư.  The Lừ live in stilted houses and are ethnically and culturally close to the animist Thái of Vietnam.
the ruined Tả Phìn Monastery
       In the 90s such excursions only appealed to the individual Western tourists.  The tourist industry grew in Sapa because of the town’s popularity with foreign tour groups, who often arrived Friday, stayed for the Saturday market and then left Sunday for the market at Bắc Hà, three hours away, before boarding a train back to Hanoi.
       That’s still the case, well into the next century, with foreign visitors.  On the weekends the town is overrun with tourists and other days practically restricted to the backpackers.  The novelty of foreigners has long worn off for the local people and except for home-stays on the trekking routes the encounters are more strictly commercial.  The Hmông girls who used to hang out with foreigners in town grew up and, thanks to their multi-lingual skills, got jobs with the trekking agencies. 
       On the other hand, the city authorities turned over the small, rarely used stadium in front of the church to minority merchants.  With their own selling venue they no longer pester tourists on the street or surround them flashing their goods as soon as the tourist leaves a restaurant, making for a much more relaxed, hassle-free environment.
ethnic minority marketplace
Love Waterfall (Thác Tình Yêu) nw of Sapa
       The other major change in recent years is the increasing numbers of Vietnamese tourists.  They don’t do much trekking, but enjoy the scenery, the waterfalls, the pond and parks and the special culinary dishes.  Antelope is off the menus now, and venison less common.  But nowadays, thanks to new fish farms in the district, diners can opt for American salmon and Russian sturgeon. 
       Far from being ruined by tourism, the Sapa experience may not be as fresh and exciting as the early 90s, but it is still quite enjoyable.  The ethnic minorities are likely to retain their preference for their traditional style at least another generation or two.  The cuisine and drinks will still be special and the mountains will always tower majestically all around.  These features guarantee Sapa’s permanent appeal to travelers, domestic and foreign.

the valley south of Sapa
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for more on Sapa and Ailaoshan see my e-book The Terrace Builders