Monday, June 6, 2016

Rainy Day Markets in NW Hà Giang

                                                       by Jim Goodman

Hmông women in Vĩnh Yên
       We were headed for nw Hà Giang, a province famous for its rugged mountain scenery and preponderance of ethnic minorities.  We didn’t have time for the more scenic parts of Hà Giang north of the capital city, so on the advice of friends in Hanoi familiar with the border areas, we opted for Xín Mân, in the northwest corner, assured that if we timed our arrival for a Saturday night, we could enjoy the weekly market the following day, a scene dominated by colorful minorities.
       Xín Mân was to be the last stop before crossing into Yunnan, China on a journey that began in H Chí Minh City and had included stops in the Central Highlands, Hi An and Huế.  We’d had fairly good weather so far, but that ceased in heavily overcast Hanoi.  Then the day we were to take the night train to Lào Cai the city experienced its heaviest rainfall in many years.  Hoàn Kiếm Lake overflowed into the city streets, most of which were impassable by dark as we left for the train station.  After many detours, we had to walk the last few blocks in a downpour with water up to our knees.  Fortunately the train was delayed.  As it turned out, it was the last to depart before they had to close the train service for two days.
Giáy woman, Vĩnh Yên
       It wasn’t raining when we arrived in Lào Cai the next morning, but the driver we had arranged to meet us informed us that the short route to Xín Mân via Bc Hà was blocked by landslides.  We would have to take a long detour, first south, then up through western H Giang to reach Xín Mân.  It would probably take all day.  Since we didn’t have another choice, off we went.
       The drive south along the eastern side of the Red River was not particularly interesting until we made a turn to the northeast and came to Vĩnh Yên, a village 20 km from the Lào Cai-Hà Giang provincial border.  It was just another plains village of no particular attraction.  But we happened to arrive on the day the international aid organization Oxfam was delivering supplies to the local people.  So an unusually large number of ethnic minorities were there to receive the handouts; Hmông, Nùng, B Y and Giáy.
       The Hmông belonged to the Hmông Hoa (Flowery Hmông) sub-group, so named for the bright, colorful jackets and skirts worn by the women.   Hmông women cover practically the entire surface of their long-sleeved, side-fastened jackets and bulky, calf-length pleated skirts with thin bands of appliqué and panels of embroidery, with red the color most employed.  The outfit takes several months to stitch together and women spend most of their free time working on it. 
Nùng women,VĨnhYên
       Younger women were bare-headed or wore headscarves.  Older ones wore headscarves or broad, circular hats.  And all ages wore typical Hmông ornaments like silver neck rings and big round earrings loaded with little pendants.  The Hmông Hoa are the dominant Hmông sub-group in western Hà Giang, eastern Lào Cai and northern Lai Châu provinces and we would meet them again in Xín Mân.
       In stark contrast to the resplendent Hmông clothing, the outfits worn by Nùng women were almost somber.  They comprised a black turban with one end falling to the shoulders, a long black coat and black trousers.  Besides a blue sash belt and a couple of red tassels on the turban end, they display a heavy dose of multiple colors on their embroidered and fringed shoulder bags.
colorful Nùng shoulder bag
       Like the Tày and the Thái further west, the Nùng are part of the Tai-Kedai linguistic group.  Like them, they are also wet-rice cultivators living in the valleys.  They were the nearest residents to Vĩnh Yên and we passed several Nùng villages in the area, with their sturdy, stilted wooden houses with tiled or thatched roofs.
       The Tai-Kedai group also includes the Giáy and B Y minorities, generally living on the lower slopes of the hills.  Giáy women wear black or blue side-fastened, long-sleeved jackets over plain black trousers, headscarves and little or no jewelry.  They trim the jacket with bands of contrasting colors around the cuffs, the upper arms and lapel.  B Y women wore similar jackets but usually with the addition of a large black bib in front that hung to the hips, the edges trimmed in blue and a few flowers embroidered on the front.  They braided their hair, coiled it around the top of the head and wore a silver-studded band beneath.
Giãy people receiving the Oxfam handouts
       The sign Oxfam put up at Vĩnh Yên announced the event as flood and storm relief aid.  The items distributed, however, seemed out of synch with that theme.  Each recipient got a rubber-plastic basin, towels, soap, toothbrush and other toiletries, as if Oxfam wanted these uncouth minorities to clean up, wash their faces, brush their teeth and get civilized.
       I don’t know if any of the beneficiaries pondered the nature of the handouts.  They were probably just happy to get anything useful for free.  They were certainly in a good mood and quite friendly towards us.  Vĩnh Yên does not have a regular market day and is not near any tourist trekking route.  From the surprised, delighted, inquisitive expressions on their faces, we had the feeling we were the first foreigners they encountered in the flesh.  They posed proudly and happily, as if being photographed was a form of flattery—a mutually exciting encounter.
typical traditional house in western Hà Giang
       After an hour the activity began to dissolve and we departed with a farewell wave from a group of Giáy women and headed for Hà Giang.  After Vit Giang we turned north and drove along a high road flanking the valleys, passing settlements of the Red Dao, another very traditional minority group, virtually all of whom we saw dressed in traditional clothing. 
       In the late afternoon it began raining again.  By the time we reached Hoàng Su Phì it was already dark and we got stuck in the mud a few km west of the town and had to get a passing truck to pull us loose.  Another such patch of slippery mud confronted us just short of Xín Mân.  Fortunately, this time the driver negotiated the vehicle successfully through, thereby saving us from the 200.000 đng fee (about ten dollars) he said Xín Mân drivers charged to pull vehicles out of the muck.
Xín Mân market day in the rain
       We arrived in Xín Mân early evening.  The rain ceased for a while, but resumed late at night and was forecasted to continue, at varying levels of intensity, all day Sunday, Xín Mân’s market day.  Landslides in the hills had also blocked access to Xín Mân for many villages, so attendance would be reduced.
       Xín Mân is a mountain town lying along and above the Chy River, surrounded by coruscating hills and backed by two towering peaks.  We had a few breaks in the clouds Sunday that gave us an opportunity to appreciate the setting.  We could also see how steep the hills were and how easily a landslide could temporarily shut a village off from the outside world.  In this modest-sized town, Vietnamese run the commercial establishments and dominate its population.  Villages in the vicinity are home to Hmông, Dao (pronounced Zao) and two small Tai-Kedai minorities—La Chí and B Y, the former residing here a long time, the latter, part of China’s Bouyei nationality, settling here in the mid-19th century.
Bố Y woman, Xín Mân
Hmông Hoa in Xín Mân
Like the Nùng we met in Vĩnh Yên, La Chí women dressed in long black coats over black trousers, without the blue sash belt, but with colored trim on the cuffs and coat hems and a row of silver buttons down the front of the coat.  They bundled their hair into a black cap and most wrapped a colored scarf around it.  The B Y dressed in a similar fashion to what we saw among the few B Y at Vĩnh Yên, but without the embroidered bib over the jacket.
mountain stream after a heavy rain
       The Dao villages must have been the ones cut off by landslides, for no one from that community turned up that day.  The majority of the folks who braved the slippery trails were Hmông Hoa, mostly dressed like we’d seen in Vnh Yên, with perhaps the addition of a long rectangular apron in front.  But apparently a branch of this sub-group also lives around here, for some of the Hmông women wore the same style jackets and bulky pleated skirts, but with light blue the dominant color rather than red, plus plain hoop earrings without the filigreed pendants.         
       Considering the continuous rain, it was remarkable how crowded and active the market scene was.  Some of the sellers huddled under roofs or awnings of shops along the main street.  Others set up small stalls with canvas coverings overhead.  Still others, especially the Hmông, operated under umbrellas, wearing raincoats and laying out their goods on the sidewalk, just a few cm above the street, which was flush with running water.  Buyers had to stand in ankle-deep water to inspect the vegetables on offer.  Next to them might be a B Y or La Chí woman standing with one hand holding an umbrella and the other hand a silver necklace.
       Xín Mân is a popular stop for motorcycling tourists, so the market crowd was used to the presence of foreigners.  People were friendly and polite, but without the looks of astonishment we witnessed in Vĩnh Yên.  Ordinarily, travelers on market day would spend time examining the products for sale, walking out to scenic viewpoints or trying to strike up conversations with the locals.  But with water running down the street, plastic coverings obscuring the goods and clouds covering the hills most of the time, the first two options were out.  And the pattering of heavy raindrops against rooftops, tent flaps and umbrellas made ordinary conversation difficult, too.
La Chí and Hmông in Hoàng Su Phì
       Fearing worsening road conditions, we left Xín Mân just before noon, when the market was at its most active.  We headed back to Hoàng Su Phì, 30 km away, this time in the daylight, with views of the muddy swollen streams that tumbled down the hillsides and flooded the road.  We got through them safely as well as the two problematic spots of the night before, for they had mostly drained away.  When we arrived in Hoàng Su Phì it was the peak hours of its own market day.
       Hoàng Su Phì is a little larger than Xín Mân.  As in the latter, Vietnamese dominate the town’s population, while ethnic minorities reside in all the nearby villages.  The Hmông Hoa were again the largest contingent.  Besides hawking herbs and vegetables, they also ran stalls in the only indoor venue, selling Hmông clothing components, jewelry and accessories to other Hmông.
Hmông clothing market, Hoàng Su Phì
      Many more La Chí women turned up here than in Xin Mân, crouched over their herbs and vegetables under the awnings of shops.  Many Dao women were also wandering the streets, a branch of what Vietnamese identify as the Black Dao. Their rather plain black clothing was very different from the almost flamboyant, heavily embroidered apparel of the Red Dao we’d seen north of Vit Quang. 
       They wore a loose, side-fastened black jacket that hung to the hips, trimmed with a thin red band along the lapel and sides, and black trousers.  They tied their hair in a bun and covered the front part with a black cap tied with a braid of light blue woolen thread.  Despite their very dissimilar appearance, the Black Dao speak the same dialect, follow the same religion, customs and social organization and live in the same manner as the Red Dao or any other branch of the Dao.
       The same holds true for the Hmông sub-groups, where the outfits worn by Black Hmông around Sapa contrast so sharply with those of the Hmông Hoa in Lào Cai and Hà Giang.  It’s easy to understand how customs and traditions can remain intact after sub-groups split off and move elsewhere to live.  Living in the same conditions in the new location, they follow the ways that have served them in the past.
young Dao woman, Hoàng Su Phì
older Dao woman, Hoàng Su Phì
       But what accounts for the great diversity in apparel, not only within a single ethnic group, but also within sub-groups?  They live in similar environments and yet the cut, shape, color and types of embellishment, like embroidery, appliqué and ornaments, of their clothing components and accessories can differ enormously, even when the sub-groups live next to each other.  How did that come about?
       So the mystery of ethnic fashion remains unsolved.  Perhaps nw Hà Giang might be a good place to research this.  There’s plenty of ethnic variety, warm and friendly people, great mountain scenery and it would be an enjoyable type of research.  It would be worth going there again.  But next time I better do it in the dry season.

Hmông girl,  Xín Mân market
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