Saturday, November 19, 2016

In Search of the Hà Nhì in Vietnam

                                                     by Jim Goodman
Hà Nhì village above Mường Hum
       By the end of last century I had already begun research in Yunnan’s Ailao Mountains, the range that runs along the southwest side of the Red River.  The area is famous for its ancient irrigated terraces and is dominated by ethnic minorities.  Dai and Zhuang inhabit the valleys, while Hani, Yi, Miao and Yao live in the hills.  Traditional ways were strong in this part of the province.  Nearly all the females preferred their ethnic clothing, old customs and festivals had been revived and economic reforms had improved their material lives.
       The Ailao Mountain range continues into Vietnam and in fact, near the popular tourist attraction of Sapa stands the second highest peak in the range.  Many of the sub-groups of minority nationalities on the Yunnan side also live along the border in northwest Vietnam.  They have different names sometimes:  Hmông instead of Miao, Dao (pronounced Zao) for Yao, Thái for Dai and Hà Nhì for Hani.   Having visited many of them in Yunnan, curiosity about what their life was like on the other side of the border prompted my first visit to Vietnam.  
Phong Thổ
       I was particularly interested in the Hà Nhì because they were the most numerous in Ailaoshan, the minority I knew best and the only one whose language I was somewhat familiar with, up to a point.  They are not very numerous in Vietnam, only about 9000, and in Hanoi at that time I could learn nothing about where they lived.  Assuming they must live somewhere adjacent to where they lived in China, my first attempt began at the Monday market day at Phong Th, northwest of Lai Châu town.        
       Also known by its Thái name Mường Xa, the small town lies beside a river, is backed by hills and is just a short ride to the Chinese border.  White Thái dominate the immediate vicinity, but on market day they were far outnumbered by three sub-groups each of Hmông and Dao, as well as some Giấy and Hà Ngì.  A few women were from the largest sub-group in Jinping County, Yunnan, recognizable by their blue and black jackets and the false braid they added to their hair and coiled it on top of the head.
       A larger group, mostly young women, dressed in blue or pink jackets with embroidered lapels and bands around the sleeves.  The outfit resembled some I’d seen in Yunnan, and local people identified them for me as Hà Nhì, but didn’t know where they lived.  They didn’t speak any Vietnamese, so we never learned.  But later on I never found the identified as one of Vietnam’s Hà Nhì sub-groups, so presumed they came from across the border.
Hà Nhìi n P:hong Thổ
Hà Nhì girli n Phong Thổ
       My next stop was Tam Đường, a pleasant town with some Dao and Hmông in the streets and small hills speckling the urban area.  No Hà Nhì villages nearby, though, and in the Tam Đường Đất Thursday market no Hà Nhì appeared.  However, when I returned to Tam Đường I spotted two young women walking on the street wearing outfits I’d not seen before; long black coats, decorated with silver studs, color trim and bands of color on the sleeves.  I snapped pictures, but there was nobody around to tell me who they were.  Only after I returned to Hanoi, visited the Ethnology Museum and picked up books, I learned they were Hà Nhì, but from Mường Tẻ, the extreme northwest.
Hà Nhì Hoa girl in  Tam Đường
       Even if I had known that then I wouldn’t have reversed directions.  My next stop was Sapa.  High up in the hills, in full view of Phansipan, Vietnam’s tallest peak, with rice terraces cut into the slopes, Sapa bore the closest resemblance yet to the mountain towns I knew in Ailaoshan, Yunnan.  Most of the villages in the vicinity were Black Hmông or Red Dao, but the small yet interesting city museum included displays of the clothing, artifacts and daily life of the Hà Nhì as well, from Bát Xát district to the north.    
       After my museum visit I dined in a restaurant where I sat at a table with the young, personable, bi-lingual, Vietnamese founder of the new Green Sapa Tour Company.  He had himself not yet visited a Hà Nhì village, but to meet them we could go to the Sunday market day in Mường Hum village, west of Bát Xát, which Hà Nhì regularly attended.  That was to be my last full day in the area, so I agreed.       
       We set out at six a.m. on a foggy, drizzly morning and reached Lào Ca in 90 minutes.  From there northwest to Bát Xát was another half hour, but through a flat, boring landscape.  The town had been built on a new location in recent years, but the original village still existed a few kilometers west of the town, and it was also hosting market day that Sunday.  At that early hour it was mostly Giấy setting up stalls, along with a few Dao and Hmông.  This market area was rather small and we pressed on to the much bigger venue at Mường Hum, still another hour away.
      The road ascended into rolling hills and eventually wound down into the riverside town of Mường Hum.  Low-lying villages in the area are Giấy, with well-tended terraces and sturdy, stilted houses, but most people in the market were from the surrounding hills.  Red Dao women dressed a little differently from those around Sapa, with tall, tubular turbans, sometimes decorated with silver ornaments and, except for the babies, the young girls wore the same outfits and turbans as their mothers.  Dao men also dressed in traditional clothes, though less colorful than the women, consisting of plain black, side-fastened jackets and black turbans.
       Three different Hmông sub-groups were in attendance:  the Black Hmông I was familiar with in Sapa, with their black jackets and knee-length trousers; the Flowery Hmông I’d seen in Tam Đường, wearing short jackets and bulky batik skirts embellished with strips of appliqué; and the Red Hmông, whose women extended the length of their hair with red braids.
young Black Hà Nhì woman
older Black Hà Nhì woman
       Fortunately for me, the Mường Hum market also attracted a large number of Hà Nhì women and girls.  I recognized them as the same sub-group that dominates the Jinping Yunnan vicinity and was surprised they lived this far east of Jinping.  In Vietnam they are known as the Black Hà Nhì, after the main color of the women’s outfit—black jackets with colored trimming and plain black trousers.
       Long-sleeved, loose and hanging down to the hips, the side-fastened Hà Nhì woman’s jacket is black with blue or green cuffs and a wide, horseshoe-shaped band of color across the chest.  Usually this band is blue, either plain or with crisscross blue stitching and jackets may also have another band along the sides and lower hen of the back.  Some of the younger women brighten these up with white and red stitching.  Around the neck they wear beads and coins.  They tie long woolen braids to their hair and coil the lot around the top of the head like a turban.  Young girls dress the same as their mothers, but do not braid and coil their hair, but wear a round, ornamented cap instead.
buying sugar cane in the market
Hà Nhì thread sellers
       They had darker skin tones and more angular faces than the Hmông and Dao in the market.  A group of Hà Nhì women occupied a corner of the market square behind a long, low table laden with loops of different colors of mercerized sewing thread.  Dao and Hmông women were their customers.  I decided to approach them and see how far I could get talking to them in their own language. 
       At that time Mường Hum was not accustomed to foreign visitors.  Nearly all tourists in Sapa for the weekend spent Sunday in Bấc Hà, in the hills east of the Red River.  I became quite a curiosity that day just because I was the only foreigner.  After conversing pleasantly with the thread sellers in Hà Nhì, showing them photos of the Hani in Ailaoshan including Jinping, I graduated into a sensation.  ̣(Also shocked the guide.)
       As a result, we learned where the nearest Hà Nhì village was, about five kilometers up the mountain.  It was near noon, the morning drizzle had resumed, so after a quick lunch we drove to the village, nestled in a grove surrounded by undulating rows of terraces.  The houses, with peaked, thatched roofs were the same shape as those in Jinping villages, but with walls of split bamboo instead of brick. 
Hà Nhì village near Mường Hum
      A family invited us inside for a drink and we found the houses had no windows, the only illumination being small oil lamps.  Furniture consisted of mats and stools and a single bed.  We sat around the central fireplace and sipped the local specialty—cassava wine.  I learned they held the same major festivals of the Jinping Hani, the long-table collective feast and the swing festival, but also others for venerating the forests and the water sources.  They relied on their own medicinal plants for treating illness, rather than pills or other remedies from the town pharmacies.  And if that didn’t work, they called on the services of a shaman.  They were obviously poorer than the Jinping Hani, but their only real complaint was that the Dao higher up were drawing off a disproportionate amount of water from the reservoir. 
       The rain picked up, cutting the trip short because the guide worried about the road condition.   We made it down without mishap and I returned to Lào Cai and then Hanoi and then bookstores and museums to learn more about the border people.   As a result, in three months I was back in Vietnam, this time bound for Mường Tè.  This was another rarely visited town, for it was way off the beaten track and foreigners weren’t allowed past the town then.  The nearest Hà Nhì village was a new settlement next to the road, rather modernized and nobody in traditional clothing.  Mường Tè didn’t have a regular market day, so to meet Hà Nhì, I had to hope some mountain dwellers would come to town while I was there.
Hà Nhì woman in Mường Tè
       Another problem was that the local La Hũ minority women dressed in the same outfit as the Hà Nhì.  It’s difficult to determine who took after whom.  The Kucong branch of Yunnan’s Lahu wore the same ensemble, but I’d also seen the same headdress and coat, though shorter, on Hani women across the border in Luchun County.  The nearest La Hủ village was just three km before the town.  But when I tried to visit, just as I caught a glimpse of the women, and before I could take pictures, a scowling, officious man in an army jacket told me foreigners were not allowed in the village.  Go out now.
       I returned to Mường Tè, but as the market was deserted, I spent the rest of the day in the friendly White Thái village just beyond the town.  Other minorities live in the district—Si La, Công, Mảng and White Hmông.  But only a couple Hmông women turned up in town during my stay. 
       I soon discovered one way to tell the La Hủ from the Hà Nhì, even before I had a chance to try speaking with them.  The La Hủ were uniformly skittish.  Mothers hid their babies’ faces, women scurried out of view and even the men looked frightened.  Hà Nhì women just looked at me nonchalantly.  The men nodded a greeting. 
       A Vietnamese shopkeeper informed me the group near us was Hà Nhì, not La Hủ.  Hà Nhì Hoa, he called them, the sub-group called Flowery Hà Nhì, after the vibrant deployment of color on their clothing.  When I told him I could speak some Hà Nhì, he invited them over to meet me.
       They were quite pleased to chat, since we spoke in their language.  I told them of my travels in China other Hà Nhì I’d met, showed photographs and basically led the conversation so we could keep to my limited vocabulary.  One older man could speak Chinese with me, while the market Vietnamese came to join, too.  I could speak a little Vietnamese by then, so it was a tri-lingual encounter.
Hà Nhì Hoa in Mường Tè
headdress of the Hà Nhì Hoa
       As in Mường Hum, I found that the Hà Nhì Hoa basically lived the same way, materially and spiritually, as their ethnic counterparts in Yunnan.  They didn’t have quite the same irrigation system as in Luchun County, where water flows all year down the slope, terrace by terrace.  But they shared the same festivals, customs, type of village shrine and ate the same kind of food that I had observed in Yunnan.
       My encounters with Hà Nhì in Vietnam were limited by time and by government restrictions that didn’t exist in Yunnan.  But besides the information I got from my conversations, there was another trait I found common to Hà Nhì sub-groups in both countries.  They are a friendly, polite, hospitable people, proud of their ethnic heritage and easy to talk with, on either side of the border.

Mường Tè
                                                                           * * *    
         for more on the Hà Nhì, both sides of the border, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

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