Monday, January 7, 2019

Motorcycling Around Bắc Hà


                                   by Jim Goodman

Hmông women tending a stall in the Sín Chéng market
       At the turn of this century, when foreigners sought to explore the mountain scenery and ethnic variety of northern Vietnam, they went to Sapa.  With a full view of Phansipan, at 3143 meters Vietnam’s highest mountain, lots of Hmông and Dao minorities in town, especially Saturday market day, Sapa had already been popular since it was opened to tourists in the late 80s.  They could take treks around the area and stay in minority villages or climb up to the peak of Phansipan. 
       About the only excursion out of the district visitors might take was a trip to Bc Hà, about 100 km away on the other side of the Red River, for the Sunday market.  They arrived in late morning, when the town was full of Flowery Hmông, who dressed very differently from the Black Hmông around Sapa, and left mid-afternoon when the market action was receding.  Hardly anyone stayed the night there, or visited during the week.
hill scenery near Lùng Phìn
       As the years rolled on Sapa became very congested with tourists, foreign and domestic, who became subject to increasing commercial pressure from minority women and girls selling handicrafts.  Travelers then began paying more attention to Bắc Hà.  The town lay in a broad valley surrounded by hills, a picturesque setting even if not as dramatic as Sapa’s.  In 2006 the renovated colonial era palace re-opened and so the town now had an historical attraction.  Instead of a quick Sunday afternoon visit, people now stayed a night or two.
       In recent years, though, for the Sunday market day, often more foreigners are present than local people.  And a portion of the local Hmông have become like the minority merchants on the streets of Sapa, constantly importuning foreigners to buy something from them.  Bắc Hà’s hotels are full on weekends and home-stay options have cropped up all over the suburbs.  During the week the town is much quieter, yet that is a more interesting time to visit, for towns across the district have their own market days, where foreign visitors are too few to notice and no one pesters them to buy anything.
Hmông child in Sín Chéng
Hmông girl's ornamented turban
       With this in mind, my friend and I planned on exploring the district during the week and departing Sunday morning.  Arriving on a Tuesday evening, we rented motorbikes and set out early next morning for Sín Chéng’s market day, in the northwest part of Bắc Hà district.  The road ran north about 30 km to Simacai through lovely hills with terraced slopes and scattered villages.  From here we turned southwest, passing views of yet more terraced hills with even higher mountains as a backdrop.
       A small, narrow town, Sín Chéng lies on a high ridge.  For this Wednesday market stalls filled the lanes around its central intersection.  Just down the slope below them were the noodle shops and covered market lanes, mostly selling Hmông clothing.  In the field beside them was the livestock market.
Thu Lao woman in Sín Chéng
Tày women in Bản Liền
       About 90% of the people in Sín Chéng that day were Hmông, almost all women and all dressed in Hmông style.  This could vary, though.  Some wore the long bulky traditional Flowery Hmông skirt that was once the norm throughout the district.  On top they wore side-fastened jackets with thick bands of appliqué around the cuffs, sleeves and neckline.  Most women, of all ages, wore factory-produced skirts, knee-length, pleated and printed with innumerable kinds of patterns, some copying Hmông designs, some not. 
Bàn Liền market day
       The contemporary Flowery Hmông female outfit is not so uniform-like as before.  With the traditional look, the jacket’s background color would vary, but the bands of appliqué were always in the same places and in the same style, while the long and heavy skirt was covered with wide horizontal bands of appliqué with similar motifs. 
       Nowadays no two skirts are alike, just shaped the same and the jacket variety is enormous, especially among the young women.  They also go in more for sparkling decorations on the clothes and turbans, like filigreed silver, pendants, rings and discs.  It all looks very modern, but is still Hmông style.  No other minority women would dress like that.
waterfall near Tà Cù Tỳ
sign of a ritual location
       Besides the Hmông, those in the Sín Chéng market included some Giấy and Thu Lao women, Vietnamese and six other foreigners, who like us were pretty much ignored.  The Giấy wore ordinary, side-fastened jackets in pastel colors, over plain black trousers.  The Thu Lao, a branch of the Tày, wore a collarless, long-sleeved jacket over an ankle-length skirt, all black except for colored bands around the sleeve cuffs.  They also wore a tall black turban with a small white tab protruding over the right eyebrow.
Black Dao ritual dance performers
       The market began closing down around one p.m., so after lunch we headed back going south through western Bấc Hà district.  The hills were never too steep for our motorbikes, the scenery excellent, accented by a small waterfall along the way.  We re-entered Bắc Hà town via the large Hmông village of Bản Phố above it.  The road down to town was lined with cherry trees in full blossom, with occasional fields of plum trees, also flowering, to the sides.  This was our longest ride of the week, but quite satisfactory. 
       Market day Thursday was at Bản Liền, a Tày village to the east, less than an hour’s ride through similar attractive scenery.  Tày hamlets start appearing after about halfway, characterized by stilted houses with thatched or tiled roofs standing right among the terraces.  Bản Liền’s market day is a very localized one that starts early.  Other than a handful of Hmông, everyone there was Tày, except us, plus a Frenchman and his Vietnamese guide.
writhing on the floor for the final dance
       Tày women wore knee-length, side-fastened black coats over black trousers.  The only color embellishment was a bright sash belt and a little trimming on the lapel, cuffs or hems.  They carried brightly embroidered shoulder bags, though, often featuring a triple fan motif.  The one baby we saw, carried by a Tày man, wore an embroidered cap with coins along the brim.  The market began shutting down around 10:30, a time for four Tày men to call me over to drink rice liquor with them.  I acquiesced and downed one shot with each of them, explained that was enough because I had to drive, and they didn’t persist, thanked me, shook my hand and wished me well.
       Our next destination was Tả Củ Tỷ, a Dao village (pronounced Zao) 30 km north.  The road passed by more Tày hamlets and stilted houses.  Then, a few km before Tả Củ Tỷ, the road dipped a little and passed by a waterfall.  Different from the long thin cataracts of the one we saw the day before, this one was shorter, swerved around a boulder in its path and plunged into the pool beside the road.  Tả Củ Tỷ was just around the bend and up the slope, the houses sitting on the ground and not stilted.
Dao shaman with scriptures and drum
young Dao women, Tà Cù Tỳ
       Tả Củ Tỷ’s residents are from the Black Dao sub-group, so named for the dominant color of their clothing.  Both men and women wear plain black, side-fastened, long-sleeved jackets over black trousers.  Women might add a thin band of blue or red on the jacket lapel, side hems and cuffs and white bands around the headscarf.  Men don a wide black turban.
mountain view in northern Bắc hà district
       In the yard of one of the first houses we passed stood a pair of crossed poles with streamers hanging down from various points.  This was a sign of some sort of ritual going on inside.  Those standing outside at once waved to us to stop and come inside.  The event was the second day of the three-day initiation rite for a young man into full adulthood.  And by a wonderful coincidence, we were just in time for the start of the ritual dances.  The host asked us each to contribute 20,000 đồng (about $1) to a tray full of money, presumably for expenses and the food afterwards.
       The room was decorated with flags, banners, paintings and paper cutout streamers, while several men made up the troupe.  Four of them wore long red robes and two of this group had pictures of Taoist deities affixed to their turbans.  The others wore a mixture of Dao and modern clothes.  Beside them sat the shaman, reading from a scriptural book and beating a drum.
traditional Hmông style in Cán Cấu
modern Hmông fashions in the Cán Cấu market
       The dances were slow in the beginning, mainly walking in a circle or standing and gesticulating.  Then the tempo increased and included hopping and knee bending.  For the finale, several of the men rolled wildly on the floor.  The show lasted about an hour, followed by a big feast and lots of rice liquor.  Before we left, our hosts invited us to return in the morning for the final rituals, though no one could tell us what time.
       We arrived at 8:00 next morning, but the main ritual, whatever it was, had finished.  All that remained was a shaman inside the door, reciting prayers while seated beside a round bamboo table full of ritual paraphernalia.  Everywhere else inside people were loading dishes onto long tables for the big feast and we were naturally invited to partake.
Flowery Hmông in the Cán Cấu market
       The repast was even more sumptuous than the one the day before, comprising several different preparations of pork and chicken, some vegetables, soup and lots of rice liquor.  Men and women ate at the same tables and the women, young and old, also indulged in the liquor.  Only after our leisurely meal did we learn Friday was Tả Củ Tỷ’s market day.  But we were too late already.  Like at Bản Liền, it finished early.  After a ride to a few scenic spots on the way west to Lùng Phìn, we turned south, took a longer pause among the cherry blossoms above Bấc Hà, and returned to our hotel.
       Our Saturday program was to head north to market day in Cán Cấu.  Since this town is on the way to Simacai, we rode across the same scenery as the other days.  So we decide to take the turnoff above Lùng Phìn to Cán Cấu Lake.  The road was cut into a very steep ridge for about five km to where we could view the lake below, small and placid, backed by high wooded mountains.
       We didn’t feel like hiking down to the shoreline and then back up again, especially since the morning fog hadn’t lifted completely.  But as we drove past the viewpoint the road suddenly began descending along a serpentine route to the valley far below.  After that the road turned east towards Cán Cấu, following a stream.  It was certainly a beautiful back way in to the town, but too strenuous to return the same way so we resolved to go back to Bắc Hà via the main road we were familiar with.
trying on a new Hmông outfit
little Hmông girl at Cán Cấu
       Cán Cấu lies further along this stream, a little bigger town than those we’d stopped in so far.  The market area lay beyond the town, with parking areas in front, behind and on one side.  The area was bigger than Sín Chéng’s market and, like the latter, had a livestock market, all buffaloes in this case, on the slope behind the covered stalls.
       The biggest difference between Cán Cấu and the other places we’d visited was the presence of foreigners.  The parking lot at the far end held several minibuses for foreigners who’d come from Sapa or Lào Cai on their way to Bắc Hà, where they would spend the night and observe the Sunday morning market scene.  Cán Cấu was supposed to be their preview and in general the groups only stayed for about an hour.
winter cherry blossoms on the road above Bấc Hà 
       Actually, it more resembled Bắc Hà’s market back in 2000.  The tourists did not interact with the Hmông, nor penetrate very far into the market grounds.  The Hmông were polite and friendly to those who did engage with them or buy something.  But except for a handful of Bắc Hà Hmông, who came with bags of trinkets and followed the groups around, the local Hmông ignored the foreigners.
       Stalls along the road offered vegetables, spices, herbs, bamboo items and other necessities.  Hmông people comprised the sellers and the buyers.  All the women dressed Hmông style, like at Sín Chéng, where a few wore the traditional bulky long skirt, while most favored the factory-made pleated and printed skirts.  Young women and children donned bright and flashy outfits accented by lots of silver jewelry and even the smallest wore silver ornaments and fancy headgear.  The many rows of stalls selling modern Hmông clothing were the busiest of the day.
       Cán Cấu’s market wound down mid-afternoon, long after the last tourist buses had departed.  With so much color and beauty constantly passing before our eyes, we stayed late to enjoy it all longer.  On our ride back to Bắc Hà, the late afternoon sun bathed the hills with a golden hue and illuminated for us once more the plum and cherry blossoms on the way.  It was a fitting conclusion to four days of fun and fascination.

Dao feast after the rituals atTảCủ Tỷ 

                                                                                 * * *    

                     Delta Tours Vietnam offers excursions to mountain destinations like Bắc Hà,                                            See https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/other-tour-options

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