Friday, May 10, 2013

The Longest Dinner in Yunnan

                                           by Jim Goodman

Hani village surrounded by its irrigated terraces
       One of the great unpublicized pleasures of Yunnan is hiking in the Ailao Mountains.  This is the range running along the right bank of the Red River, from central Yunnan southeast to Hekou, and on into northern Vietnam.  No snow peaks in this part of the province and the summits rarely rise above 2500 meters.  Deep valleys sometimes, but no outstanding gorges or major waterfalls.  But throughout Ailaoshan the slopes of the mountains are wonderfully terraced and usually irrigated, so that they remain flooded all year.  The swirling lines of the terrace walls follow every conceivable contour and the eye never tires of them. Villages speckle the mountains, home to several colorfully dressed minorities, of whom the Hani are the most numerous and among the most hospitable people in the region.
Hani rice terraces, Yuanyang County
      Lower Ailaoshan, the four counties between the Red River and the Vietnam border--Honghe, Luchun, Yuanyang and Jinping--is the Hani heartland.  Six sub-groups live in Yuanyang alone, differing in costumes and minor cultural aspects.  But all of them share the same material lifestyle, growing rice in irrigated terraced fields, said to be the prototypes for the entire region.  Some terraces are still in use since being described by chroniclers of the early Song Dynasty.  And in recent decades, thanks to fertilizers and new strains of rice, their annual yield is greater than ever.  Collectively, the Hani have advanced from mere self-sufficiency to a small measure of prosperity.
       Though one may prefer to simply wander all day along paths through the fields, and marvel at the engineering skills it took to create this special landscape, one cannot get very far in Hani areas if there around anyone's meal time.  Often the first encounter in a remote Hani village leads to an invitation to drink and dine.  The Hani of Ailaoshan see the arrival of a visitor as a welcome interruption of the daily routine and strive to make the most of the event.  Hospitality is second nature to these people, an indication of a basically friendly, honest and outgoing character, brimming with self-confidence.
traditional Hani houses
        This innately gregarious people will turn the dinner invitation into a social event.  Many are those in Yunnan who advise their guests to "eat slowly," but the Hani take that as an order.  Without guests the meal might not take too long, but having guests is considered a better way to dine.  And when guests are on hand, male guests in particular, then the meal will be augmented by lots of alcohol, tobacco and conversation.  Women and children, who don't drink, finish soon, while the men may drag it out for up to two hours.
       The table will hold several dishes.  Meat, fish, chicken, bean curd, leaf vegetables, beans and radishes might comprise the fare, perhaps seasonally supplemented by edible fungi and insects, small fish, snails or baby frogs netted in their flooded terraces, and cassavas, which used to be the main filler when the previous year's rice ran out.  Rice itself, as well as soup, is only served to the women and children in the beginning.  The Hani follow the general Yunnanese style of dining, in which those who are going to take alcohol with their meal, whether it's beer or distilled spirits, first conclude their drinking before having rice or soup.
heavy drinking is part of a big meal
       Thus the men, all of whom must drink, for it's a social affair after all, nibble at the several dishes in between repeated toasts with cups of strong liquor.  Every fifteen minutes or so one of the men passes out cigarettes and hands the water pipe to one of the diners as all the men pause for a tobacco break.  Hani men consider eating, drinking and smoking as related pleasures and so partake of them all at the same time.
       Several of Yunnan's minority groups are fond of tobacco.  Among the Wa, for example, the women smoke constantly in long, ornate silver pipes.  But others rarely smoke during meals, while for the Hani it is normal procedure.  When calling on a Hani house the guest is first given a clean, freshly filled bamboo water pipe, a pinch of Yunnanese blonde tobacco and a lighter.  Then the host will prepare tea.  In other societies the tea precedes the smoke.
       And at funerals, though Hani women in general don't smoke, whether the deceased is male or female a tobacco bong is placed at the side of the corpse and its spirit is invited to have a smoke.  When the body is buried a few tools and implements used by the person when living--knife and crossbow for a male, for example, and spindle and cooking pot for a female--go on top of the grave.  A tobacco bong is included for both.
three stones: for humans, animals and crops
       As the dinner drags on the water pipe needs cleaning and refilling and the dishes get cold.  The women, who have finished much earlier, keep watch over the meal.  When one man has finished smoking a woman takes the pipe away to ready it for the next.  As the contents of one or more dishes become half-consumed a woman comes to refill them.  If they turn cold she takes them back to the kitchen to reheat them.  When the bottle of spirits has been emptied she is there with a fresh one.
       Men's work in this strongly patriarchal society consists of heavy labor like terrace-building and repair, plowing, construction and long-distance trade.  But minibuses have replaced the old caravans and Hani men only work steadily part of the year.  In contrast, the women work all the time, in addition to their domestic chores.  In the fields they do the planting, weeding and harvesting, and together with the men the threshing.  They also do all the gardening, make the family's clothing, and do the bulk of he buying and selling at the periodic market days in their vicinity.  Besides trade, Hani women come to socialize, quite freely without the men around.  Perhaps because so much of their daily life depends on the women, Hani men accord them a great deal of respect and freedom of choice in matters of the women's own interests; marriage partners, for example.
Rhamatu rituals
       Among the items for sale at these markets are the components of Hani women's costume, as well as those of their neighbors the Yi, Miao, Dai and Yao.  Hani women of all ages wear traditional clothing every day and most are well off enough to afford three or four sets.  Silver jewelry in the Hani style may also be on offer, though the women save this for special occasions.  Women of other ethnic groups in the four counties also prefer their own traditional costumes.  Even the teenagers working temporarily in urban shops and restaurants usually dress in ethnic style, for their aesthetic sense is still within the tribal parameters.  Lower Ailaoshan, dominated by proud and self-assured ethnic minorities, may well be the most colorful part of the entire province.
dressing for the festival in Huangcaoling
       Because their material culture--terraced fields-works so well, and there is no way to mechanize that kind of farming, their mode of agriculture is likely to endure. Hence, the non-material aspects of their culture are also strong.  The women's preference for ethnic clothing is one example.  Use of the language in the urban areas is another, as is the maintenance of food preferences and domestic manners.  But, after costumes, the most public aspect is the continuation of traditional annual festivals.  Among the Hani, programs for events like the Swing Festival, Installing the Village Gate and New Rice will automatically include, besides the ceremonies, a leisurely banquet.
       The grandest feast of the year, however, is reserved for Rhamatu, the most important of the annual Hani festivals.  The event honors the dragon-spirit guardian of the sacred grove, a patch of woods at the edge of the traditional Hani village.  The spirit is incarnated in one of the trees and its deputy, the rhama-abaw, chosen at the outset of the festival, emcees the rites and activities.  Beyond its esoteric religious value, however, Rhamatu celebrates the unity and solidarity of the Hani village, for its main feature is a collective dinner held outdoors on the main street of the village.
reading the liver
      Rhamatu is a dry-season event, but different Hani sub-groups stage it at different times.  In Yuanyang County, for example, northern villages near the hill town of Xinjie hold it in late November, but around the southern township of Huangcaoling another sub-group begins it on the first tiger day following the Lunar New Year.  In Jinping and over the border in Vietnam it comes a month later.  Besides separate dates, the various sub-groups also differ in the ritual details.  Elaborate feasting is the main feature common to Rhamatu no matter which Hani sub-group.
   The first day mainly involves preparation for the second day.  The women are especially busy preparing food for the great feast.  A smaller dinner, requiring the presence of one man from each household, transpires the first evening in front of the dragon-spirit's tree, which has a modest fence installed around it.  Within this sits the rhama-abaw, beside an altar holding offerings like tiny cups of liquor, pieces of the sacrificial pig, painted eggs in bowls of colored glutinous rice, silver coins and a balance-stick.  A resident specialist comes to read the pig's liver and make prognostications.  Soon darkness falls and the men take their meal, and their liquor and tobacco, on the grounds in front of the tree.
Rhamatu feast,Huangcaoling
     Next day, though they are about to partake of a meal lasting the entire afternoon, that does not stop Hani men from having their ordinary mid-morning repast, along with the usual accompaniment of liquor and tobacco, consumed in the customary leisurely manner.  By the time they have finished it's nearly time to bring out the food for the public meal.  Just after mid-day members of each individual household carry tables laden with dishes from their homes to the main village street, setting them side by side in a long line occasionally broken by a space to allow men to pass to the other side of the tables and sit.
       Before taking seats the men stand in line at the far end to donate gifts to the rhama-abaw, consisting of a small amount of liquor and two cigarettes, one for the rhama-abaw and one for the dragon-spirit.  Then they choose a place to sit, pour a cup of liquor, pick up their chopsticks and start eating...slowly.  As every household must contribute one table's worth of food the quantity and variety is enormous.  It looks as though the village is displaying its wealth in the form of food. Every part of the pig, cooked in sundry different manners, will dominate the dinner, but chicken, beef, half a dozen or more species of fish, three or four kinds of edible insects, usually deep-fried in oil, green vegetables and cassavas, eggs and fruit are also part of the feast.
       The nibbling at the bowls of food, like the sipping of alcohol, is slow but steady, only interrupted (often!) by turns on the tobacco bong or the smoking of cigarettes.  About midway through the afternoon the men at one end of the line of tables call out to those at the other end, standing up and toasting their health.
       Meanwhile, in the open ground next to the rhama-abaw's end of the line the young women and children perform dances.  Though it's only the men taking part in the feast, the women dress in their newest and nicest traditional costumes and this is definitely the day to put on silver ornaments and accessories.  Not many of the dances are truly traditional, however, for in larger villages and townships a dance leader, usually a slightly older young woman, will create choreography just for this festival, often to Chinese tunes or even pop songs.          
Hani dancer at Rhamatu
Hani drummer girl
      Not until after five o'clock do the people begin to remove the tables back to their homes.  Guests, fully sated and quite as inebriated as their hosts, then have to find excuses to decline persistent invitations, now that the feast is over, to their new friends' houses for dinner and drinks!  This is, though, the chance for the women to enjoy some of the food they have so lovingly prepared.  An evening song and dance show rounds out the festival, a mixture of traditional dances and contemporary acts, also created for the occasion.
       The next day all is back to normal.  The traveler moves on to another section of Ailaoshan for another walk among the terraces, hoping for a splendid sunset to bounce colors off the water-filled terraces.  Failing that, one can hope for the next best alternative--an invitation to a Hani dinner.

one family's contribution to the collective feast
                                                                         * * *
                for more on Ailaoshan and the Hani, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

Thursday, May 9, 2013


                                                by Jim Goodman

    On a recent trip to Hanoi I got a phone call one afternoon from my closest Vietnamese friend, asking me if I’d like to try “the best bia hơi in Hanoi.”  Sure, I replied, always ready to enjoy a new venue for one of my favorite refreshments.   Bia hơi is fresh draft beer, brewed daily and delivered to several hundred places throughout the city and to towns and villages near the capital.  Larger bia hơi establishments open by late morning and serve food as well.  Small ones start serving only in the late afternoon, have no food or snacks and customers sit outside on the sidewalks on small stools, observing the bustling street life while they imbibe. 
Tạ Hiền bia hơi corner
    In either case, though, the beer is cheaper than that in bottles or cans.  Prices range from 5000 to 9000 đồng per glass or mug, which comes to about 25 to 45 cents US.  The cheapest bottled or canned beer is 10,000 đồng.  In a bar or restaurant, of course, it will be higher.  Bottled beer is available at most bia hơi places, but usually sold only after the shop has run out of bia hơi.  There may be a few customers in the crowd that prefer the bottled brew for one reason or another, but like to drink it in the bia hơi joints because, well, the whole bia hơi scene is so different from that of a bar.
    Hanoi people are quite sociable.  They like to go out with friends in small groups to dine at a streetside restaurant, drink coffee at a sidewalk café or meet for a few glasses of beer and some snacks at a bia hơi place.  In Hanoi, beer is cheaper than coffee and bia hơi the least expensive drink of all.  The atmosphere at a bia hơi joint is always friendly and after a group of friends have concluded their bia hơi session they will often vie with each other to cover the entire cost of the evening, rather than divide up the bill.  Occasionally, upon learning that his friends are too busy to join him this time, a Vietnamese man will go to his favorite haunt alone, confident that before he can order a second glass of beer someone from another table will invite him to come join them.
bia hơi for lunch

    Beer was not a traditional Vietnamese alcoholic beverage, but, like coffee, introduced by the French.  In fact, just a few years after the French formalized their control of all of Vietnam they set up the Hummel Beer Factory.  The customers were mainly the colonists themselves.  But when the Vietnamese finally evicted the French they simply took over the Bia Hummel brewery, renamed it Bia Hanoi and in 1957 removed it to a new location on Hoàng Hoa Thám Street in Ba Đình district.
    The production and distribution of fresh draft beer, bia hơi, did not begin until the early 60s.  The idea was to produce an inexpensive brew that the masses could afford in their leisure.  Even the glasses were made from the cheapest materials, without handles, to keep the overall costs to the minimum.  Fifty years or so after the first bia hơi establishment opened for business in an alley off Lý Nam Đế Street, most bia hơi venues still use those same cheap, fluted, “traditional” bia hơi glasses.
filling the glasses
    Tourists to Hanoi quickly learn about bia hơi and at some of the better-known bia hơi places foreigners make up a sizable percentage of the patrons.  One of the most popular venues in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the Tạ Hiền bia hơi corner, halfway between Hang Bạc and Hàng Buồm Streets, which starts filling up from 5 p.m.  Young Vietnamese also like to congregate here, mostly at the Phồ Cổ shop, while foreigners dominate the shops opposite it and the ones running up Lương Ngọc Quyến Street.  In the past year a new bia hơi joint has opened on Mã Mây Street, just past the Backpacker’s Hostel, catering mainly to foreigners.  Another, at the corner of Tạ Hiền and Hàng Buồm, has a mixed clientele of foreign residents and local Vietnamese youth.  Both, like most of the Tạ Hiền corner shops, open around 5 p.m. and charge 5000 a glass.
   My Vietnamese friends disparage these cheaper venues, claiming the beer is too adulterated and always take me to other joints.  The beer might cost 9000 đồng a glass, but does taste better.  I’m in Hanoi a few months per year and it seems with each visit they introduce me to a new bia hơi establishment.  I was a little skeptical when invited to “the best bia hơi in Hanoi.”  What would make it the best?  A nicer sort of building?  The snacks were especially delicious?  The waitresses more beautiful than elsewhere?  How could the beer be much better than the 9000 đồng variety we got at other bia hơi joints?
   I was to meet him at his shop at 5:30, which was an hour or so earlier than our usual link-up time for cold beers and warm cheers.   Then shortly afterwards he called again, requesting I come at 5 instead.  When I arrived I hopped on his motorbike and he drove me to 115 Quán Thánh Road, near West Lake, to the No 1 Club, adjacent to the Hanoi Tennis Club, which was part of the No. 1 Club’s facilities.  A security guard confronted us as we drove inside the compound to park the bike, but when my friend told him we just came to drink beer he waved us in. 
the best bia hơi, but bring your own food
   The place has a security guard because the No.1 Club membership is restricted to high-ranking Party officials and their families.  Facilities include the tennis courts, an indoor gymnasium and swimming pool next to the courts and “the best bia hơi in Hanoi.”  The Hanoi Beer Company (Habeco) brewery on Hoàng Hoa Thám sends its best quality fresh beer to the No.1 Club every day, while every other establishment in the city receives a lesser or diluted quality in their allotment of 50-liter barrels of brew.  The best is reserved for the Party elite, one of the perks of high office.
About four years ago, without fanfare, announcement or advertising, the No. 1 Club began allowing us ordinary commoners the opportunity to drink this top-quality bia hơi, under certain conditions.  The beer is only available from 4:30 to 6:30 in the afternoon ̣(which explains why I met my friend earlier than usual) and sold by the pitcher.  Patrons must purchase tickets at 40,000 đồng per pitcher (about $1.95 US), which comprises about five glasses of beer.  Sales cease at 6:30, but patrons can get a last pitcher or two before that and remain on the premises until 8 p.m., when everyone has to leave.
bia hơi at the No. 1 Club
   The venue for drinking is the area between the tennis courts and the indoor gym, both of which are still off-limits for non-members.  Very little in the way of snacks is available, so people bring their own food and consume it there with the beer, which is entirely permissible.  I found it very easy stuff to drink, quite tasty, with a pleasant, energizing kind of high.  Satisfied regular customers, who are in general rich and successful businessmen who prefer this beer for its quality rather than its rather modest price, claim that no matter how much you drink of it, no headache or hangover will follow.  In fact, the only complaint anyone has here is simply that they can’t hang around and drink for a few more hours.

                                                                       * * *

Friday, May 3, 2013

Up the Sword Ladder

                                                                  by Jim Goodman
Hua Lisu woman, Tengchong County
       Imagine that you're a young Hua Lisu man in western Yunnan in the isolated mountains of Tengchong, Lianghe and Yingjiang Counties, who wants to powerfully impress a certain eligible young Lisu lady.  Like her mother and sisters she is a very old-fashioned Lisu and prefers the colorful traditional costume of a long-tailed blue jacket, with extra flaps around the shoulders and trimmings in red, yellow, white and green.  (The eye-catching jacket alone justifies their name, for Hua Lisu means Flowery Lisu in Chinese.)  This she wears over trousers that fall just past the knees and bright puttees wrapped in lacquered black rattan rings.  She looks especially charming when she puts on her collar-ring with silver pendants dangling from it down her chest, and dons the round turban embellished with white discs cut from shells.  She is certainly worth impressing and in traditional Hua Lisu culture there's a sure way for you to gain prestige, in her eyes and in the eyes of your rivals, a way to win a reputation as one of the boldest, most outstanding young men in the village--up the sword ladder.
Hua Lisu man
       Or picture yourself as an older, middle-aged man, raising a family, with teenaged children inclined to challenge your authority on the broader issues of life.  You need to enhance your prestige so they will heed your guidelines on proper Lisu behavior.  You also must participate in discussions with other household heads over issues like contracts with the logging companies, how much of the forest to cut, where to graze the animals and so on.  You would like to add more weight to your opinion, to have it listened to with greater respect.  To elevate your prestige so to achieve this, as well as to enhance your authority at home, the route is the same one taken by the aspiring lover--up the sword ladder.
       The opportunity for this takes place once a year, the 8th day of the 2nd lunar month.  On this day the Hua Lisu erect a tall ladder, with as many as 60 or 70 machetes for the rungs, sharp side up.  The ladder must be scaled barefoot and bare-handed and the entire effort can be totally wasted if the climber suffers so much as a single small cut on the soles of his feet.  It's an imposing task and would be difficult even with gloves and boots, certainly for anyone afflicted with a more than normal amount of acrophobia.
the ascent
action on the Sword Ladder
       No one is compelled to climb.  No draftees from selected families.  No casting lots to determine who goes up.  It's entirely voluntary.  And because it's a fairly dangerous thing to do only the most eager, or most inveterate, status-seekers make the try.  About a dozen men on average attempt the climb in any given year.  Half of them will be old enough to be the fathers of the other half.
       The Sword Ladder Festival dates back to the time the Lisu migrated to western Yunnan from their original homeland near the banks of the Jinshajiang (Upper Yangzi) in southwest Sichuan.  Midway through the Ming Dynasty, in the early 16th century, they began moving to the Nujiang Valley (Upper Salween) and the western hills of present-day Baoshan and Dehong Prefectures.  Some continued into Burma and today the same sub-groups live on both sides of the border.
going up and going down
safety mudrss by the emcee
       The Ming Dynasty only took full control of Yunnan at the end of the 14th century.  The western frontier remained a security problem all through the following century and in the early 16th century the Ming minister Wang Ji arrived intending to pacify the area.  The newly-arrived Lisu at that time were subject to regular harassment by bandit incursions and many of their men joined Wang Ji's forces.
       Wang Ji himself was a charismatic, fearless leader with great appeal to the Lisu.  He led the campaigns personally and in the end laid down his life in defense of the frontier and the Lisu who lived on the Chinese side of it.  Among his troops he had the reputation of being able to walk through fire and climb a ladder of swords in his bare feet.  While this is a Chinese metaphor for exceptional bravery, the Hua Lisu took it literally.  On the day of his death, the 8th day of the 2nd moon, they emulate Wang Ji by walking across hot coals the night before and climbing the sword ladder that day.
picnic at the festival grounds
       As night falls on the day prior villagers set fires at the edge of the settled area.  When the fires have burned down to a layer of glowing coals the boldest of the village men dash barefoot across the "sea of fire," as they call it.  Like the climbing exercise the next day, the soles of their feet must emerge from the ordeal unscorched and unblemished.  And they do.
       Unlike some other mountain people in the region, the Lisu do not ordinarily go barefoot.  So the men's ability to run across the coals and climb the sword ladder does not come from a build-up of thick calluses on the soles of their feet, which are every bit as tender as a city dweller's.
Hua Lisu elder
       The swords are not razor sharp, but honed enough to cut bamboo and sugar cane and swords that are obviously dull or nicked are rejected as rungs for the ladder.  The inexplicability of this feat, repeated annually since Wang Ji's death three centuries ago, has even helped preserve Hua Lisu traditions in general, for it was the reason why the Christian missionaries gave up their conversion campaign.
       It began in the 1920's when the Frasers, husband and wife, entered Tengchong County from Burma and headed for Hua Lisu settlements in the hills northwest of the county seat.  They happened to arrive the same week as the festival.  Mrs. Fraser, who later authored the memoir of their missionary work, was sure there was some kind of trick involved in the "sea of fire" exercise and poo-poohed the accomplishment of those few who did it.  It was dark, after all.
       Yet they could not figure out the sword ladder climbing, which they witnessed close-up in broad daylight.  The only explanation they could divine was the power of the Devil, coming to the aid of these pagan climbers.  So, because the Devil's influence was so strong among this branch of the Lisu, as Mrs. Fraser wrote, the missionaries left Tengchong and moved north to proselytize among the Black Lisu of Nujiang.  Today the Black Lisu are largely Christian, while the Hua Lisu to this day have resisted conversion and remain the largest sub-group of non-Christian Lisu.
       The Hua Lisu way of life has not remained static since their migration to western Yunnan.  They evolved from a mainly hunting and gathering society to one of agriculture and animal husbandry by the time of their encounter with the Frasers.  Since then the Hua Lisu have largely abandoned slash-and-burn in favor of fixed field farming and were until this century involved in the logging business.
stepping on the swords
at the top
       Yet the Sword Ladder Festival has endured with no major modifications since its beginning.  It remains the highlight of the Lisu year, combined with a carnival in the adjacent field, where Lisu villagers amuse themselves at various stalls until the actual climbing commences.  Some of the stalls offer small market items, others noodles and drinks and still others the dice game popular in western Yunnan.
dice game at the festival
       In this one three large dice are mounted on a bar at the top of a slightly slanted tray.  When the game master yanks the cord to pull away the bar the three dice tumble into the lower tray lying flat just below.  At the far end of this tray people place their bets.  Usually the dice fall together, but sometimes they drop one by one.  When two have landed a player may anticipate being a winner, only to see the third one finally fall and knock over one of the other two, thus changing the final configuration.
       Around noon is the erection of the ladder.  Long lines of men pull the ropes attached to the ladder's top and hoist it upright.  After the ropes have been secured to stakes three men begin fixing the swords in place, from the bottom up.  As they get higher up the swords are delivered by pulley rope.  This operation takes over an hour, followed by a break of around two hours to wait for the auspicious moment to begin climbing.  Meanwhile, those in attendance hold picnics, play the dice game and wander about the carnival grounds.
examining the feet after the climb
       On this day the women don their best costumes and all their beads and jewelry.  But Lisu men for the most part also dress in the traditional style, one of the few minorities in which the men do so.  They wear a long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket, usually blue, a wide belt, knee-length trousers and striped leggings.  On special occasions like this they will also don a turban, embroidered shoulder bags and a bandoleer or two of silver dollar-sized discs cut from shells.  Those going up the ladder are the most resplendent.
       Without fanfare or announcement the start of the climbing is signaled by a man placing a bundle of burning incense sticks at each of the stakes holding the ropes attached to the ladder.  Then an older man removes his shoes and commences his steady climb to the platform full of pennants at the top.  He removes a few of these, hurls them to the ground and sets off several strings of firecrackers.  Then as he descends another begins to climb.  About halfway up the ladder is a narrow platform.  The one ascending halts here until the previous climber has passed him on the way down.
       When the descending climber reaches the last rung he steps onto short bamboo poles and lifts his feet for inspection by the emcee.  Observing that no cuts or blood mar the soles of the feet, the emcee rubs them with ashes and gives the performer a small cup of liquor.  No one applauds the success, lest that distract the others on the ladder.  While awaiting the next to descend the emcee, gazing intently at the climbers, makes magical gestures to insure no mishap occurs.
festival dance
       After all this year's climbers have completed their turns, a loudspeaker begins broadcasting traditional Lisu songs.  The climbers and their wives then join hands for a ring dance around the base of the ladder, with alcohol served them as refreshment partway through the performance.
       This is the last act of the festival.  The ring breaks up and the crowd heads for home.  The ladder remains standing until the following day, when the men gather to take it down, remove the swords, disassemble the components, and put them away until next year.  And already those who considered it, but failed to muster sufficient courage to climb this year, have witnessed the new esteem bestowed on the climbers by their admirers.  And already they have begun telling themselves that if their neighbors or rivals can succeed without any problems, why then next year they, too, will have what it takes for that tried and true way to social prominence--up the sword ladder.

the last act--dancing around the Sword Pole
                                                                         * * *


                                                               by Jim Goodman

Hàng Bạc decorations
     Hanoi’s Old Quarter originated with the establishment of the city as the national capital just over a thousand years ago.  Between the Red River and the royal citadel, this was the part of the city where the commoners lived, providing craft products and other services for the royal court, and in time for the expanding city’s residents.  By the 15th century the Old Quarter was organized into 36 guilds, each specializing in a single product, divided into wards about two blocks long, named after the item produced there, and featured gates at each end, locked and manned by sentries at dark. 
    Even today the Old Quarter still retains much of its ancient organization.  Most streets begin with word Hàng, which translates as goods or merchandise.  Many of them are still dominated by shops selling the product the street was named for, such as Hàng Thiềc, named after its tinsmiths, while on some streets only a few shops still market the designated product.  Others have switched products.  No cooking oil (dầu) can be found on Hàng Dầu, but now all the shops there sell footwear.  You can’t find any Chinese medicine on Thuốc Bắc, but that’s where you go to buy locks and other hardware.  No bamboo is for sale on Bamboo Street (Hàng Tre).  Now you find it on Cloth Street (Hàng Vải).  So the system more or less remains.  Hanoi residents buy products street by street, rather than at a big shopping mall, which is anyway several kilometers from the Old Quarter and a relatively recent addition to the city.
Hàng Bạc decorations
    One of the best known and most typical of the Old Quarter streets is Hang Bạc, or Silver Street, still full of jewelry shops and money changers.  It got its name in the late 15th century when a Court mandarin secured a royal commission to set up a silver bullion workshop in this ward.  He then invited his fellow villagers from Châu Khê, in Hải Dương province, to settle and work there.  They were later joined by migrants from Định Công, near the capital, and goldsmiths from Đồng Sâm, in Thái Binh province.
    As was the norm elsewhere in the Old Quarter wards, when villagers moved into the capital to live and work they maintained relations with their original villages by erecting a communal house (đình) in the ward, just like in their villages, to honor the tutelary god of their former village.  The village đình was the focus of religious and social activities for the people, where village elders adjudicated disputes, organized the periodic redistribution of land and managed the annual festivals.  The tutelary god, the village protector, was often a military hero who fought Chinese invaders, but could also be, in craft villages, the person who introduced the craft.
      Silver Street residents built a đình in honor of Hiên Viên, the legendary father of all crafts, and located it first around the corner in a side alley, then moved it to the upper part of Hàng Bạc, calling it Đình Kim Ngân.  When Huế became the capital after 1802 the ward lost its bullion-making contract, so the residents got into the jewelry business, if they weren’t already, and currency exchange, which continued throughout the colonial period.  And Đình Kim Ngân remained the cultural focus of the ward.
Hàng Bạc procession
    After 1954, though, the government, faced with a severe housing shortage in the capital, allowed several families to take up residence in the đình’s compound.  It had already lost its spiritual significance, for during the anti-French struggle Đình Kim Ngân was used by the Việt Minh to teach people quốc ngũ, the Romanized alphabet for the Vietnamese language, and to organize resistance campaigns.  For the next fifty years the number of people residing in the compound continued to increase. 
    Then in 2009, as part of the official attention to the country’s heritage, with Hanoi’s 1000 years anniversary due the following year, the government put Đình Kim Ngân on the list of places to renovate and restore to their original functions.  And so 83 people from 25 families had to move out.  The work was finally finished in 2012 and the compound employed to host thrice-weekly performances of ca trù, a traditional singing style that originated in the early 15th century and has recently been recognized as part of the world’s intangible heritage.
    The actual dedication and official re-opening of the đình, however, did not happen until the last week of March, 2013.  During these days large yellow paper lanterns and Buddhist flags lined both sides of Hàng Bạc, silver and white silk floss flowers were attached to tree branches and utility poles and Đình Kim Ngân’s compound was turned into an exhibition of traditional Vietnamese culture. In the front courtyard stood six huge gilt guardian statues, three to a side, with a chandelier of crescent-shaped metal gongs, oversized old square-holed coins and streamers of golden thread suspended above the yard.  Flanking the entrance to the sanctuary were outstanding examples of carved wooden panels and cabinets lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
lacquer ware display
carved lamp housing
     Just inside the sanctuary were a collection of old coins on the right and of silver jewelry, still a Hàng Bạc specialty, on the left.  Next to the coins were samples of outstanding ceramic wares, while next to the opposite wall were lacquered tumblers, goblets and vases, beneath a low-relief, gilt carving of a classical lute player.  In front of the altar was a carved wooden platform holding silver mugs, candlesticks and sculptures of phoenixes.  Yellow silk lanterns flanked the altar, the same kind that hung along each side of the street outside.  The walls behind the sanctuary displayed more handicraft art—carved wooden lanterns hanging from dragons and low relief carvings of traditional domestic life.

lion dancers
    At dusk on the last Friday of March participants from the three associated villages assembled for a grand procession to and past the đình.  Dressed in traditional silk festival garments, in ranks of men, women or school children, under their village banners, the participants advanced slowly down Hàng Bạc towards the đình.  They carried elaborately carved palanquins bearing traditional offerings like fruits and nuts and more recent products like canned soft drinks and packaged noodles.  Behind them came the huge drum and big metal gong, both mounted on wheeled carts.  The people in the procession flanked them and made their way forward to the đình entrance.  Just as they got close a dragon dance team emerged from within the compound and cavorted up and down the street between the procession lines. 
   Three lion dancers followed them and both entertained the participants, as well as the hordes of spectators hemmed in on both sides of the street, for about twenty minutes.  Then they marched to the front of the ranks and the procession continued to the end of Hàng Bạc.
    The displays inside the compound stayed in place over the weekend, but on Monday folks began dismantling them and returning them to their place of origin.  The guardian statues went back to Sơn Đồng village in Hoái Đức district, about twenty km west, the silver or coin collections back to their owners, etc The decorations on Hàng Bạc remained up a few more days.  Then, stripped down to its essentials, Đình Kim Ngân returned to its new role as the venue for ca trù music performances, thus continuing to play its part in the preservation of traditional Vietnamese culture. 
traditional handicrafts workshop