Thursday, July 27, 2017

Vang Vieng Before the Flood

                                   by Jim Goodman

bathing hour at VangVieng, 1994, when people still used the river
       Shedding its notorious image as Southeast Asia’s prime backpacker partying venue, the once sleepy town of Vang Vieng, 150 km north of Vientiane, is assuming a new identity.  Fancy hotels are going up, sometimes blocking the view of what was always Vang Vieng’s main attraction—the Namsong River flowing alongside the town, with a backdrop of picturesque, rugged limestone hills.  These hotels cater to the new breed of tourists coming to Vang Vieng:  Koreans inspired by the Korean reality TV show Youth over Flowers, which staged several episodes here in 2014, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and older Westerners, mainly Australian.
rural scenery near Vang Vieng
       Local people may not be too happy with the transformation of their town into a conglomeration of big concrete buildings, but they prefer the new clientele.  Few regret the passing of the dozen years or so from the beginning of this century, when hedonistic, culturally clueless Western youth swarmed into Vang Vieng, outnumbering the residents, bent on enjoyment, from pleasures on the river to all-night parties with loud music and lots of alcohol and drugs.
       I missed all that, but had an inkling of what was to come on my last visit in the spring of 2000.  The place had quite charmed me several years earlier and I wanted to relive my initial experience.  I knew it had just recently become popular with the backpacker set, so I expected some changes, like more guesthouses and restaurants, but nothing so drastic as to spoil my appreciation.
Namsong River in 1994
       The route from Vientiane was flat all the way, but with numerous stops it took five hours.  As soon as I disembarked, several Lao youths surrounded me, but not for offering accommodations.  “Opium?  Opium?  Opium?”   Looking totally uninterested, I managed to disperse them.  But that was new.  The last time I came the only drug offered me was local rice liquor.
       As for a guesthouse, I had a range of cheap choices:  $1 for a room with a mat on the floor and $2 for one with a mattress on the floor.  Shared shower and toilet, of course, so I opted the mattress.  I didn’t require much comfort.  I just wanted to stroll along the river again. 
the only resort in town in the 1990s
       That wasn’t possible anymore. Thanks to the burgeoning tourism business, many of the houses along the river had turned part of their premises into restaurants and bars and so had constructed walls around their compounds that extended right down to the riverbank.  Some space still existed between the compounds, but not very much.  Anyway, though I did see a few boats on the river, nobody came to bathe in the late afternoon.  Whether that was because they had piped water to their houses now or because they didn’t want to bathe in front of so many tourists I didn’t find out.
       Next morning I took a bus north to a Hmông village, but it was a resettled village right next to the highway, therefore not very traditional.  Not even the older women wore Hmông clothing and so no looms were active, no hemp thread being prepared.  I returned to Vang Vieng for a walk around the town, but nothing really captured my attention.  I left early next morning.  Other than the drugs and bar scene, and that everything was cheap, I couldn’t understand why people came here.
novices at leisure on the river
silversmith at work
       Several months earlier, however, something happened to transform Vang Vieng’s scene entirely, and it was just getting started when I made my last visit.  The manager of an organic farm a few kilometers north of the town bought a bunch of inner tubes so that his workers could enjoy floating down the Namsong to get back to the town.  Someone got the idea tourists might want to do this and so a lucrative business was born and the transformation of Vang Vieng began.
bridge below the entrance to Jang Cave
       The tubing experience, touted all over the Internet, soon flooded Vang Vieng with budget travelers.  From dozens of visitors a day, the number within a few years reached thousands.  At its peak, around 800 tourists a day rode tubes on the Namsong River.  By the end of the decade 150,000 backpackers a year came to Vang Vieng.  They were not big spenders, but with that many of them they were a great boost to the local economy.
       Local people took advantage of this influx to set up businesses catering to all the foreigners’ interests.  The riverside restaurants became rock and roll bars and stayed open long past midnight.  Besides cheap Lao beer and rice liquor, they also sold meals laced with opium or psychedelic mushrooms.  Some 1500 households formed a cooperative to handle the tubing business.  They even added new adventures on the river by constructing ziplines across it and huge slides into the water.  Unlike the tubing, these were free. 
cave temple along the river
       So Vang Vieng became the ultimate Southeast Asian party scene.  Foreigners could enjoy various thrills on the river and in the evening get as drunk and stoned as they desired and listen and dance to the loud rock and roll they loved.  The townsfolk benefited enormously from the flow of money, but the business boom had its downsides, like women in skimpy bikinis in the town, boisterous drunks and the open consumption of drugs. 
       Not only were the backpackers oblivious to the conservative norms of local Lao culture, they were not very careful indulging themselves.  Around two dozen of them died each year from drug overdoses or river accidents, like riding down a slide and slamming head first into a boulder.  (The slides soon earned the nickname ‘death slides.’)  Vang Vieng people stopped all their customary activity on the river—fishing, boat transport, bathing—because they were convinced, due to all the deaths, the river was haunted by evil spirits.
sculptures adorning a small riverside cave
       Yet since they were making money from tourism they took no steps to redress the problems.  Finally, after Australian newspapers in 2012 featured stories on the Namsong River deaths, the Lao government closed all the riverside bars, dismantled the ziplines and slides and banned tubing for a year, after which it resumed, but at a reduced scale and tightly controlled.  Nowadays a few bars are permitted, but a midnight curfew is in effect as well.  The backpacker scene died, but Vang Vieng’s prior pristine identity could never revive, for the river that was so much part of the town’s life and culture has lost its role.  Post-backpacker deaths, people shun it.
chedis containing the ashes of Vang Vieng monks
       Vang Vieng dates its foundation to 1353, established as a way station between Vientiane and Luang Phabang.  It was never an important town, though during the Vietnam War the Americans built an airstrip and base here.  After the war Laos closed its doors to visitors until the end of the 80s, and then only allowed tourists under certain conditions.  They could travel freely anywhere within Vientiane Prefecture, but anywhere beyond they had to be part of an organized group of a government agency or travel with a government minder.
       I made a few short trips to Vientiane in the early 90s, mainly to get a new Thai visa in a fresh destination that was closer than Penang.  I didn’t stay but two or three days each time, exploring the temples and other sites of the city, as well as a jungle resort a couple hours outside the city.  Eventually, since it was within the prefecture, I took a trip to Vang Vieng.
farmer woman heading home
typical limestone hill near Vang Vieng
       At that time the town had only two hotels, next to the small central market.  Rooms, with toilet and shower, were $4.  Other than that, a small resort with several individual cabins at $12 a night lay on the riverbank south of the town, near one of the better-known caves.  The hotel room was comfortable enough, but three times a day, including once in the middle of the night, the ice truck came and dumped blocks of ice into a grinder across the street that spent half an hour breaking up the blocks at an incredible noise level.  After two nights of this I moved to the resort.
casting a net in the Namsong River
       I was the only foreigner in town then, but not the first they’d seen.  Folks were friendly, all smiles and children quick to shout “Bonjour!”  Most of the women, even the young girls, dressed in traditional style, with hair tied in a bun. In the suburbs I saw several looms at work, with lots of extra heddle sticks used to create the complex inlaid patterns on the cloth.  I also watched people making fishnets and silversmiths incising intricate designs on bracelets and pendants.
       The town has a couple of old Buddhist temples, originally constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries.  One is just south of the resort and I watched novices come up to the riverside just below the Jang Cave to rest on the rocks and swim below them.  A wooden bridge crosses the river here and leads to the staircase for a short climb up to the cave.  It has a lagoon inside and enough space alongside that it was used as a base by local resistance to the renegade Chinese Ho invasion in the late 19th century.
paddling a pirogue on the Namsong
       Other caves, big and small, abound in the area, some along the river with lagoons inside, others adorned with religious sculptures or partly turned into a temple.  Usually the decorative sculptures were depictions of Buddha and perhaps kneeling devotees.  But they could also include such oddities as a man holding a huge fish or a parrot-headed creature with a little gremlin that look like they were statues of beings from another planet.  
       Temples and caves made pleasant pauses on my exploration of the environs.  The real pleasure, though, was wandering along the river and into the rural area on the other side.  Limestone hills popped up at intervals from a perfectly flat plain.  Some had cliffs that rose straight up from the ground at a 90-degree angle.  Next to this might be a lone stilted house, with its fields spread out in front of it.  As I kept walking I had a new vista every ten minutes.  I had no map, but I couldn’t get lost, for I had the singular shapes of certain hills to guide me back to the river.
water-wheel connected to a rice pounder
       Mornings and especially late afternoons were the most active times on the river.  These were the best hours for fishing.  Boats taking people to villages up or down the river were also busy then and in late afternoon it was bathing hour.  The boats were wooden pirogues, narrow and of various lengths, long for transport, short for fishing.  A few were outfitted with outboard motors, but most used paddles or poles to convey themselves along the waters.
       For fishing, they could go in pairs, with one sitting in the rear paddling and the other standing in the front to cast the net.  Or an individual would wade out into the shallow river and cast his net.  Whether standing in the water or riding a boat, they then dragged the net some distance and then checked to see if they caught anything.  Others set traps near the shore and periodically examined them, thrusting any fish caught into a split bamboo basket they had tied to their belts.
       A few water-wheels were in use along the river then. Large ones, a few meters high, funneled water to riverside gardens.  Smaller ones operated rice-pounders, a good example of the ingenuity of ‘primitive’ technology.  Buffaloes wallowed in the river for much of the day, in water up to their jaws.  (A surprising number of them were pink.)  Children and dogs splashed around in the shallow parts.
buffaloes wallowing in the river
       The most charming time on the river was the last hours of the day, when people came to bathe, both themselves and their vehicles.  Trucks, buses and tractor-trailers drove right into the river and their owners used buckets to douse them with water.  Upstream people of all ages, male and female, bathed in the shallows, the men stripped down to shorts, the women tying their sarongs just above the breasts, the very old and very young completely naked.
       Women tied their long hair in a bun to keep it dry while they submerged up to the neck.  If a woman intended to wash her hair she entered the river backwards, sat, lifted her hair and lay on her back in the water spreading the locks out evenly in the stream so they didn’t get tangled.  For an observer, this was the most charming vignette in the scene.
       For the participants, it was also a social occasion, an opportunity for a leisurely chat with friends and neighbors.  That’s all gone now.  People bathe at home.  Nobody goes fishing or playing in the river.  It’s there strictly for organized and controlled tourist activities.  The river is no longer an integral part of the people’s lives.  The Vang Vieng of last century, gone forever, is just a memory now, but in my own case, one that remains firmly, fondly and permanently implanted.
vanished vignette:  girls bathing in the Namsong in the early 90s
                                                                        * * * 


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Change and Continuity in Luang Namtha

                                    by Jim Goodman

bridge over the Tha River to the Tai Dam village
       After the first Friendship Bridge opened at Nong Khai in April 1994, connecting Thailand with Laos, the Lao government eased restrictions on individual travelers in the country.  Previously confined to Vientiane Prefecture, they could now go anywhere they wished (except Hua Phan for a while), without being part of an organized group or having a government minder along.  I took advantage of this a year later to visit Luang Namtha in the far north, mainly to meet the Akha minority, with whom I was working and doing research in Thailand, but also to see a part of the country I was just beginning to explore.
main commercial street in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha province lies adjacent to the southern part of Xishuangbanna prefecture in Yunnan, China.  In time, it would become a popular stopover for those on their way to or from Yunnan, but in 1995 it was not yet in the budget traveler’s consciousness.  Luang Namtha city was more of a small town, the commercial area stretched along the main road and residential quarters about three blocks deep on either side.  Only a handful of hotels were available, two of then Chinese-owned.  They were nearly all unoccupied and I was the only foreigner in town.
       I didn’t see any Akha around and learned a better place to meet them was Muang Singh, 58 km away.  Eventually I did go there and satisfied my research ambitions, but as I was not in a hurry I opted to first take a look at an unfamiliar part of Laos.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of temples.  By then I’d been to Houey Xai, Pakbeng, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Phon Savan and Luang Phabang and they all had temples.  But not Luang Namtha.  Were the Lao here totally secularized?
trapping fish in the Namtha
       Or was it because of the influence of the Tai Dam (Black Thai), who are animist and whose villages dominate the valley?   I never answered that question, but a Tai Dam village lies just across the Tha River, which runs alongside the southern suburbs of the town.  A bamboo bridge on piles spans the river and in the forest next to the village stood a stilted shed with thatched roof housing an altar.  Beside it was a colorful tall spirit image of some sort.
       The village sprawls out from the riverbank, the houses spaced a little apart from each other, neighborhoods connected by paths with lots of intersections.  People then lived in stilted houses of wood and bamboo, the roofs thatched, occasionally tiled, within a fenced yard.  Beneath the house they kept their looms, thread-winders and big tools.  And as it was dry season many of the looms were active.
Tai Dam woman dressed up for a city visit
Tai Dam village spirit shrine
       The Tai Dam traditional women’s outfit comprises a plain black sarong, a colored, long-sleeved blouse with vertical rows of silver clasps, and a long black headscarf, fully and brightly embroidered on the lower end.  No one was wearing it on my visit, only ordinary, printed Lao sarongs and blouses.  It was only years later that I finally saw a Tai Dam lady dressed that way for a trip to the market.
winding thread in the Tai Dam village
mother bathing her child in the river
The village’s fields spread out next to the residential area, mostly used for growing glutinous rice, the main filler.  Small vegetable patches lie around the houses.  Pigs and chickens roam the yards.  Villagers also supplement their diet with small fish trapped or netted in the river.  Most of the year the river here is very shallow.  People wade through it to set their traps and bathe in it late afternoons.  But during the monsoon the river swells and rises, occasionally even covering the bridge.  Strong currents make wading into it a little risky. 
Hong Loueay Yao village
       Luang Namtha’s market back then lay close to the bridge to the Tai Dam village, comprising a couple rows of thatched sheds and various tables and stalls on the street between them.  There was no special market day, but it was active every morning.  A couple of Hmông turned up while I was there, and on a subsequent visit I met a few Akha, but the most exotic folks in the market, looking very different from anyone else in town, were the Yao.
       The local people refer to them as Lao Huay, the River Lao, because, like the Tai Dam, they site their villages along one side of a river.  Actually, they are a sub-group of the Lantien branch of the Yao, who also live in Yunnan and northern Vietnam.  The Yao in Luang Namtha province have been here over 150 years in over twenty villages and are regular visitors to the city.
young Yao woman in Luang Namtha 
drying paper in Hong Loueay 
       The women dress in long-sleeved, hip-length black cotton coats, tight knee-length black trousers and white cotton leg-wrappers around the calves.  From girlhood they shave their eyebrows and upper forehead and wrap their hair in a tight coil on top, secured by a fancy silver clasp with coin pendants.  They weave the cloth themselves on narrow vertical looms and dye it in an indigo bath numerous times until they obtain the desired depth of color.
the new hilltop chedi in Luang Namtha
       The Yao visiting Luang Namtha most often come from Hong Loueay, about 5 km west on the road to Muang Singh.  As bicycle rental shops hadn’t come into existence yet, I took a bus bound for Muang Singh and got off as soon as I spotted the village.  It lay on the other side of the river, which was so shallow in the dry season that villagers simply crossed it by walking through it, rather than using the rickety bamboo suspension bridge.
       They live in rectangular houses that sit on the ground, aligned with the river, made of bamboo wattle with thickly thatched, angular roofs.  The roof beams on each side intersect at the ends, forming a row of several v’s along the top.  The houses are usually 5-6 meters wide and 8-25 meters long, depending on how many families live in it.  The walls are 1-1.5 meters high, without any windows. 
cooked food for sale in the new covered market
       The interiors consist of a single room, one space reserved for the kitchen and one area for sleeping on mats rolled up and stored in the corner during the day.  Except for a bamboo tray over the hearth, used for curing baskets and smoking meat, they have no furniture other than small stools.  They keep tools, baskets, traps, guns and sundry other items next to the exterior walls underneath the overhanging roof.
       A patch of forest stood beside the village and the farms lay beyond this.  They grew rice, of course, as well as cotton, and opium, too, which was still legal then and dried pods were on sale in the market.  This was dry season, so while the men were busy in the poppy fields, the women were mostly in the village, involved in winding thread, weaving or making paper.  Several racks held drying slabs of paper, but on this visit I did not witness the process.  People were shy, but polite and friendly.
market shop selling items made from bamboo
       I returned to Luang Namtha a few months later for a brief stop, in the middle of the monsoon, long enough to notice the bridge to the Tai Dam village was under water.  My concentration then, as well as another trip a year later, was on Akha villages around Muang Singh.  By my third trip Muang Singh had become a backpacker hangout and about a third of the Akhas in the market were there to beg money from foreigners.
       A decade and a half later I passed through Luang Namtha regularly, to or from Xishuangbanna while doing extended research in that prefecture.   Changes had taken place, of course, such as a paved road to Houey Xay that reduced the travel time to five hours by bus, compared to the twelve hours or more in the past on a dirt road by old station wagon.  A new covered market just off the main street replaced the riverside venue.  The most impressive addition was the new chedi on a hill just outside of town.  The style resembles one in Vientiane and no monastery compound exists next to it.  The area is animist (or atheist), so it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than as a symbol of the national identity of Laos as a Buddhist nation. 
Yao women in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha wasn’t much bigger, but was now more oriented towards the tourist industry.  An up-market hotel had opened next to the new city market, but there were several moderately priced guesthouses as well.  Most of these were clustered around the new Night Market.  This was not very extensive, with only a few stalls there selling handicrafts, mostly run by Akha who had moved to the city, and a few Akha women wandered around the market, like in Chiang Mai, selling trinkets they didn’t even make themselves.  The market hadn’t lured any Yao.
        Most of the stalls in the Night Bazaar were selling cooked meals.  Duck was a local specialty, for Luang Namtha has thousands of ducks and only dozens of chickens.  Since my first journey to Laos prices for food had risen enormously, but here a half a roast duck was the same price as a half a roast chicken in Thailand, even though the sticky rice filler was twice as much.
traditional p;aper-making in Hong Loueay
       With the increased tourist traffic, enterprising Lao residents had set up offices for excursions to minority villages in the mountains or destinations along the river, like caves, waterfalls or even an all-day boat ride to the junction of the Tha River with the Mekong, several km south of Houey Xai, the border crossing to Thailand.
       On my trips to or from Xishuangbanna and Thailand, I stayed two nights in Luang Namtha each time, just to slow down the journey, and amused myself by checking out the changes.  The Tai Dam village was still roughly the same.  Some houses were new, of wood instead of mostly bamboo, with metal roofs rather than thatch, but still in the Thai style, stilted, with the loom, etc. underneath.  The bridge across the Tha River was still in place, and if the villagers were less forward in engaging with the foreigner, well, thousands of foreigners had passed through the village since my first visit, so my presence was barely noticed.
Yao girl in Phin Ho
       The expanded tourist industry now also had motorbikes and bicycles for rent.  Since the Yao villages I intended to visit were just several km from the town, I opted for a bicycle.  After having to push it up a couple of steep hills on the way I nearly regretted that choice.  Soon enough, though, I arrived at Hong Loueay, still in the same riverside location, still with the same traditional style Yao houses.
       When setting out I’d wondered if it were still in place.  Since the beginning of the century the Lao government had made opium cultivation illegal and undertook a campaign to eradicate its cultivation.  Most of the time this just involved destroying the poppy fields and ordering the people to raise a different crop.  But in some cases, especially remote hills and faraway, secluded valleys, the government relocated the village to somewhere more accessible for monitoring.
       Hong Loueay wasn’t relocated.  The villagers stopped growing opium but stayed where they were and carried on every other aspect of their traditional lifestyle as they’d always done.  It was early February, the same month as my first visit years ago, and everything I saw was like a replay of that initial trip.  The women wore their traditional garments and engaged in winding thread, weaving and dyeing cloth and making paper.  As before, everyone was polite and friendly.
winding thread in Phin Ho
       Bamboo fibers, of four different kinds, are the raw material for paper.  Yao villagers crush the fibers, place them in a hollow trunk with quicklime in between each layer, fill the trunk with water and let the fibers macerate for several weeks.  Afterwards they remove the material, squeeze it dry, wash it in the river and boil it to make pulp.
       I observed a few women at this work.  They stretched a white cloth across a large frame, placed horizontally above the ground.  Using a gourd dipper, they poured the pulp carefully and evenly across the surface.  After allowing it to dry a few minutes, they moved the frame to the yard, and propped it up near-vertically facing the sun.  After three or four hours they removed the dry paper leaf from the fabric and cut it into smaller sizes.  They will use it for letters, cards, religious paraphernalia and packing and sell the surplus to the Hmông.
       This was not a craft specialty village.  A few km further on, the Yao village of Phin Ho was also engaged in the process.  Making paper from bamboo is a Lantien Yao craft specialty.  It’s something they’ve been doing for centuries, another part of traditional life that persists unchanged in spite of whatever modern influences might be emanating from the growing city just a couple of hours walk down the road.   Around Luang Namtha, continuity is as common as change.

Hong Loueay Yao village at paper-making time
                                                                       * * *

Monday, July 3, 2017

Beyond Sapa: the Ethnic Mélange

                                    by Jim Goodman

Giáy and Hmông en route to Tam Đường Đất market
       Several aspects of Sapa contribute to making it the most popular travel destination in Vietnam’s northern mountains.   At around 1600 meters altitude, it enjoys refreshingly cooler temperatures than the hot plains.  Phansipan, the country’s highest mountain, is visible from the town on clear days.  As a proper hill station resort, Sapa has attractive parks, lively markets, hotels of all kinds and restaurants offering a wide range of food.  Visitors can make day excursions to several different waterfalls or to villages in the picturesque valley below Phansipan.
       Sapa’s other principal attraction is the presence of ethnic minorities in town, mainly Black Hmông and Red Dao (pronounced zao).  Although there are Giáy and Xa Phô villages in the southeastern part of the valley, these people rarely visit Sapa.  Most of the district’s villages are Black Hmông and Red Dao, so these minorities are likely the only ones travelers will see during their short visit, unless they join the caravan of mini-buses to Bc Hà, in the eastern part of Lào Cai province, for the Sunday market day.
       For some travelers, the superb mountain scenery is just a bonus, for the prime draw of the far north is its ethnic variety.  All along the border live a great variety of ethnic minorities.  Short journeys over the passes west and north of Sapa offer opportunities to meet other branches of the Dao and Hmông, as well as Lừ, Giáy and Hà Nhì.
mountains west of Trạm Tôn Pass
Lừ village near Bình Lư
       From the junction just north of Sapa, National Highway 4D turns northwest for 13 km to Quý Hồ, where a road turns north to Mường Hun and the main road continues southwest, passing the Silver Waterfall on the right.  Close to the road, this waterfall tumbles a hundred meters and has a pathway halfway up to a pavilion for a close observation of the cascades.   
       The main road continues its ascent a few more kilometers to the Trạm Tôn Pass, at 1900 meters the highest in the country.  This is also the provincial boundary and the road now winds down the mountain into Lai Châu province.  The peaks of the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range are more picturesque on the descent.  Compared to the rather blunt peaks of Phansipan and its neighbors, those on the western side of the pass feature steeper sides and sharply pointed summits.
Lai Châu 1999, when it was still called Tam Đường
          At the foot of the mountain the road comes to Bình Lư village, where a turn south leads to a Lừ village, one of several ethnic minorities in eastern Lai Châu different from those anywhere around Sapa.  The Lừ are a Tai-Kedai group who migrated down from southern China in the 9th century, originally settling around Điệm Biện Phủ until forced out by the Thái and moving east a few centuries later.  In China they are classified as part of the Dai nationality and are the major Dai community in Xishuangbanns, Yunnan, and Buddhist.  But the Lừ in Yunnan became Buddhist long after Vietnam’s Lừ migrated out of China.
       The Lừ in Vietnam, like the country’s Thái, are animist, yet they garnered a separate classification as a minority.  They live similarly, in stilted wooden houses near rivers or streams, venerate ancestors and agricultural deities and are basically rice farmers.  But the women dress very differently, and much more elaborately, than the Thái.
Dao Làn TIên girl
Lừ woman in Tam Đường Đất
       The basic outfit comprises a tubular skirt, long-sleeved jacket and headscarf, all made of hand-woven black cotton.  The skirt features a wide strip of inlaid geometric designs around the hips.  For special occasions or market trips they will wear one with large rectangles of brocaded silk, in bright colors, attached vertically in the front and back.  The hip-length jacket is slightly flared above the waist, with a thin strip of red, white and blue embroidery around it, connected to another embroidered strip from the right side of the waist up to the collar.  Rows of small silver buttons run alongside this strip and down the front center of the jacket.  The headscarf is wrapped twice around the head, with thin white vertical stripes on the front.
       For jewelry they wear silver neck rings with silver chains hanging from the ends in front, similar to those worn by Dao and Hmông.  The ear ornaments, unique to the Lừ, consist of silver plugs with three or four small bead and pompom pendants.  In the past, the women also blackened the teeth, but this custom is now dying out.
White Hmông girl with typical jewelry
Flowery Hmông women in Tam Đường Đất market
       From Bình Lư Highway 4D goes west to Lai Châu city, the provincial capital.  Until 2005, it was called Tam Đường and Lai Châu was another city, further west, now called Mường Lay.  The city lies in abroad valley, surrounded by mountains, with tea gardens sprawling across the lower slopes.  Small limestone hills, devoid of buildings, pop up within the city limits and the suburbs.  Various minority people may wander into town any day of the week, but Lai Châu doesn’t stage a regular market day.  Instead, Thursdays and Sundays, the venue is Tam Đường Đất, ten kilometers east.
       Market day begins early at Tam Đường Đất and starts winding down by noon. It is, however, the best opportunity to appreciate the ethnic variety of this part of the province.  Most of those in attendance are women wearing their traditional clothing.  Lừ women will be there, dressed in their finest ensembles.  Women of the Giáy, another Tai-Kedai minority from the valleys and lower mountains slopes, will wear their pastel-colored, side-fastened jackets, with a band of contrasting color around the collar and along the lapel, over plain black trousers.
market day in Tam Đường Đất
       The surrounding hills are home to different branches of the Hmông and Dao.  Most of the Hmông belong to a local sub-group of the Flowery Hmông, whose women generally wear the signature Hmông knee-length, bulky, pleated indigo skirt, decorated with batik patterns and strips of appliqué along the lower third.  Over this they don a plain black velvet jacket with colored bands around the shoulders and tie a wide red sash around the waist.  A smaller number of women from the White Hmông sub-group will substitute a pair of plain black trousers for the traditional skirt.  Heavy silver neck rings and pendants are the preferred ornaments, while around their heads they tie simple scarves of checked or patterned cotton.
       Members of up to four branches of the Dao could turn up for market day here.  The most numerous are the Dao Làn Tiển, the women dressed in long black jackets, the edges trimmed in red or blue, and pantaloons loose above the knees and tight below them.  A skein of pink woolen thread hangs from the collar down the front of the jacket.  Younger females wear a round black cap, decorated with silver discs and colored pompoms.  The older women tie their hair in a chignon inside a silver crown wrapped in horsehair, but hidden from view by a tall black hat. The usual heavy silver ornaments complete the outfit.
       Dao Tuyền women also wear black jackets and pantaloons, but can be distinguished easily by the white apron in front and by their billed caps.  This Dao branch is more common further west.  The other two Dao groups likely to show up in Tam Đường Đất are the Red Dao and Sewing Dao (Dao Khâu). The Red Dao look similar to those around Sapa, recognizable by their tall red turbans.  The Sewing Dao are so named because of their embroidery skills.  Women cover nearly the entire surface of their trousers with embroidered patterns and sewing these onto the cloth, which can take a few months to complete, becomes their prime activity when not engaged in agricultural or domestic work.  The result combines certain motifs required by tradition with those created by the person making them, so that no two pairs are exactly alike.
Giáy girls leaving Tam Đường Đấ
Red Dao ornamented turban
       The Red Dao sub-group in eastern Lai Châu extends into Bát Xát district in Lào Cai province, north of Sapa, another homeland of several ethnic minorities, and are the most prominent group at the Sunday market day in Mường Hum.  To get there from Sapa, travelers take the main road northwest to Quý Hồ and turn north at the junction.  This road gradually winds down the mountains past Black Hmông and Red Dao villages to the valley of the Pĩ Hỏ River and the town of Mường Hum, appended to an old Giáy village.
       The market day in Mường Hum falls on the same day as the much better advertised and promoted one in Bắc Hà.  Consequently, nearly all the tour groups flock to Bắc Hà on Sunday.  The scene there is certainly colorful, but the experience is somewhat marred by the great numbers of Hmông and Dao women trying to peddle handicrafts to the foreigners. 
Red Dao women in Mường Hum
Red Hmông hairdo
       In contrast, market day in Mường Hum, equally colorful, attracts far fewer foreigners and has much more of an authentic atmosphere.  In recent years it has become better known among a more discerning set of travelers, yet still scarcely two dozen foreigners turn up on any given Sunday.  Other than friendly greetings and smiles, the minorities in the market generally ignore them and none of them bother the visitors to buy something.
       For the ethnic minority women managing stalls and layouts of handicraft products, the potential customers are of their own and other minorities.  The baskets and bamboo items they sell to people who will use them, not keep then as souvenirs.  The batik cloth the Hmông sell as skirt material goes to other Hmông women who don’t have time to do the work themselves.  And the colored thread the Hà Nhì hawk finds customers among all the ethnic minority women, as they are all embroiderers.
       The Red Dao of Bát Xát district live in the same way and share the same customs as the Red Dao sub-group around Sapa.  The women wear the same kind of long-tailed coat and embroidered trousers and the same silver jewelry.  But the coat and trousers feature less embroidery, mostly in white, rather than the yellow favored around Sapa.  The headgear is very different, too, being a tall tubular turban wrapped in bright red cloth or patterned cloth dominated by the red color.  Some women decorate the turban with silver chains and pendants.
Red Hmông woman in Mường Hum
Hà Nhỉ woman, Mường Hum
They are the only kind of Dao here, but up to five branches of Hmông might turn up on market day:  Black, White, Flowery, Red and Green.  The Black Hmông are the same as those around Sapa and come from the hills south of Mường Hum.  Their women wear a black jacket with bands of color around the upper sleeves and along the lapel, knee-length pants, plain black leggings and big hoop earrings.  The White Hmông sub-group here dress like their counterparts in eastern Lai Châu province, in black trousers and jacket, with a wide red sash around the waist, but nothing actually white.  White Hmông in western Lai Châu wear bulky white pleated skirts, but don’t venture this far east.
       The Flowery Hmông here are the same sub-group as in Tam Đường Đất and the Red Hmông women don similar outfits, featuring the pleated, heavy, batik-patterned, indigo-colored skirt.  The Red Hmông drape a hem-length, black apron, bordered in bright blue, over the front of the skirt, but what distinguishes them from other Hmông is the hairstyle.  Women retain the hair that comes off when brushing and then attach it to the living hair, lengthening the strands, and then tie red woolen thread to the ends and wrap everything around into a huge bouffant.
       The most dazzling apparel in the market is that of the Green Hmông women, so named because green dominates the jackets, skirts and leggings (though it could also be blue or a shade of blue-green).  The younger generation keeps their long hair uncovered, while the older women wrap it in a decorated turban or headdress.  The jackets and skirts are machine-made printed cotton and are also on sale in the market, but subsequently festooned with loads of glittering, spangled ornamentation.
Green Hmông woman
Green Hmông girl
       Besides the more sedately dressed local Giáy, the market also attracts Hà Nhì, who wear black, side-fastened jackets with broad blue bands around the collar, lapel, sleeves, cuffs and hems.  A Tibeto-Burman group linguistically, they are a spillover from the Chinese side of the border, the dominant Hà Nhì group in Jinping County, Yunnan.  A Hà Nhì village lies on the hill just north of Mường Hum, but most of those in the market come from further north and west and usually arrive the night before market day.
       Following excursions to Tam Đường Đất and Mường Hum, a traveler might find the return to Sapa, with only two minorities in the streets, almost anti-climactic.  But now endowed with a greater awareness of the variety of attractions in the area, new ambitions arise.  Beyond Sapa there is much to explore, to wonder at, appreciate and enjoy.

White Hmông shopping in Tam Đường Đất
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Bình Lư, Tam Đường Đất and Mường Hum are part of Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through the northern mountains.  See