Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mai Châu to Lai Châu: Through the Thái Lands of Vietnam

                                                               by Jim Goodman

Black Thái woman in Sơn La
       From 1999-2002 I made three trips to Vietnam, focusing on the people and places of the northern border areas.  I had already been researching the minorities of southern Honghe Prefecture, just across the border in Yunnan, China and many of them lived on the Vietnam side.  These included the Thái, who were animist like their counterparts in the various Dai sub-groups in Honghe.  As I had been living in Thailand for twelve years before my first Vietnam excursion, the Thái in Vietnam were naturally of more than marginal interest for me.
       With over 1.5 million, the Thái are the third largest ethnic group in the country, behind the Kình (Vietnamese) and the Tày.  They inhabit the plains and river valleys of the provinces along the Lao border, from Ngh An to the northwest corner of Lai Châu.  Most travelers encounter them by taking the route throughout northwest Vietnam, beginning in Mai Châu in Hòa Bình Province, then west to Sơn La and Đin Bin Ph, north to Lai Châu and then east to Sapa. 
Thái house in Mai Châu district
White Thái woman
       Mai Châu, 160 km southwest of Hanoi, was already built up as a tourist attraction by then, featuring home stays with local villagers.  The town lies in a secluded, flat valley surrounded by high hills.  It is the administrative center for the district’s Thai and Hmông villages but back then was scarcely more than an urbanized village, with a school, a few government buildings, some three-story shop houses in the Hanoi urban style and a single hotel, usually empty.
weaver at her loom in Lác village
       Travelers don’t stay here, but continue to nearby Lác village.  A friend in Hanoi gave me the name of a family in Lác to stay with, which turned out to save me a lot of probable trouble trying to choose a house on my own.  Lác was well geared to the tourist trade and every house was a shop and guesthouse.  Woven textiles and sundry other items were on display in front of every house, along with cold drinks stands. 
       The hostess recommended to me was quite gracious and friendly, fed me well and conversed with me about Thailand and Vietnam.  She made no effort to press me to buy something, but as soon as I was outside I was confronted with the sheer commercialization of the village.   Prices for drinks were quite high, too, though because the village had many active weavers, operating looms under their stilted houses, at least some of the textiles on sale were locally produced.
the central pond in Sơn La
       Lác villagers, and those of the other settlements in the valley, are the White Thái sub-group.  They live in stilted houses of wood and bamboo, with thatched roofs.   Inside, the walled-off kitchen is at the far end.  The host family provides a mattress and mosquito net for the guest and when there are more than one, family members may sleep in the kitchen.
       The autumn harvest was completed by the time of my visit.  I hiked to the other nearby Thái villages, but though they were not yet full of handicraft sales displays like Lác, there was little field activity and after just two nights I departed Lác for Sơn La, another 165 km west.  It was a pleasant ride through rolling hills swathed in thick forests, interspersed by settlements of stilted houses, backed by jagged limestone peaks that got craggier closer to Sơn La. 
reconstructed watchtower at Sơn La prison
       The city was not very big, consisting of three main streets radiating from a pond in the center of town, two commercial and one residential.  A small hill stands within the city limits, with a broadcasting tower, illuminated at night, on its crest.  In front of it stands the ruins of the former French prison, Sơn La’s chief tourist attraction.
       Sơn La was an active theater of resistance to French rule and the prison was used to incarcerate anyone even suspected of political activities.  Famous Việt Minh cadres Trương Chinh and Lê Duan spent time here.  The French themselves bombed the prison in 1952 and Việt Minh troops further ravaged it when they took control of the city.  Now it’s the city museum, with its original entrance intact and parts, like the watchtower and kitchen, reconstructed.  The rest is heavily damaged, but in the display room behind the kitchen is a scale model of the original, where one can see just how small the cells were and where the punishment dungeons lay.
Sơn La Prison gate
Black Thái woman on her way to the Sơn La market
       The site also includes an ethnic museum devoted to the province’s minorities.  The Black Thái dominate the province, but there are also villages of the Mường, Tày and Hòa (Chinese) in the city’s vicinity.  The hills are home to Hmôing, Dao, Si La and Khơ Mú, while elsewhere lie villages of the small minorities Xinh Mun, Kháng and La Ha.  The latter three, and to a great extent the Khơ Mú, dress and live like the Black Thái. 
harvesting rice near Sơn La
       Black Thái women still prefer their traditional clothing. The outfit comprises a long-sleeved pastel-colored blouse, fastened by rows of silver, butterfly-shaped clasps down the front, over a black silk sarong, with a simple cloth belt around the waist.  They wrap their hair in a bun and cover it with a highly embroidered scarf, which dangles over the neck.  The ensemble is almost like an ethnic uniform, but individuality is in the headscarf designs, no two of which are the same.  No distinction in dress exists for marital status or age.
Thái women in the 1920s
       Old photos show no basic change in the outfit for at least a century.  But there are variations.  For weddings the bride dons a long black cloak with colored vertical panels in the front.  For funerals they wear an extra jacket, usually a bright maroon red color embellished with lots of embroidery and appliqué, presenting a far more colorful ensemble than on ordinary days (or even weddings).  The Thái believe that death is not just a termination of life in this world, but also a transition to the next life.  So people mourn the passing of the deceased, but also celebrate the soul’s rebirth. 
       Vietnam’s Thái are animist and besides venerating their own pantheon of spirit-deities they also pay particular attention to the care of the individual soul.  Several rituals are designed to repair a damaged soul, call it back from wandering, insure its health, etc. Some may involve the participation of a female shaman.  She will dress in the standard outfit of blouse and sarong, but with two additions: a special four-cornered hat and a wide belt, appliquéd with little arabesques and fringed with triangular cloth pendants.
Black Thại woman at her stall in Sơn La
White Hmông woman, Điện Biện Phủ 
       The Black Thái began migrating into the area from southern China from the 9th century, continuing to settle around Sơn La throughout the first centuries of Vietnamese independence.  The Vietnamese did not directly administer the province and did not officially annex the northwest until 1337.  They then assigned it as a fief to the White Thái Đèo family in Mường Lay.  They were not very loyal vassals, however, and supported the Chinese invasion and occupation of northern Vietnam from 1408.  But when Lê Lợi drove out the Chinese and established a new Lê Dynasty in 1428, the Thái were more autonomous than the new emperor found acceptable.  So he campaigned for two years against them, until their submission in 1432.  
Black Thái houses near Điện Biện Phủ 
       Today Vietnamese form the majority in Sơn La city, but many Thái have also taken up residence there, running market stalls, restaurants and other businesses.  Their villages are a short walk from town and their women frequent the city markets.  They carry their goods in trays or baskets suspended from each end of a balance pole.
       Men leave the market activities to the women, but women also take part in house construction, though only the men do any required climbing.  In fieldwork, women do the weeding, but at planting and harvest time there is no real division of labor.  It was harvest time during my visit and both sexes did the same work of reaping and threshing and women as well as men handled the buffaloes that drove the plows over the newly cleared plots.
White Thái village near Mường Tè
       The only morning bus to Điện Biện Phủ left Sưn La at 4 a.m.  We were still in pre-dawn darkness when we approached the first town Thuận Châu, yet already many Black Thái women were walking single-file along the road, carrying their shoulder poles with baskets at either end, heading for the Thuận Châu market.  Seems to be an early riser culture, at least in the rural areas.
       Continuing past Thuận Châu the road rises gradually into a rather barren, Hmông-inhabited area to the Pha Đin Pass, which also marks the boundary between Sơn La and Điện Biện provinces.  We arrived here just after sunrise and on the descent into the Tuần Giáo valley I could see the Thái were already busy harvesting rice in their fields.  From Tuần Giáo southwest to Điện Biện Phủ is Black Thái territory, though the city itself, famous as the place the Việt Minh inflicted a crushing defeat on the French Army in 1954, is mostly Vietnamese-inhabited.
White Thại village along the Black River near Mường Tè
       Smaller than Sơn La, it is a major tourist attraction for Vietnamese more than for foreigners, with war relics scattered throughout the vicinity and an informative museum next to the cemetery.  The town market attracts two branches of the Hmông from the hills and Black Thái from nearby villages.  The Black Thái also dominate the valley north of Điện Biện Phủ, but then the road climbs into the hills, passing settlements of the Red Hmông, until descending to Mường Lay and the border of Lai Châu province. Formerly known as Lai Châu city, a branch road here leads northwest to Mường Tè district, home to White Thái in the valleys, La Hù, Hà Nhì and small minorities like the Cộng, Mảng and Si La in the hills.
       Near the junction is the ruined palace of the last autonomous ruler of the area—Đèo Văn Long.  Following Lê Lợi’s campaign the Đèo family still remained in power and Vietnamese authority in the Thái areas was tenuous at best.  In the 16th century White and Black Thái chieftains formed a loosed confederation called Sipsong Chutai, after the twelve (Sipsong) mường (Chutai) of its members.  From then on, northwest history is the struggle for power between the Đèo of Mường Lay and Black Thái chieftains to the south. 
White Thái house near Mường Lay
       In the late 19th century the Đèo family led forces to expel a renegade Chinese army from Sơn La and won the support of Black Thái chieftains.  Initially, Đèo Văn Trị led the resistance to the French forces, but was forced to surrender n 1890.  Afterwards the French appointed his family as governors of Sipsong Chutai.  The last of them, Đèo Văn Long, appointed 1940, was a notorious despot who worked closely with the French to insure the supply of opium.  He backed the French against the Việt Minh until forced to flee the country in 1953.
       The road past the Đèo mansion to Mường Tè is one of the least maintained in the northwest.  Because of the security restrictions, limiting a traveler’s exploration, and the fact the route doesn't continue to another destination, foreigners skip it.  I went there to meet the Hà Nhì, whom I’d been researching in Yunnan.  I met them in the town, but was not allowed to hike up to their villages in the hills.  Instead, I wound up spending much of my time in the large traditional White Thái village next to the town.
Thái water-wheel on the Black RIver
       It was more authentic than Lác, since there was no tourist trade to cater to, and all houses were traditional ones on stilts, with baskets of split bamboo stacked on the open-air balconies.  They had water-wheels in the river to convey water to their fields and an animist shrine at the edge of the village.  People were friendly and hospitable, if a little surprised by a foreigner there.
       After a few days I returned to Mường Lay and later proceeded to Phong Thổ for its Sunday market day. Both are White Thái areas, though the markets are more dominated by sub-groups of Hmông and Dao.  Lai Châu/Mường Lay was set up as the French colonial headquarters for the northwest and was later heavily damaged during the 1979 war with China.  A White Thái village lay beside the town, with water-wheels in the river and typical stilted houses on the banks. 
        With the construction of the Sơn La dam on the Black River, 50 km north of  Sơn La city, which opened in 2012, the village and most of the town were submerged.  No doubt the villagers relocated in a similar environment and carried on as before.  Vietnam’s Thái are a very conservative people. Ancient traditions still govern their lives, for these have always served them well in the past and people expect them to continue to do so far into the future.   
White Thái women carrying firewood home to Mường Tè

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