Sunday, December 24, 2017

Getting to Know Bắc Hà

                                                                  by Jim Goodman

Hmông handicrafts stalls in Bắc Hà, 2000
       Around the turn of the century, when Sapa had already established itself for several years as the leading destination in the mountains of northern Vietnam, Bc Hà was basically a sideshow.  Tour company posters advertised it as a ‘non-touristic destination’.  They basically touted it not as a separate area worth exploration, but as a particular event—the colorful Sunday market.  Buses packed with tourists left Sapa early Sunday morning for the 100-km ride and arrived just as the market was getting into full swing.  They left mid-afternoon for Lào Cai and an overnight train ride back to Hanoi.
Bắc Hà in 2000
       Having spent several days in Sapa on my first trip to Vietnam December 1999, on the next journey a couple months later, entering the country from China at Lào Cai, I made Bc Hà my first destination. .  Nestled in an 800-meter high valley, with modest mountains on all horizons, it is not as spectacularly sited as Sapa.  Nor does it have near as many guesthouses and restaurants.  No park exists in town, but the hilltop behind the market provides good views of the surrounding scenery. 
       The town then was rather small and quiet.  Most residents were ethnic Vietnamese (Kình), but the Hmông Hoa, who comprise 65% of the district’s population, live in the suburbs and nearby villages.  Villages of the Tày and Phù Lá minorities are within hiking distance, while the Dao live further away.  The ’downtown’ area, such as it was, featured buildings in the Franco-Vietnamese style, with a small Buddhist temple roughly in the center, opposite a colonial-era clock tower.
Hmông girls in Bắc Hà
Hmông girl in the Sunday market, 2000
       I arrived on an early bus from Lào Cai over an hour before the first tourists from Sapa.  Folks were already setting up stalls on the streets and mountain dwellers were arriving from several directions, mostly Hmông, but also some members of the Dao, Tày and Phù Lá ethnic minorities.  Just from their apparel, this was a very different scene than Sapa’s Saturday market.  The Hmông and the Dao also dominate Sapa, but their female counterparts in Bc Hà belong to different sub-groups and women  dress in completely different outfits. 
a busy Bắc Hà lane on market day, 2000
The Black Hmông of Sapa are called thus because the dominant color of their clothing components—jacket, cap, shirt, leggings and shorts—is black.  The women of the Flowery Hmông  (as it translates) don bulky, ankle-length, patterned blue skirts, lavishly embroidered and appliquéd, bright jackets, belts, leggings and aprons.  They embellish their outfits with heavy silver neck rings, chunky finger rings and necklaces and big round earrings.
       The Red Dao women around Sapa wear highly embroidered trousers and long-tailed jackets with bright red caps or turbans on the heads.  The Dao of Bc Hà are also a Red Dao sub-group, but wear outfits dominated by plain black, with no embroidery, with a wide vertical band of silver studs on the front of the jacket, colorful tassels attached at the bottom, and a round, mostly red-striped turban on the head.
young Red Dao woman
Red Dao women in Bắc Hà
       The Tày women dress in long black jackets and trousers, while the Phù Lá women wear a light or dark blue, side-fastened jacket, occasionally with a heavily embroidered bib over the front.  They are relatively few in the crowd, which is dominated by Hmông women as soon as they start to arrive.  Older women lead heavily laden ponies.  Young women carry woven pack baskets of split bamboo.  Some lead dogs on leashes.  Others bear pigs wrapped in a split bamboo harness and carried in the pack basket.  These they sell in the square at the end of the market street, while others set up stalls all along the way. 
group gardening in Bản Phố village
       By the time the tourist groups show up the streets are packed.  In 2000, though, the other notable difference from the Sapa market scene was the interaction between foreigners and locals.  Sapa’s Hmông and Dao women and girls were already the most aggressive souvenir and handicraft sellers one could encounter in Vietnam.  Bc Hà’s Hmông all but ignored the foreigners.  The handicraft and jewelry stalls they set up were for other Hmông and nobody pestered a foreigner to buy anything at all.  They just smiled for the photographs.
Hoàng A Tưởng Palace
       As for the tourists, they rarely initiated any interaction with the locals, except maybe to ask if it was OK to take a picture.  They stayed in their groups and all departed around 3, just as the market was winding down.  Only two other visitors stayed the night and we hiked together to the nearest hill for a view of the valley and the sunset.  But they left early next morning and for that day I was the only stranger in town.
       The nearest minority settlement is the Hmông village of Phố, 4 km up the mountain behind Bắc Hà. Not all the Hmông of Bác Hà live in big villages.  The path passes by hamlets of a handful of houses and occasionally a lone household off by itself next to newly cleared land.  The houses are sturdy, roomy, wooden structures of usually one story, with roofs of thatch or wood tiles.  Besides rice, corn and vegetables, they also raise ponies for transport and pigs and dogs for the market.
Hmông weaver at Hoàng A Tưỡng Palace 
       In the 90s the Hmômg began cultivating plums and other fruits in hillside orchards.  This brought them prosperity not yet experienced in Sapa, despite the tourist income there.  Bc Hà plums are now highly prized and locally eaten with salt, black pepper and chili.  The Bc Hà Hmông then lived in better houses, looked healthier and cleaner and their women had several sets of clothes.  They smiled politely when I passed by, invited me for tea when I stopped to photograph collective gardening and no one offered me anything for sale.
       I pressed on to other destinations next day and as years passed my research took me elsewhere in Vietnam.  But I kept hearing about changes in both Sapa and Bc Hà from friends in the motorcycle touring business.  The biggest change in Bc Hà came in 2006 with the opening of the renovated Hoàng A Tưởng Palace.  Now the town had a distinct historical relic of its own.
Tày woman and child
Tày woman, Bản Liền
       The palace sits on a mound one kilometer from the town center and dates its construction to 1914-1921.  The French colonialists appointed a local Tày chieftain, Hoàng Yến Chao, as ruler of the area and conscripted French and Chinese architects to design his palace.  The result was a very baroque combination of French and Oriental styles, occupying 4000 square meters, two stories high, mostly yellow walls, arched entries and a railed balcony, offering a view of the town and surroundings. 
painted rafters of a Tày house in Bản Liền
       The palace compound comprises the former residential palace, occupying 420 square meters, and subsidiary buildings on its wings.  These used to house a military detachment, but now the ground floor rooms are used to display local art works and Hmông handicrafts.  The upper floor rooms, of both the wings and the main house, were for private use and today hold furniture and old photographs.
       The palace was one of three the French commissioned for their allies in the northern hills.  The others were near Đồng Văn, Hà Giang, for the Hmông chieftain, and Mường Lay, Lai Châu, for the Thái chieftain.  So long as they kept the frontiers peaceful, these chieftains could rule without interference.  And in the case of Hoàng Yến Chao and his son and successor Hoàng A Tưởng, this meant unchecked exploitation of the people under their rule, as well as economic monopolies on all essentials of trade.
Tày stilted house in Trung Đô
       When the Việt Minh began seizing control of the northern mountains, Hoàng A Tưởng fled and subsequently disappeared from the history books.  The palace fell into disuse and disrepair until its 2006 restoration.  Now it is the most popular attraction in town after the Sunday market.  And there is no admission charge.
       By 2017, on my return to Bắc Hà, the nature of the Sunday market had come to resemble that in Sapa in the past.  Tourism has grown exponentially this century and nowadays foreigners may even outnumber locals in Bắc Hà on Sundays.  A much larger part of the market consists of souvenir handicrafts stalls, usually run by Vietnamese rather than Hmông, while the latter badger tourists in the lanes to buy whatever they are carrying.  In return, the tourists are more inclined to very intrusive photography, zeroing in for repeated close-ups of every lady with a wrinkled face and lots of silver jewelry.
       But they don’t all leave afterwards.  The district’s additional attractions, its ethnic mix and other market days, have recently inspired more travelers to schedule a longer stay.  The number of hotels is still small, but it’s still a very laid back town, without the plethora of handicraft shops and sellers that characterizes Sapa.  Visitors can take treks of two to four days in the mountains and see and stay in villages of the Hmông, Dao and Tày.  They can also opt for a home-stay visit to a single Hmông, Tày or Dao village.

planting rice in Trung Đô
One such Tày village is Bản Liền, 23 km southeast of Bắc Hà, lying in a valley backed by forested hills.  The Tày are Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority.  They are not colorful dressers, preferring plain black jackets and trousers, with a bit of blue trim on the jacket lapel and a blue belt for the women.  Yet they are still very traditional.  All Bản Liền families live in stilted wooden houses with angled roofs of thatch or tiles.  The rooms are spacious but sparsely furnished.  The rafters supporting the roof interior often feature painted designs of flowers, birds, butterflies, arabesques and other symbols.  They follow a kind of Buddhism mixed with animist practices, such as making caps for their babies with special protective medallions.
       Another popular Tày village is Trung Đô, about 15 km south of Bắc Hà, entered via a tree-lined road until the rice fields before the village.  A little larger than Bản Liền, with only about half the houses traditional stilted ones, it also features a fine old village temple and the remnants of the former chieftain’s residence.  Trung Đô lies close to the Chày River, where boats take passengers upriver to the market villages of Bảo Nhai and Cốc Ly.
buffalo market in Cốc Ly
       Bảo Nhai holds its weekly affair on Thursdays, in and around the covered market in the center.  Mainly Hmông, Tày and Vietnamese Kình attend, and once in a while a foreigner.  It’s rather small and caters strictly to locals, so free of the tourist-oriented products and stalls that dominate market days in Bắc Hà and, to a lesser extent, Cốc Ly.  It’s also an early riser market, which starts winding down by noon
       Market day at Cốc Ly, on the Chày River 20 km southwest of Bắc Hà, falls on Tuesdays.  The venue has two sections.  The stalls hawking the usual market goods sit on a mound on the east side of the road and the livestock market, mostly buffaloes, is in a shallow on the west side of the road.  The market stalls on the mound are mostly run by Hmông and Hmông are most of the shoppers as well. 
Hmông herbal medicine stall in Cốc Ly
       Because it’s just two days after the Bẵc Hà market day, some foreigners extend their stay to include witnessing this event--but a few dozen at most, not several hundred.  As a result, though, the market includes many stalls selling the kind of tourist souvenir handicrafts seen in Bẵc Hà now and Sapa, yet without the hard sell, pestering manners common to the other two places.  Still, other layouts are of more traditional Hmông products, from vegetables to medicinal herbs to homemade maize liquor.
       The maize liquor sold there could very well be from Bãn Phố, above Bắc Hà, which has a district-wide reputation for it.  One of their production centers is a short walk outside town, where visitors are given a tour of the processing methods and facilities and a sample of the liquor.
       North of Bắc Hà, Cán Cấu, a 20 km-ride through beautiful hills, has market day on Saturdays, drawing mostly Flowery Hmông, some Tày and hardly any foreigners.  Lùng Phìn, just 10 km north of Bắc Hà, holds its market day on Sundays, attracting Hmông and Phù Lá.  Other than the Lùng Phìn area, the easiest place to visit the Phù Lá is Chỉu Cái, a few km south of Bắc Hà.  Most houses have converted to modern style, but the females still wear the side-fastened traditional jacket, in pastel colors for the younger ones and darker shades for the older women.
Phù Lá woman in Bắc Hà, 2000 
Phù Lá woman, Chìu Cái, 2017
       In 2000 Bắc Hà’s reputation rested on the town’s market day.  The authenticity of that has eroded since then, but the result has been to find that authenticity elsewhere in the district, in far-flung market venues and remote ethnic minority villages.  For anyone looking for genuine traditional life styles, the district is worth an extended stay.
Hmông girls on the northern rim of Bắc Hà district
                                                                           * * *     
       Bắc Hà is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through the northern mountains.                 See the itinerary at

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