Friday, March 23, 2018

Home-stay with the Dao in Quản Bạ

                                                       by Jim Goodman

Núi Đôi--the breast-shaped hills of Quản Bạ 
       The northeastern province of Hà Giang is one of the most remote in Vietnam.  It’s also one of the poorest, consisting mostly of rocky mountains with stone-studded slopes, the kind of terrain that precludes agricultural development.  But it is becoming more attractive to travelers, for access is much easier nowadays.  Around the turn of the century it took two full days to drive the 313 km from Hanoi to the provincial capital Hà Giang City, and another full day to reach Đng Văn in the far north.  Now it’s a smooth ride of six to seven hours.
       Hà Giang City, the provincial capital, is not particularly interesting.  Other than a small museum housing prehistoric artifacts and the clothing of the ethnic minorities, there is little to appreciate.  The city lies along the Lô River, but its banks are usually full of refuse.  But it does have an attractive setting among steep hills backed by high mountains, a foretaste of what’s to come further north.
typical Dao house in Nậm Đâm
       Leaving the city, the road north runs a while through pleasant valleys, passing stilted houses of the Tày minority, and then climbs into the hills.  About 40 km north of Hà Giang City it comes to the pass known as Heaven’s Gate.  From here is a splendid view of Qun Btown and its unique setting.  Just beyond the flat fields of the northern suburbs sit two hills beside each other, called the Twin Mountains (Núi Đôi), bereft of farms or trees, exactly the same size and shaped like a woman’s breasts.  Higher mountains lie in the distance beyond.
       According to a local legend, once upon a time a Hmông man playing his gourd-pipe lured a fairy from Heaven who heard his music and fell in love.  She stayed on Earth and bore him a child.   The Lord of Heaven found out and ordered her back.  So she left her breasts behind to nourish the child.
Dao male attire
Dao Aó Dài woman's outfit
       A medium-sized town with little traffic other than inter-city buses, Qun B is becoming more geared up for tourism, with several hotels, trekking services and restaurants with Western food and English menus. Vietnamese dominate the urban population, while Hmông and Dao are the main ethnic minorities in the district.  Most hotels offer home-stay arrangements for travelers to stay in minority villages.
Dao women going home from the fields
       The nearest of these is the Dao village of Nm Đâm, a few km north of Quàn B, consisting of about fifty houses and 250 inhabitants, members of the Dao Aó Dài sub-group of the Làn Tn branch.  [In Vietnamese the letter ‘d’ is pronounced like a ‘z’ so it’s Zao Aó Zai.]  Some Dao are famous for the colorful embroidery with which the women embellish their jackets, trousers or both, like the Red Dao around Sapa, the Tá Pàn Dao in northern Hà Giang and the Sewing Dao of Lào Cai province.  The Dao Aó Dài dress in mainly plain black clothes, without any embroidery, like other Làn Tển sub-groups the Black Dao and Dao Tuyền.
       Men wear a front-fastened, long-sleeved, plain black jacket over black trousers.  The aó dài tunic worn by the women is also long-sleeved, but side-fastened, knee-length and split on each side from the waist down.  It resembles the aó dài worn by Vietnamese women, except it is shorter and has no upturned collar.  It’s not completely black, for a thin band of red trimming runs along the neck and lapel and thicker bands of red, blue or white wraparound the sleeve cuffs.  The women also wear a red cloth belt tied around the waist.
Dao woman with child
Nậm Đâm children
       The headscarf is more like a turban with a flap in the back.  The front features bands of spangled white and red across the brow and the top is usually white.  The long flap that hangs halfway down the back is black underneath and bright red on the outside. Young girls and children dispense with the headgear, but otherwise dress the same.  Silver neck rings, often more than one, and long silver chain necklaces are the most popular ornaments.
host couple with home-made herbal rice liquor
       Like other sub-groups of the Dao, the Dao Aó Dài in Quản Bạ have maintained their traditional culture and are very conservative.  Thus, the women prefer to wear their traditional garments and one of the attractions of a visit to Nậm Đâm is the exotic sight of ethnic clothing everywhere.  In addition, the houses are old-fashioned, two-story structure of wood and rammed earth, with thick thatched roofs.  Fields and gardens separate the houses and there is no real congested area in the entire village.  The only non-traditional buildings in Nậm Đâm are those constructed for the home-stay guests.
preparing dirt for house walls
       “Home-stay” is a bit of a misnomer.  Unlike trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal, or visiting hill tribe villages in northern Thailand (my own experience) visitors do not actually stay in anyone’s home, but in a separate building.  The individual rooms have a thick mattress on the floor, lots of pillows and blankets, an electrical outlet and no furniture.  Guests share a toilet and shower and a computer if they haven’t brought their own, and every such home-stay establishment, of which Nậm Đâm has five at the moment, has wi-fi connections.
       By staying overnight in villagers’ homes, whether a separate bedroom or s mattress on the dining room floor, travelers witnessed a great deal of domestic life.  They saw who goes to bed early or late, who wakes up first, what was the first task of the day, how the meals were prepared and so on—all insights into traditional culture.  By putting guests in a separate building, all that is lost. 
the 'rammed earth' method
       The simple breakfast consists of a choice between noodles or banana pancake—the backpacker favorite, with at most one family member joining the guests.  But for the mid-day and evening meals, the whole host family joins.  And of course, the greater the number of guests, the greater number of dishes, both of meat and vegetables.  Rounds of herbal rice liquor, a local specialty, punctuate the repast and the Dao women will drink as much as the men.  But they don’t get drunk, for the Dao only consume alcohol at meal times and not afterwards.
      While the home-stay experience does not allow for the observation of the intimacy of family life, for anyone interested in the ethnic life style, it’s still preferable to lodging in a city hotel.  “Home-stay” may be just a rural guesthouse, but travelers wake up in an authentic village environment with plenty of opportunity to observe the people’s outdoor work.  This depends on the season, naturally, for farming is every Nậm ̣Đâm family’s occupation. 
Dao domestic altar
Dao girl excavating dirt for house walls
       I was there in winter, when the fields lay fallow.  Women went to gather herbs and edible plants growing wild or harvested something raised in their gardens.  Winter is also house construction time.  The Dao first layout the foundation and then place two long parallel boards on the lines where they want to erect the walls.  Women dig up dirt from a pit created nearby, break up the large clods of earth, load the dirt into a basket and carry it to the house site.  Then they empty the basket of dirt into the trough between the parallel boards.  A man with a big wooden hammer pounds the dirt to make it compact. 
young Dao man learning to write Chinese characters
       Then men raise the boards to make a new trough to receive another load of dirt and slowly but surely the walls rise, by what is known as the ‘rammed-earth’ method. The two-story building, when finished, will include wooden corner posts and window frames and a roof of thick thatch.
       Nậm Đâm is an officially recognized ‘culture village’ and has its own modest museum.  Tools, implements and machines used in agricultural work comprise the bulk of the exhibits, as well as a palm fiber rain cape.  But a typical home altar is also on display, for it’s an essential ingredient of every Dao household.  Dao religion is basically animist with a heavy Taoist overlay.  Shamans are still an active tradition and the people take their religious ceremonies very seriously.  
       Shamans undergo successive initiations to become qualified to conduct a range of rituals for different events.  These include rites of passage like births, becoming an adult, marriage and funerals, others’ initiations, expelling bad luck, honoring ancestors, calling back the wandering souls blamed for unexplained illnesses and so forth.  They wear special coats and hats and for major rituals they may decorate the venue with paintings of Taoist deities.  They often accompany the rites with the deployment of power sticks, fortune-telling dice or musical instruments such as gongs, cymbals and drums.
shaman manuscript pages
       They also read aloud from ancient Taoist manuscripts, written in Chinese characters, which around Nậm Đâm could be up to five centuries old.  They contain narratives of myths or complex prayer formulas and tradition requires a chicken sacrifice and a ritual before they can even be taken out for use.  Most pages are just text, but some contain colored illustrations of life in the afterworld, its pleasures and its punishments.  
       Other than the New Year rites, ceremonies conducted by shamans are semi-public, in that they take place in a private house or yard, but anyone, including passing travelers, is welcome to observe and even join the feast afterwards.  That certainly enhances any visitor’s experience, but even without such a lucky coincidence, a stroll around the village, or out to another one a few km away, is quite pleasant.  The people are friendly and hospitable, used to foreigners without being overwhelmed by great numbers of them and the landscape offers views of other valleys and of black limestone boulders jutting up from the ground, sometimes in arresting shapes.
Hmông in Quản Bạ on market day
       Sunday is market day in Quản Bạ, which draws many of Nậm Đâm’s residents to town, mostly women.  They may add a little jewelry for the occasion, or a colorful scarf, but otherwise dress the same as any other day.  Dao Aó Dài from other villages in the vicinity also turn up in Quản Bạ in Sunday, as do a few Tày, lots of Hmông and local Quản Bạ Vietnamese.    
       Dao Aó Dài women dress more or less the same, with little variation in the outfits.  Hmông women around Quản Bạ, in contrast, do not have a uniform style.  They may wear some of the traditional clothing components, like long slit tunics, pleated, over-the-knee skirts and a long, thin apron in front, but very different from one individual to the next.
pigs for sale in Quản Bạ
Hmông girls examining a necklace
       The regular daily covered market is in the southwest quarter of the town.  On Sunday stalls and stands, or just goods laid out on a cloth, go up on all the lanes branching off from the covered market, as well as the main street in front of it.  Vietnamese run the shops and most of the stalls in the covered market, but Hmông and Dao-run stalls occupy side streets and the areas outside the covered market.  Some hawk vegetables or herbs, others textiles or jewelry.
       At the north end of the market an empty field is the venue for the livestock market, mostly buffaloes.  On the market side of it smaller animals are on sale.  The pigs wear a muzzle of split bamboo and are tied to bamboo poles to make for easy vertical transport on the buyer’s back.  The fowl vendors provide a cage for those purchasing chickens and ducks.  Dog vendors are also there, the dogs tied to leashes for customers to walk them home, whether purchased as pets or as food.
Hmông woman selling vegetables
Dao Aó Dài women in Quản Bạ
       Sugar cane is a popular item and customers often break off a small piece to gnaw on while touring the market.  The liveliest stalls are those selling jewelry, crowded with girls holding up and examining necklaces, bangles and neck rings, fantasizing what they would like look wearing the ornaments.  The older Hmông and Dao women tend to congregate around the textile and thread stalls, buying cloth to make their own clothing.
       Several noodle stands open for the day, so lunch is possible in the market area.  But shortly after noon the crowd begins thinning.  Some look for last-minute bargain finds, youths may arrange for a date with someone they met today, and villagers running stalls gather up the unsold merchandise and prepare to take it home.  Unless it’s a particularly busy time in the agricultural cycle, they’ll be back next Sunday.
Dao women at a silver jewelry stall
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Delta Tours Vietnam can make arrangements to visit Quản Bạ and other destinations in Hà Giang province.  See  


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