In the summer of 2000, I travelled to Lao Cai, the border province wherein is located the famous tourist site of Sa Pa. From there, I was to continue my journey by train to Kunming, capital of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. The purpose was to see for myself the 500-kilometre rail line built in 1910 by the Compagnie Francaise des Chemins de Fer de L’Indochine et du Yunnan and vaunted as a wonder of the world. This is what the Guide Madrolle has to say about the railway, which links Kunming to the port city of Hai Phong in Viet Nam via Ha Noi: "One of the most picturesque and most rugged (railways) in Asia. At times, it plunges into tropical bush; at others, it labours up steep mountain slopes or winds about the bottoms of deep valleys. For this great diversity of terrain, it is a great tourist attraction." But what Madrolle thinks fit not to say is the fact that construction of the line cost the lives of 50,000 Chinese and Vietnamese labourers.
While in Lao Cai, I was able to learn more about the province and the market towns, which I had known only briefly through several short visits made previously. This was possible thanks to the helpful assistance of the local authorities, in particular Mr Tran Huu Son, director of the provincial cultural department.
The term Lao Cai may be a corruption of the Sino-Vietnamese term Lao Nhai, meaning Old Street. It can also be taken to mean market-town of the Lao (or the Thai, two groups belonging to a same ethno-linguistic group). The more than half a million inhabitants of the province are of different ethnic groups, among them the Viet, the Tay, the Nung, the Hmong (Meo), the Dao and the Ha Nhi. The province itself was created as late as 1907 by the French colonial administration, but it had in fact been connected to the Kingdom of Viet Nam under the Tran Dynasty in the 13th century, under the old name of Thuy Vi.
Culturally, Lao Cai is a bridge between the region inhabited by the Tay and the Nung east of the Hong (Red) River, and the Thai region on the western bank. It was also where the Viet culture converged, after coming into being in the basin of the Hong River. Here the Viets met with regional Chinese cultures like the Dien of Yunnan, the Thuc of Sichuan, and the Tay Vuc of Central Asia, as well as the Indian culture.
The people on the two sides of the Sino-Vietnamese border have entertained good relations, often through ethnic ties or kinship, and are generally good neighbours. Colonial conquests in the second half of the 19th century had the effect of uniting Viet Nam and China in a common struggle. After the defeat of the Chinese peasant movement of Tai Ping, one of its lieutenants, Luu Vinh Phuc, set up headquarters at Lao Cai in 1868. He and his Black Flag men joined forces with Vietnamese royalists in fighting the French invaders. In Ha Noi, they killed two French officers, Francis Garnier in 1873 and Henri Riviere in 1882. Many Vietnamese revolutionaries, among them Ho Chi Minh, used to operate from Yunnan prior to the August Revolution of 1945.
Near the Nam Thi River, which serves as the natural border, stands two ancient temples typical of Viet Nam’s national identity. Den Thuong (the Upper Temple) is dedicated to Saint Tran, the famous General Tran Hung Dao who defeated Mongol invaders in the 13th century and who is revered as the knight and defender of the country. A short distance from this shrine is Den Ha (the Lower Temple), erected for the worship of Princess Lieu Hanh, one of the Four Immortals of Viet Nam and the incarnation of Mau Thuong Ngan (Mother God of Forests and Mountains).
In particular, the province is known for more than a dozen picturesque mountain markets often visited for sentimental reasons. As inter-ethnic marriages are forbidden and hamlets are widely scattered, young people need a place to meet and get acquainted, with the hope of an eventual union. Listen to this young Hmong male:
have no wife; I take to the road in search of one.
"At first light I
had breakfast prepared by Pa and Ma,
"And here I’m
roaming about the market-place.
"In search of an
At the market, married men gather to drink and slurp sour pho and another speciality called thang co, and women spend long moments at their stalls displaying tho cam brocades or silver trinkets. A market day is not complete without the usual crossbow shooting contest, cock fight, horse race and pole swinging competition.
Sa Pa and Bac Ha are the biggest mountain markets. Sa Pa, at an altitude of 3,142m, is in Viet Nam’s highest mountain range, the Fan Si Pan. Bac Ha is well known for its maize vodka, its prunes and the ruins of a palace-fortress that belonged to Hoang A Tuong, a local lord during the old days.
Lao Cai’s rich folklore mirrors the life of its multi-ethnic inhabitants. It can be discovered through their colourful dress, their songs and dances, their musical instruments, their rituals, and their proverbs and tales. — VNS
Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency