A Flower Hmong woman in northern Vietnam

Flower Hmong and the love markets of Northern Vietnam

Thang was a sensitive young man. Probably the only Vietnamese I’d come across who admitted to liking the remote tribal people of Tonkin in northern Vietnam. “They have their own way, but most Vietnamese do not understand,” he grumbled.

Thang’s admission followed three days of bone-jarring agony in a Russian jeep, scuffing sheer mountain ledges and sliding down scree slopes. After a further 10-mile hike to sup tea with a tribal elder surrounded by children, pigs and chickens in a dusty, dark wattle and daub hut, Thang thoughtfully concluded: “These are good, simple people but Vietnamese and Chinese still think they are savages.”

The noble savage of northern Indochina has always been a persecuted soul. The tribes originally fled to Vietnam  from China some 200 years ago and have shunned the outside world ever since. They live in splendid isolation amid cloud capped mountains, hanging waterfalls and jungles, and deep, terraced valleys on the roof of Vietnam, only appearing occasionally to trade with their neighbours.

Previously, to catch a glimpse of these colourful people required an iron constitution which included a mammoth 14-hour drive on dirt tracks or an 11-hour hard sleeper, overnight from Hanoi. Enough to put off even hardened travellers. These days, however, things are much improved with first class, overnight sleepers provided by a new four-star French alpine resort recently opened in the hills above the old colonial hill station of Sapa.

The town has only recently been re-settled after years of war and neglect. It’s a place of exquisite alpine mansions lining surrounding hill-tops like clumsily beautiful European follies, built as pastel beacons against the austere mountains towering overhead. It even has a fabulous rocket shaped church, the height of 30s Flash Gordon chic. But, above all, it’s here where you first glimpse the gathering of the tribal clans.

Each weekend different tribes, from the brightly coloured Flower Hmong to the dour Red Dzou, come to trade, drink and even get hitched. As well as art deco chic, Sapa is also famous for its love market. Come dusk on a Saturday night, young Hmong men serenade their sweethearts before heading off into the valleys for some prenuptials. A sort of proactive, tribal Blind Date.

For foreign hikers, Sapa is the base camp for adventures into the mountains. Local tribesmen take hiking trips up to the nearby peak of Mount Fansipan, a three-day agonizing journey through gloomy temperate jungles and reticent villages, cloud bursts and freezing temperatures – but with some of the most stunning panoramas in Southeast Asia

Hiring a Russian jeep is a slightly less arduous way to see the mountains and tribes  – although this is still a terrifying and back breaking journey along tracks that disappear a thousand feet into the valleys below. The ride is made all the more difficult by the sheer foolhardy nonchalance of the Vietnamese, who drive along the precipitous tracks as if they’re on an autobahn en route to Berlin.

With the jeep also comes a guide and ours was Thang who spoke perfect English and French, a smattering of Japanese and all the tribal dialects of Tonkin. A feat almost unheard of among the Vietnamese who generally refer to these people as meo, which literally translates as savage.

The first stop on Thang’s agenda was a Black Hmong village called Ta Phin, a tiny cluster of mud huts surrounded by  griddled terraces of deep green rice paddy and water buffalo dozing neck deep in mud. As we hiked the several miles to the settlement, church bells began ringing our arrival. Ta Phin was also the only catholic village in the valley, converted a century ago by French pastors.

Swarms of toddlers half dressed in heavy, black hemp leggings and tunics ran to meet us, while the adults hung back in the dark doorways of their mottled huts, surrounded by frantic chickens, swine and lethargic hounds.

Thang explained to them that we were there to see their celebrated church. Not true of course, but it put them all at ease. Nearby the Hmong priest beckoned us over to his chapel. It was a missionary-style wooden church with simple stained glass windows and a separate bell tower. Underneath a group of girls gave us an impromptu carol service in Hmong.

Thang pointed to the silver earrings hanging from the ears of the women and coins decorating the hats of the babies. “All this jewellery is made from French silver coins,” he said. “They still use this as currency. They don’t like using Vietnamese dong.” The child’s hat was indeed covered with ancient French silver piastres, in an oval decoration. A coin collector’s dream, but much more precious to these people – these coins were family heirlooms.

On the way out of the valley we passed a French monastery up on the mountain. “Vietnamese and French monks lived here. They converted the Hmong in Ta Phin,” Thang said. The mission was gutted and pock marked with artillery scars and bullet holes. It had been abandoned during the 50s when Ho Chi Minh’s guerrilas fought the French colonial troops nearby, but it was largely destroyed by the invading Chinese in 1979 who savaged the area.

If Thang was magnanimous about the tribes, he had few good words to say about the Chinese. “They came here, they killed everyone, they destroyed everything. They chased away the Hmong, they killed their cattle and burnt their houses. They killed my family. Why? Do you know because I have never found out why?”

The Chinese invasion of Tonkin was a very bloody affair barely reported on and which left hundreds of thousands dead and homeless. The shy, retiring tribes bore the brunt of China’s fury. Much of Sapa was obliterated and many of the towns on the border were completely leveled. After a few weeks wreaking havoc the Chinese went home only to return as traders a few weeks later. Such is the odd relationship between Vietnam and China.

We trekked to the Red Dzou village of Ta Van. Tall women with shaved foreheads and red pointed hats, wearing long hemp gowns, eyed us warily at the entrance. Small children screamed in terror and ran off at the sight of us. “These people are more shy than the Hmong,” Thang whispered. He said that many of them were terrified having their pictures taken, viewing snapshots as an ill omen. Some 50 yards away a Dzou woman and child hid behind a rock.

Thang explained to them that we wanted to meet their venerable village elder, and eventually they led us into a dark hut, a wood fire billowing smoke through a hole in the roof. The old man squatted on his haunches on the packed earth floor surrounded by fussy chickens and pot bellied pigs. He drew up a few tiny wooden stools for us.

“I watched the Chinese come down that valley,” he said, through Thang, pointing 10 miles up to where the road ends and our jeep was parked. “Thousands of them. Everywhere they went they ate the animals and killed the people. We all had to run and hide in the mountains. Later the Vietnamese came back and stole some more from us, accusing us of collaborating.”

Outside the border town of Lao Cai lies the greatest monument to Vietnamese and Chinese suspicions of these people – a French built castle for the last of the Hmong kings. During colonial times the French set up the local warlord in his own kingdom with his own personal guard, army and harem of concubines.

The castle is a curious mix of Franco-tribal architecture and amazingly remains pretty much intact. It was from here that the French secured peace along the border between Indochina and China and was clearly a sore point both sides of the border. In 1954 the Hmong king was despatched into internal exile in the mountains and is, surprisingly, still alive at 99. Meanwhile tribal history was rewritten with the castle and the Hmong kingdom written out.

On the final day of our trip around the alps we drove into Lao Cai for the weekend market. This event is legendary throughout Tonkin for its sheer excess. Tribal traders from both sides of the border descend in their thousands on the scruffy little town. Many start out before dawn on their ponies and spend the day getting utterly smashed with their friends. Indeed, everyone in Lao Cai gets so drunk that the only way home is by their faithful ponies who obviously know the route by heart. It’s quite common to see drunken tribesmen comatose at the end of the day, draped over their ponies cantering home – or being led by disgruntled, timeworn women.

Rice wine is the poison of the mountain tribes and is consumed by the gallon. They all gather in the market to gossip and drink and eat a mix of pig offal and intestines, apparently a delicacy. Funeral players advertise their skills for prospective customers with wailing wind instruments, while elsewhere others dance and sing in high pitched squeals: a strange discordant noise more like avant garde anti-music you’d hear in a university bar. Close by in the animal market dogs, cats, pigs and goats are trussed up and sold off to the highest bidder. Interestingly Hmong do not eat dogs and cats, deeming it an unnatural and filthy habit, and instead sell them to the Vietnamese.

It’s a scene of medieval excess, each tribe proudly sporting their own colours and carrying sabres and flintlock guns. But there’s no violence or disruptions to the events because, above all, market day is a time of celebrations. A day away from the endless grind of struggling poverty and hardship.

Thang, however, didn’t approve. “Their food is so unhealthy and disgusting and they drink so much that they are all dead before they’re 50,” he said. Looking at a scene which resembled a bizarre, otherworldy version of Hogarth’s Gin Lane, I could see why.

This article originally appeared in the Times of London, 1998