In Search of a Hmong King

by Leslie Nevison, Aug 1, 1997 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ha Giang

'There is an old Vietnamese song," says Man, 'about my country"s close relationship with China." He begins to sing softly what he could remember of it: 'Mountain to mountain, river to river, teeth to tongue." Man and I stand shoulder to shoulder pondering the depths of a gorge in northern Vietnam"s remote Ha Giang Province; the Nho Que River curves far below on the valley floor.

Serrated grey mountains and soaring incisors of limestone dissolve into the diffuse light of the ashen sky. Some of these mountains belong to China; the border lies nineteen miles along a rough road which wraps itself around karst pinnacles on the opposite side of the valley. Man"s poetic lyrics seem the only language worthy of this landscape which has imposed an awed silence upon me.

Vietnamese vistas have humbled me before. One year earlier, Man, a friend and tour guide from Hanoi, accompanied me to northwestern Vietnam, a region which also neighbors southern China and where the country"s highest mountain, 10,371 foot Fansipan, is located. Although seeing them for the first time, the northern mountains were immediately familiar to me as the stylized peaks of old Asian scrolls, drawn delicately in fine pen and black ink; the air was translucent watercolor which softened the harsh geography and I, the tiny figure in gargantuan nature.

Where we were going became subordinate to the natural spectacle but the evidence of our purpose were the terraces of amber, unharvested rice and golden swaying corn stalks which climbed the vertical slopes like staircases. I doubted that people with the skill and endurance to care for such fields, predominantly the Hmong and Dao (pronounced Zao) ethnic minorities, felt their stature diminished by the landscape. The colorful costumes they wore were such bold statements of their cultural identity and seemed to proclaim a pride of place in these mountains.

The Hmong and Dao peoples originated in southwestern China, migrating southward in the early nineteenth century to escape Chinese attempts at political control. They settled in small hamlets in the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand where high terrain allowed them the independence they sought. Today they form just two of Vietnam"s 54 ethnic minority groups, eight of whom live in the Sapa District of the country"s northwest.

Opened to tourism in 1993, this area attracts hikers to the mountains and climbers to Mt. Fansipan but its greatest interest to me is the hill tribes. I remember the excitement of my first encounter with two Black Hmong women on the road to Sapa. They were walking an incredible distance to attend the weekend market. We offered them a ride'their first'in our rented jeep which they accepted only after much encouragement. I was fascinated by their dress: they wore homespun cotton tunics of deep indigo with embroidered collars in primary colors; navy puttees and turbans; and multi-hooped silver earrings and necklaces.

I saw Hmong women working in the fields in the same clothing but the jewelry worn by our reluctant hitchhikers marked their destination of the market as a special occasion. The two-day event, which consisted of several narrow alleys of simple, wooden stalls offering basic sundries fulfills a social as well as practical function for people who live tucked away in secluded villages. On Saturday evenings, young Hmong and Dao meet and mingle and vanish into the night to court. From a darkened corner, I heard a boy"s impassioned, high-pitched singing, a traditional declaration of love to his girl. It is an old ritual now influenced by the world beyond the mountains. His father must have used a handmade bamboo wind instrument to accompany his music; this enamored youth used a portable karaoke system.

The existence of a lovers" market is an irresistible draw for tourists, whose numbers already threaten the privacy of the couples. The hill tribes, however, are instinctive traders and the foreign visitors to their market are additional sources of income. Hmong women peddle their embroideries, used clothing and silver ornaments. Its operations are decidedly local, however, its flavor other-worldly, and while commonplace to the milling crowd of minority buyers and sellers, I was at my most content'an appreciative observer of a crowd whose costumes were undeniably magnificent, art forms that expressed each ethnic group"s diverse heritage as eloquently as language.

Until recently, northern Vietnam"s minorities practiced swidden agriculture, clearing fields for crops by burning and abandoning them after harvesting. In a life of frequent moves, possessions were few and textiles became a source of portable wealth. Distinctive clothing of identical design could immediately establish family and clan on sight in a new location and help maintain a sense of continuity for nomadic communities. These were people whose traditions were transmitted orally. Without a written text, the repetitive motifs of clothing design, initially encouraged for reasons of identification, evolved into an expressive vocabulary denoting a group"s social relationships and values. Textiles assumed a specific role in any life event'birth, marriage, illness and death'therefore becoming a medium which safeguarded as well as recorded custom.

Making clothes, bedding and ritual textiles was women"s work. The land furnished them with cotton and hemp plants for thread to weave cloth and the indigo plant for natural dye; mothers imparted the technique of ornamentation and its rich symbolism to their daughters. It was a process that assisted in the transferal of culture from one generation to the next, protected by the closeness and quality of family and village life.

The safe passage of knowledge is far more difficult today due to the dynamics of this century"s changes. Some minorities have simplified their everyday attire, either for convenience, comfort or cost, wearing western or Vietnamese style clothing and reserving their elaborate finery for festivals. Irrespective of race, many women prefer a gaudy, tartan patterned head-dress'mass-produced in China'available in the marketplace. There is an embracing of cross-cultural dress'one minority wears the tunic or turban style of another. These are subtleties which may pass unnoticed by the amateur ethnologist but they are harbingers of a time when traditional dress no longer represents a tribe. For now, however, it remains a dramatic declaration of ethnicity, articulated most fluently by the women, perhaps because of the historical role their artistry has played in their peoples" cultural survival.

In the Sapa market, the Red Dao women took an undisputed first place in spectacular head-dress. A long length of scarlet scarf wrapped an elevated triangular frame, its multiple layers and meticulous folds remaining miraculously in place. The women were wary of my scrutiny and turned their backs to me, unintentionally offering me a better view and fuller impact of their fiery turbans with the attached manes of silver coins, baubles and red tassels. Markets are a place I go for a firsthand look at a destination'for its colors and smells; relaxed interactions; where the universal activity of business is a common language. Although the Red Dao were cautious of my attempts to engage them, others such as the Hmong and Giay were more receptive, which made the part of passive spectator a gratifying one. I was willing to accept such limitations.

On a map of Vietnam, if you place your index finger on Hanoi and move it vertically upward and slightly to the left, you"ll find Ha Giang Province, one of the country"s last frontiers because of the politically sensitive 150 miles of border it shares with China. China used the province as one of its entrances to invade Vietnam in 1979.

The Vietnamese government is aware of the interest that travelers such as myself have in Ha Giang"s beautiful mountains and resident minorities. Sapa District is becoming a popular tourist destination for these reasons. Unlike the northwest however, entry requires written permission in the form of permits. Vietnam"s decision to not allow unrestricted movement by individual travelers is influenced by the region"s lack of tourist facilities'outside of Ha Giang town there are no hotels or guesthouses'and poor road conditions. Minorities improved the province"s transportation routes, which were originally laid by the French, but Chinese artillery continued to inflict damage until 1984 and repairs since then have been negligible.

Ha Giang Province has always occupied a strategic position on the trade route with China, the protecting mountains encouraging control of overland trade to remain in local hands and allowing banditry to flourish. Shielded by the geography, revolutionaries have based their activities here'from eleventh-century resistance fighters of the Chinese to twentieth-century rebels of the French. Ha Giang is the province where a Hmong chieftain took the title of king and fought an unsuccessful war of autonomy against the Vietnamese. This legacy of history lingers: Ha Giang authorities have a reputation as isolationists.

Man cautioned me of the obstacles a trip to Ha Giang could present. He himself had never been there. At the same time, the idea was equally exciting to him. The permits were granted within one month of their submission.

There was the decision of when to travel. During heavy rains, which occur in the north between July and October, bad roads become impassable. Winter temperatures can be prohibitively cold by late December. November offered the auspicious compromise. On a murky dawn our weathered Russian jeep with a party of three joined the many inventive forms of motorized and man-powered transportation on Hanoi"s busy streets

In command was Mr. Thuon, a former military mechanic undaunted by the prospect of the infamous Ha Giang roads, and the only one who could open the handleless doors of the vehicle with the screwdriver attached to the dash. Beside me sat an American friend from Singapore and at our feet what we considered essential supplies: drinking water, fruit and snacks, a bottle of whiskey for both celebrations and crises, and a Scrabble game.

It was an eight-hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Giang on a road which, despite its sizable craters, earned the approval of the driver. On either side lay scenes of pastoral domesticity'farming communities'simple and timeless images of rural Asia. At one point early in the morning, a sudden mist enveloped us. It was a good omen, said Man, meaning clear weather when it lifted. He was right but the winter sun was weak, its warmth tepid and a monochrome vapor, which I came to associate with the north, remained, gently diluting the greens and yellows of the rice paddies.

Our permissible journey linked the towns of Yen Minh, Meo Vac and Dong Van where we could overnight in the guesthouses of the District Party Committees, the only serviceable accommodations in the province. In Meo Vac, the room next to ours had a lighted sign for a women"s clinic that only flashed red at night under generator power and when'inexplicably'work hours were long over. Our reception at these bleak and unappealing concrete structures by those in charge was to be anything but cordial, especially in Dong Van.

Mr. Minh, the Vietnamese proprietor of a small eating establishment in Yen Minh, and undoubtedly its best cook, was the antithesis of unfriendly officialdom. His restaurant was his home: the pigeons, an essential ingredient for his breakfast porridge, scratched in the roof rafters; dogs, in their function as floor cleaners, snuffled for scraps under tables. After the meal, Mr. Minh offered us a clear spirit distilled from corn by the Hmong. We saluted one another and downed the contents of the little glasses of liquid fire in one swallow. Mr. Minh continued to pour refills and fearing that social protocol might demand finishing the entire bottle, I asked Man to explain my inability to continue the inebriating pace. Mr. Minh was disappointed: 'Women here drink as much as the men," he said.

The potent home-brew comfortably scrambled the sequence of the long day"s events for me. We had crossed the Quang Ba mountain pass around midday, a natural obstacle between the towns of Ha Giang and Yen Minh, on a road with a surface so deteriorated by recent rains that bamboo poles had been laid side by side as ramps over the greatest damage. Our optimum speed was rarely over twenty miles an hour. Many stretches were under busy renovation by work crews of Hmong and Red Dao women, as though in preparation for convoys of trucks and jeeps and not the few vehicles I saw in six days of travel.

We had an eagle"s eye view from the top of the pass. Small communities lay nestled around a pair of green, gently rounded hills called the Fairy Mountains, named for their resemblance to a woman"s breasts. 'As beautiful as fairies," Man pointed out unnecessarily. Through the sheerest of mists, the valley displayed the labor of a giant hand: the tiny triangles of thatched roofs and small rectangles of emerald and mustard fields looked like the hundreds of cloth fragments a minority woman appliqués to her clothing in interlocking patterns. If the motifs used by the women reflect their natural world, then the Quang Ba valley was a prototype for a textile fine enough for a wedding.

In Quyet Tien village, we waited for forty-year-old Minh to emerge from her mud house in her wedding outfit. She was one of 700 remaining members of the Bo Y minority, a people found only in the vicinity of Quang Ba mountain. Her picture, taken three years ago, appears in the book 'Ethnic Minorities of Vietnam" published in Vietnam which I carried with me. I didn"t recognize her; the black and white photo did not capture the complexity of her costume. It took her almost an hour to dress; the full skirt had the multiple pleats of an accordion; the apron, worn to the front, had detachable sleeves with snaking bands of decoration; and a head scarf of banner length was wound many times around her head and flipped to the rear.

It was not a coincidence that we had discovered the Bo Y woman photographed for the book. Someone on the road directed us to her home. She is well known in the district as one of three remaining Bo Y women still in possession of traditional clothing. Many Bo Y have intermarried with other tribes and adopted their clothing styles. Minh herself wore the indigo jacket, black trousers and turban of the Nung people for daily work in the fields. Tradition still dictates that the Bo Y wear ethnic costume for weddings and funerals. Minh 'lends" her clothes on these occasions to whomever needs them. It is why, she said apologetically, that her clothes are not in the best condition. Minh cannot replace her outfit: it was made by her grandmother who never taught Minh"s mother or granddaughter how to sew.

The publication on minorities had helped me compile a mental checklist of the groups I was hoping to encounter in Ha Giang. In the first days of travel, we met Co Lao and Lo Lo, peoples like the Bo Y who exist in far smaller numbers than the Red Dao and Hmong. We heard similar stories to Minh"s about the disappearance of ethnic dress, perhaps a result of their dwindling populations. An elderly Co Lao woman, now living among the Hmong, showed us her tunic'the last of its kind'that she was saving for her own burial. Mai, a young Lo Lo woman from a village near Meo Vac, invited us to wait in her bamboo hut with its newspaper-insulated walls while she fetched her costume from safekeeping nearby. Covered with wedges of vibrant red, yellow, blue and green cloth assembled into squares like pieces of a puzzle, she reserved its use for weddings and housewarming celebrations. I looked up the Lo Lo people in my 1993 book which stated that the Lo Lo of Ha Giang still wore traditional attire. Three years later, Mai now chooses Vietnamese clothing.

As we moved deeper into the province and higher into the mountains, we saw mainly Red Dao and Hmong along the road. The Red Dao, in less elaborate headgear than their relatives in the northwest, nonetheless exhibited the same degree of caution. Children fled from the jeep when they recognized the occupants as westerners. Most of them lived in villages hidden from us with some communities a distance of fifteen miles from the road. From my view in the back seat, I could see a spider web of precipitous footpaths over the mountains that receded behind them and I imagined what lay at their many destinations.

My reverie by Ma Pi Leng mountain pass came as a welcome rest stop on the morning of our fourth day. Man sang another line of the folk song about Chinese-Vietnamese relations: 'Ho Chi Minh to Mao Tse-tung." I listened with pleasure; I didn"t at that moment wish to be anywhere else but where I was overlooking the gorge. The ground fell away at my feet, a vertical drop to the Nho Que River. Even so, it was someone"s field; dried corn stalks, used by the Hmong to make fences, rustled and obstructed my view. Far below, I saw signs of miniaturized life. Tiny stick figures led or rode horses along the road to China, which looked no bigger than a bridle path from that height. Trucks, reduced to the size of children"s toys, inched slowly along. I heard the faint rumble of engines and the clunking of bells around the necks of the animals. Periodic flashes of deepest blue clothing identified those on foot as Hmong.

Sightings of Red Dao had decreased. It was apparent that this barren land of high altitude next to China was the domain of the White Hmong, one of four sub-groups of Hmong differentiated by women"s dress, dialect and local customs. Dong Van, our final stop, was the site of a Sunday market for the Hmong which our timing allowed us to attend, a happy prospect for our group of amateur ethnologists. It was also where we hoped to learn more about a Hmong king, a man I first heard about the evening in Yen Minh when tongues were loosened by corn whiskey. My guidebook referred to him briefly as a chieftain who fought against the Vietnamese for a Hmong homeland in the 1950s. Since his mention, this purported Hmong king had rarely left my thoughts, perhaps because information about him was so tantalizingly scarce. Regardless of his place in Vietnamese history, of which I had no idea at the time, I assigned him mythological status for the importance he assumed in my journey.

'The road to Dong Van," said the old man, 'was improved by the Vietnamese government in 1965 but vehicles were still not able to use it. It took me seven days to bring supplies by horse from Ha Giang." Upon our midday arrival in Dong Van, Man had immediately sought someone who could answer our questions about the Hmong king and had located a possible candidate in the marketplace, an elderly veteran of the French and American wars who now sells batteries, rubber shoes, soaps, sweets and the ubiquitous tartaned head scarves to his primarily Hmong customers. We sit on low stools in the entrance of his small shop which faces the square where the Hmong will congregate tomorrow. He opened his present business in 1992 when the residents of Dong Van were allowed to return from the town of Lung Phinh where they had been relocated during the Chinese conflict. We had stopped at this dusty community'one street lined with flimsy, wooden buildings'two days earlier for a lunch of boiled eggs. I have difficulty envisioning it as a suitable refuge for those displaced by war. The shopkeeper"s wife, a retired banker, serves us packaged coffee mixes and we hunch over the steaming beverages, warming our chilled hands around the hot cups.

There are long lapses of silence during Man"s polite conversation with the old man. Man has taught me that the process of information collection demands patience, that too many queries too quickly are 'inconvenient" for people culturally reserved in manner and speech and whose home is a mere fifteen miles from the Chinese border, further encouragement for restraint. I know that Man rephrases the questions I ask him to translate in order to eliminate suspicion or simply to weaken their western directness; some are not answered at all.

Unwilling to be seen taking notes, I attempt to mentally file the details about the Hmong king which emerge randomly from our host. The afternoon"s unhurried communication has allowed me a leisurely observation of the street. By the third cup of coffee, I"m involved in its small dramas and fact-finding becomes less important than watching Dong Van. There is a noticeable atmosphere of festivity: the owner of an adjacent eatery is preparing pyramids of walnut-sized, glutinous rice balls that she steams and serves with a sweet ginger syrup to her increased weekend clientele; mud-splattered buses of beaten metal discharge groups of Hmong women, early arrivals for the market, whose villages are not within walking distance of Dong Van. They wear layers of clothing against the cold, their hands'never idle'twisting hemp fiber for thread. The women pass us many times, finally stopping to inquire about the strangers, their distrust overcome by curiosity. We admire the heavy, silver necklaces resting in triple layers on their chests and the black turbans like overturned baskets on their heads which hide shaved scalps except for a single, remaining, long tuft of hair. The old man is agreeable now'perhaps even proud'to make our introductions.

Two men from the Pu Peo tribe, a minority of decreasing numbers found only in Dong Van District, watch us from behind the circle of Hmong women. Their Vietnamese dress obscures their ethnicity from me until the old man points them out. When cognizant of our discovery of them, they smile widely, revealing mouthfuls of gold teeth.

Our passage through the market the following morning is eased by Man who represents our good intentions by sampling prepared foods and buying rice and yams'gifts for his wife, he explains. We wander among squatting sellers of bamboo stalks, tobacco leaves, ginseng roots and corn cobs; vendors of fresh pork, firewood and guard-dogs; itinerant repairmen of canvas shoes and dentists for troublesome teeth. Old women smoking yard-long bamboo pipes flip patties of corn bread on charcoal braziers.

The cheerful colors of the market brighten an overcast and gloomy morning. There is some individual expression of fashion choice among the single women but most Hmong are dressed identically in black cotton jacket, skirt or leggings edged with wide strips of vivid red, blue, green or yellow. When my traveling companion and I become separated, I scan the market for her unsuccessfully; her red coat bleeds into the similar shades worn by the crowd. Twelve hours later, when I shut my eyes for sleep, the market reappears in the darkness behind my closed lids. That night I dream of it in color.

The Hmong are not unhappy with our presence but neither do they embrace it; their interest is subdued and interactions are brief, even those with children. Their discretion allows me to move unhindered among them. The market is exclusively Hmong: it is a gathering of a tribe, an active symbol of racial solidarity, where past and present meet to ensure the Hmong their future, and unresponsive'as of yet'to the demands of anyone other than Hmong.

We cannot follow the old man"s recommendation that we remain in Dong Van until late morning when the market fills to capacity. We have permission to visit the house of the former Hmong king and so we depart after a late breakfast, passing the elderly couple"s shop one last time to reiterate our gratitude. We must drive slowly because of the number of people on the road; it is as though an army from the mountains is advancing upon Dong Van. Our progress is impeded further by a heavy drizzle and then a thick fog. Soon we are lost'even our Ha Giang guide is confused'and must ask a market-bound person for directions.

The Hmong settlement where the king lived is called Saphin. It lies in a sheltered valley forty feet below the road. When I take a picture through the jeep window, Man reminds me that photography is forbidden. Mr. Thuon watches the jeep while we hike down the hill to the simple compound of rectangular buildings surrounded by tall trees and blurred by the mist.

We sit sipping tea with two young, uniformed sentries shivering in a bamboo hut, newspapers and posters plastered over its open cracks. The top leaf of a wall calendar has been removed to reveal the correct date, an eye-catching sign of fastidiousness in such basic surroundings. A small amount of money is placed on the table between us which remains untouched when we leave. The guards are polite, as is Man in his responses to their questions, but there is a tension in the small room, a pervading sense of things hidden and protected.

I realize that my covert photograph was of only the guardhouses; the king"s residence is ensured absolute privacy, even from above, by a barrier of towering pine trees. Ten or more men wait for us at its entrance staircase. We must first drink more tea in a damp meeting room decorated with faded red banners. It is mentioned that another westerner visited recently but we are never told his nationality or reason for visiting the province. The men"s secrecy increases my feeling that the king"s proprietorial spirit is still present in his house. It is not a rudimentary village hut: its design and construction reveal the use of the best artisans and materials of its time. Black timber beams, ornately carved, reflect status, power and wealth.

The king"s father, it is said, was a poor man who raised goats for his livelihood. One day, when his animals did not return home, he sought urgent help from a Chinese medicine man renowned for his magic. The shaman divined the location of the goats and ordered his client to build his house there. He also predicted good fortune in the goatherder"s future but made it conditional upon his services being required in perpetuity. The king"s father, known as Vuong Chi Duc, did indeed become prosperous and the local chieftain of many Hmong villages. In the mid-1800s, he built his residence in Saphin, on the auspicious site where his goats had been recovered.

The youngest of the goatherder"s two sons, Chi Cinh, inherited the title of king, Vuong in Vietnamese, in the 1950s. It was not originally his birthright. His older brother, studying in Paris at the invitation of the French, was left unfit to succeed his father when he became deaf after ingesting an unknown poison. It is suspected that Chi Cinh was involved in his brother"s misfortune, an incident which revealed him as someone unafraid of contesting France"s authority over local affairs.

As colonial administrators, the French relied on existing political structures. This meant that the system of ruling regional chieftains like Chi Cinh was encouraged as insurance against ethnic unity. These men often were responsible for the collection of punitive taxes imposed upon all French colonial subjects. One of France"s largest sources of revenue in Indochina was a tax on the sale of opium, an analgesic derived from the poppy flower, a plant historically cultivated by the Hmong.

Opium was one of the crops of vital importance to hill tribe economy. The Hmong brought the skill of poppy cultivation from China to their new homes in Southeast Asia"s limestone mountains where it grew well in the alkaline soil. Its production was well suited to their way of life: large families supplied the labor for a plant which required intensive care; it was productive in the first year of planting; its growth and harvesting did not interfere with other Hmong crops such as corn and rice; and it was non-perishable, small and easy to store and transport. With the arrival of the French, the Hmong, who used opium for their personal use or for barter, had to rely on its sale to raise cash for taxes.

The opium trade has involved all of the players, international and local, who have vied for control in Southeast Asia. Vuong Chi Cinh"s Hmong army helped Ho Chi Minh"s nationalists to defeat the French but after liberation, Vuong Chi Cinh declared autonomy for the Hmong of Ha Giang and sovereignty over an extensive area that included the towns of Yen Minh and Dong Van. In preparation for conflict, Vuong Chi Cinh required from each Hmong family one and a half kilos of opium annually which he exchanged for rifles in China. Ho Chi Minh handled the Hmong king"s ambition diplomatically: Vuong Chi Cinh was offered three boxes of salt for three boxes of weapons, a position as Hmong spokesperson in the new Vietnamese government, and a car and villa in Hanoi. Vuong Chi Cinh accepted the deal and was so impressed with Ho Chi Minh that he changed his name to Ho Chi Thanh. The king died in Hanoi in the early 1960s at the age of seventy. His body was returned to Saphin and buried near his house.

The tomb of Vuong Chi Cinh"s mother, a large horseshoe-shaped stone, is to the left of the entrance to the house and impossible to miss. We are not shown the king"s grave site or that of his father who died in the 1940s at 100. The house serves as their mausoleum. Our escorts, the same party of men who served us tea, speak in hushed, reverent tones as they lead us quickly through the building. I feel prohibited from asking more questions, prompted by instinct and Man"s demeanor. I am not allowed to remain long in any of the rooms although I straggle behind, a resistant tour member hoping to be forgotten. About fifty of the king"s relatives still occupy the back of the house but we are not taken there; they cluster in dark doorways, mainly women and children, watching us silently, effectively shielding the only rooms with any signs of life from the intruders.

Color snapshots of existing family members, dog-eared and water-stained, are in a simple frame on the wall outside the king"s bedroom. Man recognizes a young woman in one as a customer of the old man"s shop in Dong Van. There is also a sepia photograph of the king"s father, gray-haired and dignified. A larger one of him as a much younger man sits on the humble ancestral altar in the bedroom, along with a rusted can holding a few sticks of unlit incense. It was taken, I am told, in Hanoi in 1902 when the French invited the father to the opening of what is now called the Long Bien Bridge. Dressed in European clothing, a stylish, polished and elegant Vuong Chi Duc poses next to a chair upon which rests his hat. The photograph does not portray a chieftain sympathetic to a people whose practice of shifting agriculture made daily existence'at best'precarious, but a landowner and businessman whose possession of property and monopoly of the opium trade marks him as a member of a nascent Hmong upperclass. There are no photographs of his son, the last King of the Hmong, the man I wished to see, but I have an image now of Vuong Chi Cinh, and he looks much like his father'a patriarch of a family of influence and privilege.

I take a last look at Saphin from the road. It is obscured by a grey filter of cloud which seems appropriately clandestine: I can barely make out the roof of the guardpost or the wall of trees around the house. Man promises to find a Vietnamese film about the king made several years ago and locate his former villa upon our return to Hanoi.

My friend and I sit in the rear of the jeep, comfortable in our silence. I listen to the soft and steady voices of Man and Mr. Thuon who, after the many continuous hours of travel, still have much to say to one another. I don"t understand Vietnamese but I am aware that they feel a sense of closure, that they are pleased to be driving in the direction of their wives and children.

'You"ll never come again," said the wife of the elderly shopkeeper in Dong Van, when I said good-bye to her. I held her hand and felt at that moment that she must be right. Now I am not so certain. An authority on Oriental art has said that the very concept of completion is alien to the Asian way of thinking; I feel similarly about this journey. The village of Lung Co is an entrance to the Hmong"s ancestral home in China'another threshold to cross.

Ha Giang Province Travel Tips


Ha Giang Province Travel TipsPracticalities
Ha Giang Province is found in the far north of Vietnam along the border with China is one of the country's last frontiers. It has always occupied a strategic position on the trade route with China, its protecting mountains encouraging the control of overland trade to remain in local hands and allowing banditry to flourish. Throughout time, revolutionaries have based their activities here. China used the province as one of its entrances to invade Vietnam in 1979. Its beautiful mountains and forests are home to twenty ethnic minority peoples, the largest groups being the Dao and Hmong, who migrated into the area from southwestern China in the early nineteenth century. Contact with the minorities makes a trip to Ha Giang a memorable one. Time your travel to visit the Sunday markets held throughout the province.

When to Go
During the heavy rains which occur between July and October, bad roads become impassable. Although January and February are dry and best for travel, it can be prohibitively cold in the mountains. There is always the chance that the rain may extend through November, but it may be your first opportunity into the province before the winter.

Getting There
Your point of departure is Hanoi. Permits are currently required but can be obtained (with patience) through a Vietnamese tourist office. Choose your representative well. Many are not knowledgeable about the province. Even with a permit, a traveler is expected to be accompanied by a Vietnamese guide. Because the province's roads are unmarked, it may be necessary or demanded by Ha Giang authorities to take along an additional guide of their choice upon arrival in Ha Giang town, the main center of the province and an eight-hour drive from Hanoi.

The only way to travel deep into the province is via four wheel drive. The tourist office, which is applying for your permit, can organize the rental of a jeep and, more importantly, find an experienced driver. A jeep will fit five persons comfortably (and their gear) including the guide and driver. A six-day trip should cost about $600 US.

Other Tips
There is a paved road between Hanoi and Ha Giang. The provincial roads, originally built by the French and improved by the minorities, were under repair in 1996. Even so, don't expect to cover distances quickly. Be prepared for dust and discomfort. At the time of this writing there were no hotels outside of the town of Ha Giang. Your guide will ensure that you stay in the guesthouses of the District Party Committees, the only serviceable (but basic) accommodations in the province. Bring warm clothing, bottled drinking water and a first aid kit.

See Photoessay: The People

See Photoessay: The Markets

See Photoessay: The Scenery

See Photoessay: The Village