|White Thai Dinner|
by Gordon Hmmond
"Once a year they hold the love market". A twinkle comes into our translator's eyes and I prick up my ears. "Couples come from miles around to meet each other. The husbands and the wives go different ways and look for old flames and former sweethearts with one thing in mind. There are so many people around that it is easy to get lost in the crowd. Once you meet the person of your fantasies the two of you find a little restaurant and share a meal. You while away the hours waiting for darkness and then, with no questions asked, you have your wicked way. In the morning you meet up with your spouse again and go back home to the daily grind of survival in a beautiful but tough country."
And so the meal conversation continued. There was nothing fancy about the meal or the surroundings, but the conversation made me realise how easily modern tourism can bypass the heartbeat of a country. The long house was typical of a thousand simple family homes built on an clay island in the middle of a rice field. The slats of the bamboo floor allowed the cooler evening air the circulate around the large open room. The woven grass mats squeaked, but were clean, even if not exactly comfortable. The bowls of chicken, rice, vegetables and the ubiquitous but delicious cha gio (spring rolls) were washed down with copious shots of rice wine. The evening was mellow as were the diners. And the conversation strayed down a dozen enchanting pathways.
It was fascinating to learn about a country from inside. This was down-to- earth travelling, far from the impersonal, cloned world of air-conditioned tourist hotels. No plush beds and drawn curtains, cable television and CNN to start the day. A rooster clearing his throat at some unearthly hour is the self-appointed herald of the pre-dawn. Slowly the village responds to his call as excited piglets, yapping dogs and gossiping ducks add to the sounds of a fresh day. Finally, there is the gentle huffing sound of a buffalo passing by the window. You assume that one of the five buffalo boys will be leading him to rice fields for another day of ploughing and wallowing.
You see, our host, the elegant Ba (Mrs) Vuong with the red lips and the black teeth, has five attractive daughters and no sons. The deal is that a boy who fancies any of the daughters will be required to live with the family for up to five years and work as a buffalo boy. It ensures male labour in the absence of sons. When she was 18, Ba Vuong drank a secret concoction that turned her teeth black. In order to ensure that the chemical reaction was complete she didn't eat for a week. Finally, daily chewing of betel nut turned the lips bright red. She represents the classic beauty of the White Thai - glossy black hair, cherry red lips and black, black teeth.
Driving west from Hanoi for some four hours along a narrow road built by the French in the 1930's we climbed the Thung Huoi Pass and descended into Mai Chau, the heart of the Black and White Thai people of North West Vietnam. One of the fifty-four ethnic groups of this country of contrasts, they arrived from China in 1396 and settled in the spectacular mountainous region near the Laotian border. Living in isolation for so many centuries they developed many intriguing traditions and cultural idiosyncrasies, many of which still exist today.
The Black Thai women are clearly identifiable by the black costume and hairstyle. A married women always wears her hair in a bun secured by an exquisite silver hair pin, designed and created by her husband and presented to her on their wedding day. Unmarried girls let their hair down and widows wear a bun on the side of their heads. The White Thai who wear white in their garments tend to live in the valleys and in the larger towns. As a result the impact of modern life is rapidly eroding away their ancient culture.
Trekking up into the mountains is not for the faint-hearted, but it is the best way to experience life as it has been for many centuries. The temperature and humidity were matched by the steepness of the climb, but we were rewarded with spectacular scenery and insights that most tourists would never see. I came away with a renewed respect for the toughness and resourcefulness of these beautiful people.
These people are intensely practical. Underneath their stilt houses you can see bulky, rounded log coffins waiting for their inevitable day of infamy. Evidently, when someone becomes seriously sick, the coffin is brought into the room and placed alongside their mat. The message is clear. Get well or you will be carried out in this contraption.
Scores of carp tails nailed to the side of the house, provided a visible record of the productivity of their fish dam, both in terms of numbers and size of the fish. If you know where to look and what to look for, the entrance of each home will reveal the number and gender of the inhabitants. We were on an amazing learning curve.
Adventure travel is not just about rafting down a raging river, or bungy jumping from a bridge. There is a whole world of experiencing differences first hand. Once a traveller has passed the flush of youth and once they have seen the "must sees" of the world of the tourist, the time arrives for discerning travel. Getting off the beaten track and away from Hotel World to no longer being an observer, but becoming a guest of ordinary people and a participant in their daily lives could be described as the ultimate experience of the seasoned traveller.
For me, Vietnam is no longer a small and overpopulated Asian country that used to be the enemy, but is undoubtedly one of the world's most colourful and fascinating destinations.