Northern Vietnam is long recalled for its diversity of culture and people. In perspective of the nation’s history, Vietnamese traditions seem to mostly originate from North’s deep influence. Therefore, to explore the truest of Vietnam’s roots, there’s no good way than setting out on a journey, wandering from the heart of country – Hanoi to Ha Giang – the farthest Northern point and one of the most gorgeous corners of Vietnam.
The 8-hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Giang is the loop between the bustle of city and the quiet range of mountains and valleys. All the buffalos walking in queue along the roads signify us a wide distance from where children say wow to the picture of a water buffalo. Coming to Dong Van Plateau, which recently becomes an international destination, we can clearly see the dots of ethnic customs flourish.
First is the way ethnic people appreciate stone. This stems from Ha Giang’s geography with most lands covered by stone rather than soil. The majority of houses around the town are surrounded by stone fences, which both adults and children spend from 1 to 3 years on selecting stones and building up. Once done, their daily lives would never happen far from it. People here plant flowers in rock slits and pick those for one another on special dating days (when ex-boy/girlfriends have the chance to reunite with partners). They spend leisure time sitting around the stone fence telling ghost stories, turning it into a small place for gossips and trading. They also measure a person by how high his stone fence is, to them, it is equal with how wise he is in doing business and taking care of family. Gradually, a small community are built around these fences, signifying a considerable part in their spirits.
Being a province near the border between China and Vietnam, Ha Giang’s ethnic people are influenced profoundly by China’s ethnic traditions. This is evident in both their culture and daily life. Strolling around the town, these are some common images that easily catch your glimpse: Men in stalls drink Chinese beers while playing Chinese chess; customers purchase by Chinese currency; houses are decorated with Chinese wooden panels printed poetry. When night draws in, men sometimes go on “bride snatching” trips like in Ordos ancient wedding ceremony; on celebrating days, people still jump fire and gently slap each other’s butts to find their own partners. However, after education reform, this tradition has become rare in the modern context.
BEHAVIOR & ATTITUDE
In the heart of city, it is kinda creepy when some total strangers offer you a cup of honey butter drink, especially when they don’t even speak your language. But on ground of Ha Giang, it is considered disrespectful to people if you decline their offerings such as tobacco water pipe, raw bee drinks, etc. Thus, numerous outsiders including Vietnamese natives find it hard to blend in ethnic society in Ha Giang. To survive here, there are some basic rules that you must follow strictly, for example, rule #1: if you don’t drink, you’re out literally (and be humiliated).
Due to the rush of working and living, city dwellers might make too many promises and forget all of them in a nano minute. Therefore, it comes as a true surprise for visitors about how trustworthy a Northern ethnic person is. This is well-known to an extent that some tales have been heard through the grapevine about this nature. Rumor has it that if you fell in love with a Northern ethnic girl and failed to keep your promises with her, you would be cursed eternally. Outsiders are both scared of and admire this outstanding feature.
Sometimes, we can feel that the signs of modernity have blended right in the daily habits of these ethnic communities by looking at women chatting on their mobile phones or eating ice – creams from “Ice – cream bar world”. Some say that it saddens them to see how commercial these people have become, some argue that their wild spirits would never vanish into thin air because of their genes.
When it comes to aesthetic, there seems to exist a huge gap between taste of Northern people in city and village. City plainsmen prefer minimal style and plain texture, which is evident in their choice of clothing (ao dai) and architecture (one-floor brick house). On contrary, Northern ethnic groups are all inclined to colorful style with elaborated jewelry and embroidered clothing.
Departing the hotspot of city, journey to Ha Giang is an incredible way to wander in its pure definition. We wander: to explore stashes of mysteries lying under the life surface of people and landscape, to keep memories as a motive in heart to continue going, to keep ourselves in a position of a respectful observer, a passionate culture explorer and a true wanderer.