Exposed tank
Exposed tank
Urals on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Urals on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
I reckon it's that way
I reckon it's that way
Terrace housing
Terrace housing

Heritage magazine - October 1999

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Tales from the Roof of VIetnam

Tales from the Roof of VIetnam

Digby Greenhalgh goes gift shopping in a hill tribe market but has so much fun he runs out of money and falls asleep in a hay loft.

On the road to the market we passed a Muong man carrying a long flint-lock rifle, a animal hide pouch and a knapsack.

Using a long metal rod, he packed white powder, black gun powder, five ball bearings and a paper plug down the rifle barrel. From a small glass vial tied around his neck he removed a firing cap which he placed under the trigger mechanism. Inside the vial was also a rough cut metal plug which looked like a cigarette but.

“For tigers. Just in case,” he said.

I took aim at a large banana leaf not very far away, and just before I fired noticed how close my eye was to the firing mechanism. The gun went “boom”, my face stung from sprayed ash and the forest was noisy with the cry of startled birds.

A girl rode past on a bicycle with an old black and white television strapped to her back. I still held the gun. She kept her distance.

We entered the market. There were hundred and hundred of people, shoulder to shoulder, quietly milling about. Some traders had stalls, some spread their wares on plastic mats. Butcher’s tables were stacked high with hacked cuts of buffalo and pig, some of which were still steaming. I bought a pair of rubber boots with soccer boot treads for VND17,000 and a lighter with a bottle opener on the end for VND2,000.

“Wow, it’s so cosmopolitan,” my friend, who had studied Vietnamese ethnology at university, said.

A Nuong lady to my left adjusted her dark blue headscarf . Underneath I caught sight of a heavily designed plate of silver while around her brow was wrapped a dark length of cloth studded with silver pins.

An old H’mong woman sold green bottles filled with medicinal plants and herbs. One bottle contained many snakes which she warned should not be swigged for the purpose of just getting drunk.

“Only if you have a belly ache,” she said.

A large group of Dao girls crowded a photography studio. One at a time they would have their photo taken with a large poster of a German or Swiss castle as a backdrop.

Many people crowded around a dark stall where an old man in a white coat made brass tooth caps for VND20,000. Next to him was a nasty looking drill powered by a foot pedal. His table was covered in old teeth. My friend was tempted to get a gold cap but decided against when the man said: “I only use the best Russian glue!”

Outside, an old H’mong lady sold amulets which were small red cotton pouches filled with sweet herbs of a complex aroma. I bought two for VND2,000. She showed me how to tie one around my neck.

Ten Tay women sold three grades of tobacco which we were invited to try.  I pointed to an overfilled sack of yellow leaf and took hold of one of the bamboo pipes and a wooden taper.

“Nice smelling, strong and cheap,” she said.

Beside me was an old man coughing as he smoked his pipe. I followed suit and blew the excess tobacco into a long wooden trough. A bag the size of a grapefruit cost VND3,000.

The smoke made me dizzy and thirsty. My friend suggested we drink some rice whisky, called ruou. He knew how to say “cheers!” in five different ethnic languages, and wanted some practice.

“It’s a good way to blend in, be normal,” he said.

We joined a low wooden table where a platter of rough cuts including pig trotters, snouts, cheeks, blood sausages and ears stood out amongst bowels (not cups) of ruou, chilli, MSG and salt crystals.

Three La Chi ladies on our right invited us to walk 20 kilometres back to their house. Their long black hair was braided into a long, thick plat which they wrapped around their heads like turbans. At their waist they wore belts made from hundreds of overlaid coins.

“Our ruou is stronger,” they said.

A lighted match was placed near his bowel of ruou. It caught on fire very easily.

Four H’mong brothers that had not seen each other for a year were catching up on old times. They were very generous and kept our bowels filled with the best portions of blood sausage and boiled intestines they had.

An Tay man warned us not to drink too much. He returned with a dictionary and a pen and rummaged through the pages. Having found what he was looking for, he wrote something on his fingers. He held up his right hand and on his five fingers were the letters ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘o’, ‘p’ and ‘!’.

An old H’mong man joined us. He had two wooden trumpets to sell. The stems were carved from lengths of gnarled bamboo while the mouthpiece and funnel were of beaten brass. The reed was a small tube of rice husk wet with a little ruou. The man produced a beautiful, haunting sound similar to an oboe. I puffed my cheeks and rolled my tongue and managed an unpleasant squeak. Everyone laughed. I bought a trumpet for VND35,000.  

I showed a Dao lady to my left a silver coin I had bought from a silversmith for VND90,000.

She sniffed it, bit it and tapped it on the table before declaring it authentic. Dated 1903 and bearing Justice with her scales, the coin could be melted down to make broaches, ear rings or necklaces.

After a rest, we jumped on our motorbikes and headed up into the mountains which surrounded the market.

A H’mong man wearing a black beret, pants and trousers stopped and said hello.

“Did you make this,” he said, pointing at a map we were looking at.

“No, we bought it in our home country of Australia,” we said.

Looking at our motorbikes he said: “How many days did it take to drive here from Australia”.

“There’s an ocean in between,” I said.

“There must be a long bridge then,” he said.

“No, we flew in a plane.”

“What’s a plane like,” he asked.

“Just like a bus but you get free ruou.”

He invited us to stay at his house. We were offered boiled root vegetables and an egg for dinner and ground corn and boiled leaves for breakfast. Corn ruou was shared amongst the men in a cracked bowel while two women tended the babies and stoked the fire.

That night in the hay loft we looked at what we had bought and decided that next time we would have to bring a larger bag. But at least I had some presents for my wealthy friend from New York.

My friend explained how markets worked in northern Vietnam.

“The first kind of market, mainly in Cao Bang and Ha Giang provinces, occurs every five days, and follows the lunar calendar. A market might say, be on the 4th, the 9th, the 14th day etc of every lunar month,” he said.

“The second kind of market is larger, occurs mainly in Lao Cai, Ha Giang and Lai Chau provinces, and is held every week on a fixed week day – normally Saturday or Sunday.”

“The third kind occurs in Son La and Yen Bai provinces. It has no fixed date, as the predominate group, the White and Black Thai, have established a well organised and structured society which requires the daily trading of goods.”


Heritage magazine (Vietnam)
October 1999


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