Urban myths are wonderful things

Urban myths are titillating things. Sociologists and folklorists prefer to call them contemporary legends. They don’t need an urban genesis and are our modern folk stories, real or fabricated, that have been passed on, sensationalized, distorted and exaggerated over time....sometimes a very short time in this email era.

Every time I pass the small village of Sa Phin in its rocky valley in the far north of Ha Giang province, I am reminded of a contemporary legend I was told about the ‘Hmong King’ who built his ‘palace’ in this forbidding place. It was in 2002 and our crowded, rickety bus had spent six hours winding the track up, into and through the black rocks that seem to sprout from the mountains and valleys like sharp scales.  It’s almost as if we were traversing the body of an immense jai (dragon) that had spread itself into a late afternoon slumber along the Chinese border. When we saw a large group of stone buildings, fringed by spreading sa moc trees, dominating a bowl shaped valley floor, our inquiring minds went full throttle and my foster son, Truong, asked the  Kinh* man-who was one of the four of us squashed into a seat built for two- if he knew what it was all about.

As we rattled the ten kilometers further to Van Dong the gentleman, who’d resettled from the Red River delta lowlands to that mountain town in the late 1990’s, recounted his version of the ‘Hmong King’ and his ‘palace’ and another traveler, perched on one of the bundles of merchandise that filled the aisle, added embellishments. Later in our dark hotel room, lit by the wavering light of a candle stub due to power failure, Truong translated it to me.

Back in Hanoi as I tried to draw the bones of the tale into some semblance of a factual skeleton the part that reeked most of urban myth was that of Ho Chi Minh, anxious to get an alliance with the “Hmong King’ in the 1950’s independence war against the French, sending a beautiful Hanoian girl to be one of the ‘Kings’ wives. The ‘King’ was so besotted that he immediately joined forces with the Viet Minh*. Another variant had the King caught up in a border dispute between the Chinese and Vietnamese and the fact that the beautiful girl was such a success meant that the kingdom became part of Vietnam instead of China

Now it’s 2009 and I’m on a slow and lazy two week motorbike trip exploring as many roads in Ha Giang that are accessible (and permissible)- and not too disastrous for an aging Yamaha Jupiter R to negotiate. The road to Van Dong curved its bituminous ribbon across the dragon’s rump and suddenly there was the ‘palace’ again. The ancient sa mocs loomed deep green around the walled compound and the village seemed to have sprouted more buildings and a large school.

Ha Giang is a notoriously difficult place for a lone foreigner to navigate. You need to get a permit from the immigration office in Ha Giang city that states every place in which you want to spend a night, outlines the amount of time you can spend in the province, and you can only obtain one if you are accompanied by an accredited, and possibly local, Vietnamese tour guide. Knowing this and also knowing that our permit for Van Don might encompass this area, when we came to the steep turn off track into the oval shaped valley we crossed our fingers and veered down through the village to the concrete building near the ‘palace’ entrance. Until relatively recently the area was said to be off limits because remnants of the ‘king’s’ family were still resident there. On this early summer afternoon a young woman emerged from one of the rooms, yawning and stretching from an interrupted afternoon nap. She languidly collected a visitor’s fee and waved us towards the ‘palace’ where we spent a couple of hours exploring the deserted and recently restored compound. A selection of formal black and white photographs in a central room portrayed the former ‘regal’ occupants and piqued my interest but the captions were in Vietnamese.

I should digress and explain about the translator that I conveniently carry in my pocket and also that I was traveling with my motor bike driver and non English speaking companion. Dzung isn’t a tour guide but after appealing to the officials at the Ha Giang immigration office via my mobile phone and that of Truong in Hanoi, we convinced them that, as this was my fifth venture into the province, we didn’t need the services of an official tour guide. Our four day permit was reluctantly wrung from the dour official and with my wallet 500 000 Dongs lighter we scurried off. Now, using my pocket translator again I asked the ‘palace’ attendant if she could give us information about the place’s history. She said it was all on the internet and that we could pick up an explanatory book in Ha Giang City’s tourism office.

Back in Hanoi I’m trying once again to fit the scattered skeleton of the story into a convenient bone box*. So many differing facts! So many trails! So much translation of so many biased or casually researched viewpoints!  At the risk of adding more urban mythical kindling to the compelling history, here are some findings cobbled together from a plethora of internet sites.

Let’s begin with the Hmong or Maio (barbarians) as the Han Chinese called them and if this were a contemporary history Maio would be translated as terrorist. Legend has it that they were once a great ethnic group in China and even dominated the land around present day Beijing in the third millennium BC. As the Han Chinese gained ascendancy they were forced  further and further to the extremities of the country but they remained so much of a security threat that in 1615 AD a southern great wall, almost two hundred kilometers long and eventually patrolled by six to ten thousand soldiers was begun to be built to isolate them. By the nineteenth century a continuing genocidal conflict had the remnant Hmong groups settling in the mountains of what are now southern China Vietnam, Laos and Burma. They were a people who carried an oral history, their written history deliberately repressed by the Chinese victors after a great war around 250 BC, and the history since then of the Hmong clans (before colonial French compilations) is a mix of  handed down stories and  written records kept by the Chinese. One story has it that around 960 AD the dominant Chinese cannily forced the once cohesive Hmong into five tribal groupings by nominating them into color groups ruled by competing chieftains. In Vietnam these colors exist today where ever Hmong are found.....the black or blue, the red, white, green, and flower Hmong

Undoubtedly the biggest urban myth relating to the Hmong is that which was propounded by some Christian missionaries  in the late 19th century that the scattered Hmong remnants were one of the lost tribes of Israel

It is in the region of what has become northern Ha Giang that my story localizes and I hone in on one clan which in modern Vietnamese is the Vang family. The story that I like to follow goes that the first  patriarch was a goat herder who somehow (and the stories differ) became a prosperous local chieftain. As this area was a mid point in the opium golden triangle, it is not difficult to guess where prosperity was generated. He built his first house in the mid 1800’s in the valley which was said to resemble an inverted turtle carapace (a sign of prosperity). His son, Vang Chin Duc ( Hmong name: Vaj Zoov Lung ), 1865-1947, was made an official bureaurocrat and opium tax collector for the French colonial powers when the Chinese-Indo Chinese border was officially drawn in 1928. The thirteenth Vietnamese Nguyen Emperor, Khai Dinh, a French puppet ruler, conferred an imperial honor on him and the history of the Hmong Kings in Vietnam put down its first roots with Chinh Duc becoming a self titled regal entity, changing his name from Vang to Vuong (King). He had built his stone mansion between 1924 and 1925 and it became known as a palace

The first of the king’s three wives had two sons and the second of these became Vuong Chi Thanh in 1950 after his elder brother, who had had some education in France, died. (urban myths have fratricide and poison rather than disease involved) Vuong Chi Thanh decided to cooperate with theViet Minh and his Hmong army helped defeat the French but after liberation in 1956, he declared his sovereignty over a Hmong homeland in northern Ha Giang. His wealth was dependent on opium and he bartered this with China for weapons. Before a full scale conflict could occur Ho Chi Minh diplomatically resolved the conflict with quantities of salt (a precious commodity) and a seat as Hmong spokesman and a Deputy in the new National Assembly of Vietnam A villa in Hanoi and a car were added and a deal was struck. The king was impressed with Ho and changed his name to Ho Chi Thanh. He died in Hanoi in the early 1960’s at the age of seventy.

In a socialist democracy there was no place for royalty and I guess any descendants use Ho as a surname. As the old palace is now becoming museum the family must have handed it over to the government and resettled elsewhere.

It’s a massive mansion and covers an area of 1 120 square meters. At its zenith it had sixty four rooms. The main house has four latitudinal wings connected by two running longitudinally, all roofed in terracotta tiles and enclosing two courtyards. The wings and rooms are linked by internal doors, stairs and passageways. External walls are of stone and have openings for defensive rifle fire. Interior walls are often of wood and elaborately carved wooden beams and pillars are featured in reception areas. Outbuildings for storage, animals and servant housing have mostly become dilapidated and removed but a large official guest house has recently been turned into a Nha Nghi (guest house) and oh what I’d give for an opportunity to stay there. A sign in Vietnamese gives telephone details and I can imagine that its potential for reaping in tourist dollars will eventually be enormous.

Urban myths have the walls of the building inserted with gold and that the massive, semicircular, chiseled stone bath was used for regal bathing in goats’ milk.

We were able to wander the myriad rooms, passageways, stairwells and attics unhindered but as the building becomes filled with artifacts, historical records and mementos, I hope that the attendants will be trained in proper museum protocol and care. It would be a good idea to raise the 15 000 Dong entrance (especially for foreigners) so that proper maintenance can be afforded.

If you have the chance to visit the ‘palace’ you’ll likely become as entranced with it as I am but just to make sure have Sa Phin included as a brief stop on your Ha Giang travel permit

Let’s hope that this brief recounting has not been influenced by too many contemporary legends and that I haven’t been responsible for embroidering existing ones or inventing a new slant....and please pass any relevant-and factual- information my way  

* Kinh (the majority Vietnamese ethnic people)    

* Viet Minh (Vietnamese resistance forces in liberation war against French re-occupation of Vietnam)

* Bone box (a small fired clay receptacle in which the cleaned bones of deceased Kinh are arranged for reburial two to three years after original interment)