|Traditional dress: Ethnic women on the way to the festival. — VNS Photo Thuy Dung
by Thuy Dung
My first view of Moc Chau in Son La Province, about 200km northwest of Ha Noi, came on a fresh morning as we drove through a narrow street hemmed in by limestone walls, where we saw many young couples heading to the market town.
September 2 is more than just Independence Day to the people in Moc Chau.
It's a special day when hundreds of people from Thai, Tay and Dao ethnic communities in northern Viet Nam gather and enjoy a cultural festival.
Arriving at 10pm, I decided to stop and rest in a large guest house built on stilts. It had separate cosy rooms and wi-fi, and served local specialities to visitors. More importantly, it nestled in the midst of the main market town where most of the games and activities were to take place.
In the morning, we got the chance to see many local teams take part in traditional competitions such as rice cooking. It was not as simple as I thought, since the participants had to make fire themselves and prepare the rice from raw materials. The winning pot of rice was then offered to the god.
After spending a day here, it was not too difficult for me to realise that the ethnic culture had been corralled by modernity or pre-packaged for visitors. The festival struck me as a sheer tourism-promoting event. There were few stalls selling local fabrics and music instruments. Instead, there were plenty of stalls selling souvenirs brought from other cities.
Modern Vietnamese pop songs or English love songs were being played. It was hard to feel the cultural atmosphere as most of the games were those one could easily find in any market festival in other provinces.
Most young people gathered in drinking stalls, with only a few of them wearing traditional costumes of hemp fabric, dyed with indigo to deep purple or black, and dresses decorated with ancient silver coins. There were an overwhelming number of Kinh visitors from nearby provinces.
Returning to the house in the evening, I was invited to the family dinner. Although they didn't know I was a vegan, they tried to serve me authentic organic dishes.
I was a bit confused in the beginning to see most of the family members speak two languages at the same time. I told them about my concern about the fading away of their distinctive culture.
The host explained, "Some core values were lost through the generation transition. Children were raised to learn one ethnic language and Vietnamese national language, but ended up speaking mostly Vietnamese."
Luong Thi Lot, the owner of the house, is a famous and respected soothsayer and sorcerer that a sufferer was likely to contact. She is also the rare local person who has witnessed radical changes in this town.
"A long time ago, when Thai ethnic groups dominated this place, most of the cultural rituals were distinctive. But after the war, many ethnic minorities migrated and tried to settle down here. The original culture eventually became mixed with others," she said.
During the past 20 years, economic development have impacted Viet Nam's lowlands. As Moc Chau became more of a mainstream tourist destination, more businesses offered accommodations in the villages.
Lot said she hoped that in return for such investments, they could support communities through employment, training skills and long-term purchase agreements with farmers and artisans. — VNS