The north

The north

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701578
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

‘You buy from me—very cheap! Vous achetez—pas cher!’ The tourists who had just stepped out of their bus were besieged by a group of hilltribe women holding up traditionally embroidered pillowcases, shirts and shawls. Black Hmong and Red Zhao people jostled for the best positions to present their handicrafts. The Hmong wore their home-dyed indigo tunics with stiff, upright collars and richly embroidered backs. The Red Zhao were easily identified by their shaved hairlines and their big, red, turban-like headdresses. Although most likely illiterate, the hill-tribe women certainly knew the international language of the hard-sell.

Wearing their Sunday best, the women had come to the market from their isolated villages on the steep and stony slopes of the Tonkinese Alps. Making their journey in the early morning, they had carried their wares on their backs in woven baskets. The weekly market is as much about social interaction as it is about selling and buying. So when the tourists finally got back into their bus, clutching their newly purchased ethnic handicrafts, the locals resumed the business of catching up with other clans and tribes. For the men, this type of business is often conducted over many glasses of ruou (rice wine). For the women, social activity takes place while they make and compare embroidery for the next busload of tourists.

About 13 per cent of Vietnam’s population is made up of fifty-three different indigenous groups. Most of these people live in the Northern and Central Highlands. Although there are big differences between the various ethnic minorities, the name montagnards has stuck.

The Hmong people are probably the most mysterious. There is speculation that they originated from Tibet, Mongolia or even Siberia. Wherever they might have originated, they settled in China more than one thousand years ago and moved across the border into Vietnam as late as the mid-eighteenth century.

Spirits, both kind and cruel, are kept in check with regular animal sacrifices and rituals in the Hmong world. For example, a piglet has to die at the entrance of the family home every year so that the mountain spirits protect the other household animals. Proud people of few words and no written language, they pour their emotion into improvised song, often accompanied by a bamboo mouth organ.

Until 1945, Vietnamese governments neglected the highlands region as it was seen to be too difficult to administer, and the hill tribes were left alone to continue their traditional way of life. The Hmong eked out a living by planting rice or corn and by keeping pigs and chickens. Making handicrafts for the growing number of tourists has become an important way of adding to the family income.

Although the ethnic minorities tend to keep to themselves, Vietnamese supply routes ran through their territory during the decades of war against the French and later the Americans. Consequently, they were drawn into these battles. The most famous battle fought in the Northern Highlands was undoubtedly the fifty-seven-day siege of Dien Bien Phu—a small town close to the border with Laos. There, General Vo Nguyen Giap inflicted a humiliating defeat on the thirteen thousand French colonial troops. Giap, a former highschool history teacher, went on to become the chief architect of Vietnam’s victory over the American forces. During the American War, the CIA recruited the Hmong to disrupt supplies that were being carried along the legendary Ho Chi Minh trail. After 1975, many Hmong people fled to settle in the United States and also to Tasmania—Australia’s most mountainous state.

Visiting mountain villages now is like stepping back in time. The houses are basic one-room timber dwellings with roofs that are thatched or made from wooden shingles. Bamboo fences protect the small vegetable gardens from the pigs and chickens roaming the dirt roads. Each family produces most of the food they need, and cooks it over open fireplaces.

Many villages are without electricity, but houses lucky enough to be near a mountain stream might have a Chinese-made water-powered mini generator that produces just enough electricity for a single light bulb. Water also powers the only mechanical agricultural appliance that the hill tribes use—the wooden rice thrashers. The only sign of modern life might be a sturdy 125 cc Minsk motorbike, still built in Belarus to a pre–World War II design and highly suitable for the rugged terrain of the highlands.

Peanuts

Among the few cash crops grown in the Northern Highlands are peanuts. The bushy plants thrive in subtropical to moderate conditions, and are suited to the area’s often poorer mountain soil. Peanuts—which are legumes rather than nuts—are also known as ‘groundnuts’. The flowers of the plants sit above ground, while the pods grow underground. The pods contain the peanuts and have to be dug up during harvest time.

Native to the Andes, Portuguese traders brought peanuts to South-East Asia, where the locals immediately put them to good use. Peanuts are a great source of protein, supplementing the protein-poor crops commonly grown in the highlands, such as rice and corn. Furthermore, 50 per cent of the peanut is made up of oil, which intensifies the flavours of any other ingredients added.

Pan-roasted then crushed or chopped up, peanuts make wonderful toppings for salads and give substance to fillings in such dishes as vit tiem, or they can be boiled and served as a simple beer snack. They can also be crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and salt to form a mixture called muoi vung lac, which sticky-rice balls are rolled in.

Recipes in this Chapter

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