The Hmongs, Indigo Earth - Yunnan China


Hidden in the valleys of the north of Tonkin, Laos and Cambodia, Hmongs, be it so called «whites», «greens», «colourfull» or «flowered» are in Viêt-Nam the seventh ethnic group. Numerous in the region of Sa Pa, they use indigo to colour their lives in a very peculiar way.

Since the exploration at the end of the before last century, the high valleys of the district of Sa Pa, in the High-Tonkin, by militaries and French missionaries, life in the Hmongs communitees does not seem to have changed that much. Same fairy tale like landscape, same indigo black washed out clothes, same sculpted sliver jewels, same instruments and ancient techniques, time seems to have stood still for this ethny, who came from the south of China during the XVIIth century, but the origin of which would go back to the second millennium before Christ.

If we are to believe the mythical tales, transmitted orally by the Hmong tribes from generation to generation, their native country would be even more septentrional, «a country covered with snow and ice where night last six months straight». Not everyone agrees on where this mythical country is located. Some actually believe it to be Tibet, which would be confirmed by the importance of the shamanic rituals they practise.

During the XIXth century, encouraged by the Chinese government who was looking at providing a raising demand, Hmongs took care for a time of the growing of Opium. Being today completely forbidden by Vietnamese authorities, the pavot has little by little left room to the traditional crops of the Hmongs, rice, corn and hamp. This last one being when mixed with cotton the main part of the fiber used for weaving by the women, and dyed according to secular methods using the natural indigo tree that grows wild in the pastures. Located in a valley below Sa Pa, two hours of walk away, the village of Lao Chai, has made it a speciality, providing the dye to other ethnies which are present in the region, like for instance the Daos tribe.

When the spirits come and go.

A few hundred meters after exiting the village of Sa Pa, the road made of bad tar becomes at last a drivable track, a chance for the inhaabitants of this valley who had only two years back a simple cow track. Many mountain dwellers spread along the path, overtaken once in a while by a bike loaded with two or three passengers— one of the rare concession to modernity. The noise of the city slowly receeding when the silence of the mountains weighs on the terraces of rivce fields. A few farmers are finishing to pick the last rice pads while buffaloes are peacefully grazing. An hour and a half of walking on the main track that turns into a sliding path along the side of the mountain and here you are in the village.
Unlike the other ethnies, that are very close to one another to prevent an eventual attack, Hmongs' hamlets are spreading wide. The houses, quite distant from one another have all various orientation, giving a strange feeling of disorder. In fact the plan of the situation is actually traditionally linked to the belief in spirits and the cult of the dead. Generally on the side of the hill, the place they choose to build their homes must in fact be erected in a way that it will not face directly a nother house or be behind one either. So as for the spirits to be able to move around at their whim and be able to come and go as they please, and also for the family not to have to pass in front of the house of one of the neighbours when they go to the burrial sight.

The leaves are blue
At Lao Chai, like in most Hmongs villages of the area, there is very little comfort in the dwellings, the floor in dust, walls and in between walls are made of disjointed wood planks, only one opening, a a hearth where they cook food directly ont he ground. The inside is rather dark and filled with smoke, and women, when they want to embroid or sew, during their rare moments of freetime, must step at the doors or under the awning in front of the house.
Facing the entrance is the altar of the ancestors made in rice paper, the dab xwm kab, where they burn every single day encens sticks. It is supposed to bring peace and prosperity on the house hold, the dab xwm kab is one of the seven spirits that watches over the home. Each of the spirit has a very specific place and is specifically symbolised by an element, or an ex-voto. Here, the signs of cult to the ancestors are not always showing for the village has been evangilsed early on by the missionaries. They even are very proud of the rough looking chapel all the inhabitants have built.
Between the houses, chiken and black pigs running around freely, and the adults talking peacefully in small groups. In front of their doorstep, hamp leaves freshly died are drying. Young girls getting busy around the big casket where women are stirring a strange black mixture. Some blue pieces swimming in the liquid. Growing in bushes on the grass slopes nearby the village, the Indigo tree is a short bush with green pointed leaves, we have a hard time believing they could produce this darak blue that are so much appreciated by amateurs of fabrics.
They manage to get this colour, after crushing the leaves with a round grinding stone, they boil them in water with lemon and ashes. The liquid is then transferred into a casket, to be used in the first months of the year. The dye is done in several bathes, in between drying periods, until they get the right colour.
Being not quite fxed, the dye must, in order to resist to the cleaning day after day, be as dark as possible. The new fabrics givean impression of being black, and have given to the Hmongs of the area the nickname of «black» Hmongs, while they call themselves «flowered» Hmongs. The confusion also coming from the fact that the word «black» is here a current patronym. Another approximation for this secret people who has adapted to many other ailments, during its long history, and will keep on challenging for a long time the ones fond of a certain «progress».

As the morning mist is clearing in the street of the small town of Sa Pa, the massive silhouette of Fansipan mount is coming alive. Even though it is early in the morning, the main street in the center are quite alive, it is Saturday, market day. The moutain people, who have started much earlier their long trip to the city, from their remote villages, through the steep and slippery tracks, are gathering in groups in the main street where the shops are.
The women are carrying heavy loads on their head and back of merchandises they are to sell, clothes, embroideries and jewels. The austerity of Hmongs and Tai costumes are a strong contrast with the richness of the ornements of the daos, whose head pieces in bright colours stand out in the crowd. The singing voices of the villagers are more noticeable than the Viets Kinhs'. In the staircase that leads to the open covered hall, negociations are running smoothly.
With the harvest of the rice fields getting close, rice alcohol is spreding its strong sweet smell among the people talking more than usual. The market is fo the mountain dwellers the main attraction of a long week of work spent in the fields. Beyond the commercial aspect of it there is a definte social role it stands for, and it allows some families who are fro the same clan, but living away in the remote villages to get together again.