Monday, June 25, 2007

Visit Bac Ha for corn wine and kermis, Vietnam


Bac Ha District is located in Lao Cai Province, a mountainous region in northern Viet Nam. Bac Ha is well-known for its naturally subtropical scenery and average temperature of 19°C. Tam Hoa plums are really a local specialty: sweet and fresh.

This seems to be created by its own land, people and nature. Besides plums, Bac Ha is reputed for its wine made of corn grown on high mountains. Traditional values and identities are well-maintained in kermises. Visitors to Bac Ha will have an opportunity to understand the local traditions and customs, taste local specialties, meet nice people and know a land named “white plateau”.

At 9 am, with the headlight turned on, my motorbike could not run faster than 10 kilometres/hour in thick mist covering Trung Do zigzag descent leading to Bac Ha central highlands in the northern province of Lao Cai.

Nearly 10 kilometres from Bac Ha district’s centre, the mist was clearing. Corn was appearing, with fields of corn stretching as far as the eye can see. Corn is not strange to me but how extremely beautiful it is here

Stretching green fields of corn were full of vim and vigour. Corn grew every where on hill sides and in canyons.

Le Hoang Hiep, a forestry engineer with five years' experience in agricultural promotion, proudly said, “Being favoured by nature, corn growing on rocky mountains is still as green as on grass. Especially, corn and corn wine at Ban Pho village with special enzyme made from leaves of Mong ethnic minority people are so special and unique.”

We stopped by a typical Mong family home, a cloud of smoke was hovering over the house. Sung Xuan The, an 11th grade student, was tending a fire on which corn wine was being brewed. “Over 30 kilograms of corn can produce 15 litters of alcohol. They can be sold out quickly at the market at VND8, 000 a litter,” said he.

The’s mother, Vang Thi Coi, invited the guests to try newly-brewed wine. We liked the alcohol very much and wanted to try it again and again. For me, sipping only a little of the alcohol, I started feeling light-headed, as if I was already drunk.

Leaving rice terrace fields, Hoang Seo Si, Party Committee Secretary of Ban Pho Commune, said 90% of the commune’s 550 households are Mong people. All of them grow corn and brew corn wine, at least 20 litters a week by each household. Wine brewing technique is passed through many generations.

It is strange that the same corn, same enzyme and the same person from Ban Pho village cannot produce wine with the same quality somewhere else. It might be the climate and the water here which make the difference in the wine, which keep you drunk longer, but merrier and more relaxed.


Exciting kermes

Bac Ha received over 50,000 visitors nationally and from 28 countries in 2005. Visitors are always eager to go to kermises. There is only one kermis every Sunday, opening from morning to evening with the attendance of 14 ethnic groups. Bac Ha kermis not only has a huge variety of items but is also imbued with traditional culture.

Though people live 50 kilometres away from the kermis, they arrive in the market very early. They do not go to the kermis only for trading. They go there to show off their strong horses, new clothes, to listen to the familiar sound of ethnic groups’ pan-pipe.

Ethnic minority people are feeling so at home, standing in front of foreign visitors’ cameras with a friendly smile. There is no running away, nor demanding tips like what is often seen in other tourist places.

Pham Khac Xuong, Editor-in-chief of the Lao Cao Newspaper, former Chairman of the People’s Committee of Bac Ha District, said, “One of Bac Ha kermis’ most attractive traits is the variety and originals of traditional costumes, especially Mong ethnic minority women’s skirts and costumes.”

Mong ethnic minority people occupy 50% of Bac Ha population. Many colourful brocade products sold at the market are made by Mong women’s skilful hands.
Their trading method is also very unique. They do not need any scale, they weight commodities by bowl, fist and look.

I cannot help mentioning another Bac Ha kermis’ specialty, which is Tam Hoa plums (a famous plum strain in the north). Tam Hoa plums are rather famous partly because the district’s chairman did some marketing for it in Ho Chi Minh City. This kind of plum is very sweet and a main source of many households’ income.

Tam Hoa plums create a very unique beauty for Bac Ha. When the spring comes, the central highlands is brightened with the white colour of plum flowers. It is where the name “white plateau” was supposed to have come from.


Bac Ha’s future

Dozens of thousands of foreigners visit Bac Ha kermis annually.
We left Bac Ha while the kermis was still crowed. Insanitation at many stalls in the market put visitors off their interest in walking around, shopping and particularly enjoying food.

Being in central highlands with about 20 poor communes and towns, sustainable development of tourism will be an opportunity for Bac Ha District to alleviate poverty.

Vice Chairman of the People’s Committee of the District Hoang The Dung got quite carried away when talking about projects to make Bac Ha more attractive without losing its original and natural traits.

A VND 100-billion project is planned to build a water reservoir in the town centre and a new market to make up a community entertainment centre. Also, Hoang A Tuong regime’s old house architecture relics are being restored.

Bac Ha is changing day by day. It is still appealing to visitors now for the wild beauty of its landscapes and inhabitants from time immemorial.

Hopefully, green fields of corn, glasses of corn wine imbued with Mong people’s love and country kermises without bargaining or competition will always draw visitors.

(Posted by Nhan Dan - 25Jun.07)