A Black Thai event in Dien Bien

The Black Thai, one of 21 ethnic minority groups living in Dien Bien, have a rich cultural heritage of fairy tales, folk-songs, traditional music and handicrafts, to say nothing of their exquisite food. Nam Pham reports.
My love affair with travelling to different parts of Viet Nam has left a vast array of pleasant sensations within me. The 14-hour drive to Dien Bien was one trip that was beyond my imagination. I still remember the view from the top of Pha Din, the most stunning mountain pass I have ever seen, which took my breath away. Stretching for 32 kilometres, Pha Din sits about 1,700m above sea level and offers sublime views of the surrounding mountains and terraced fields. Standing there looking over the scene before me, my mind filled with thoughts of the rich military history in the nearby provincial capital of Dien Bien.
Five of the six days during my journey exceeded my expectations and satisfied my intense curiosity about the history of the area, particularly the historical sites there such as Hill D1, Hill A1, Dien Bien Phu Campaign Headquarters, Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum, French General De Castries Bunker, and Victory Statue. These sites provided me with a plethora of information about Viet Nam’s victory over the French colonialists.
I was most impressed, however, with the current lives of the 21 ethnic minority groups that make their home in the area, including the Black Thai who account for approximately 40 per cent of Dien Bien’s ethnic population, according to recent demographic statistics.
The Black Thai’s own rich and unique cultural heritage, including fairy tales, folk-songs, traditional musical instruments and crafts, traditional bamboo dancing, various types of worship and especially the food, surpassed my initial expectations. Maybe the large population allows the Black Thai, who live predominantly in mountain areas, to hold on to such a variety of cultural elements and traditions.
The last day of the journey will be etched into my memory forever. It started with a walking trip to Muong Thanh where I was lucky to meet Vi Van Nhot, a 55-year-old Black Thai farmer, who invited me to visit his family in a small and sleepy village called Men. Its one road was barely wide enough for a single car. We reached Nhot’s one hundred-year-old stilt house after a 15 minute walk from the village gate just as his family was preparing dinner for a group of tourists from HCM City. The family runs a home-stay and restaurant as a second family business aside from farming.
It was a fantastic experience because it was my first opportunity to see such a vast array of unusual flavours and ingredients on the dinner table and in the garden, such as forest chili, pepper, garlic, etc. They came in a variety of different colours and shapes and were very important for every Black Thai family’s traditional meals as they created the distinctive aromas and colours of the dishes. The Black Thai are well known for their delicious cuisine which is full of flavour and utilises the freshest ingredients. I approached one table in the middle of the yard where people were preparing violet coloured rice which raised my curiosity. My host told me that the delicious and colourful dish was achieved by grinding a leaf that can be found in the forest into a paste and then adding water. The rice is soaked in the mixture for about five hours before being steamed. The Black Thai enjoy this dish during festivals such as Tet, and believe the violet sticky rice will bring them vast fortune and happiness.
A special type of grilled pork called lam nho, another delicacy which is packed with fresh local spices that give it a rich flavour was being prepared at a table nearby. Various types of meat can be grilled on an open flame to make lam nho, from fish to poultry. The spices used to flavour the meat are strong and aromatic, and achieving the perfect balance of flavours is a key element to perfecting this local delicacy. Fresh forest pepper, chili, garlic and ginger form the basis of the seasoning, which brings out the deliciously rich flavour of the pork after 30 minutes over the flame.
The last dish I saw was minced pork mixed with egg in a banana leaf. The mixture is packed with spices, and wrapping the leaf during cooking allows it to maintain all its flavour while keeping the meat moist.
We were finally able to enjoy all the dishes we had prepared together during the afternoon. I tasted each of them in turn but my favourite was the lam nho. Its aroma was similar to that of bo kho (dried beef). The main difference was that this lam nho was made from pork and could be eaten with rice while bo kho is made with beef, chili and garlic.
Villages like Men are becoming popular destinations for visitors from within Viet Nam as well as overseas due to their unique traditional customs and way of life. I was fortunate to be there during a performance staged by the Black Thai for the HCM City tour group. It was a vibrant affair of singing and dancing. A traditional bamboo dance called Mung Lua Moi, which means the harvest celebration, where partners have to dance over moving bamboo poles in time with the music, was the highlight of the evening. I found a dancing partner who taught me how to follow the dance tune, which was both difficult and extremely fun. It was great when I finally caught on. The warm party ended when we circled around the fire and sang some ethnic songs that were filled with poetic and thoughtful lyrics that evoked a sense of patriotism and pride for our country’s victory. — VNS

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