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Indigo Trail: the Black H’mong in NW Vietnam

Pix terraced fields

The terraced fields of Ly Lao Chi, near Sapa in northwest Vietnam

By Alison Bate

The Latin name trips off his tongue easily.

“Have you seen any strobilanthes cusia – the indigo plant? Or know anyone who makes the indigo dye here,” a boisterous French guy called out as I wandered by a street café.

Bemused, I joined Jean-Louis Dulaar for some of the local bitter green tea, and gave him the number of my homestay owner, Mr. Hoa, who spoke good English.

“No, not Tavan, but in the next village, people make the dye,” Mr. Hoa told him.

We were in the village of Tavan, about seven kilometres down the mountain from Sapa, in northwest Vietnam. I had a few days off work so had caught an overnight train and minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. It was full of ethnic minority women relentlessly trying to sell their handicraft, and I couldn’t wait to get out of town.

“You rich, me poor. You buy my stuff. Why you not buy? You monkey,” they would chant.

After buying an exotic hanging from one of the few polite women, I escaped on a Xe-om taxi (hug a motorbike) to Tavan, a beautiful little village surrounded by rice fields at the bottom of a beautiful valley. I spent the night at Mr. Hoa’s homestay, nursing a cold and enjoying some healing shots of rice wine.

Jean-Louis Dulaar with one of the local villagers in Lao Chi

The next morning, I ran into Jean-Louis Dulaar, who turned out to be a French artist who goes around the world learning local methods of using natural plants to make dyes and then creates his own paintings.

“What are you doing today?” Jean Louis asked me.

“Not much.”

Zoom zoom. Two minutes later, I joined him on the back of his rented motorbike heading for the village of Lao Chai. There, we got off and stumbled around trying to find someone who understood what he wanted.

“Cay Cham,” Louis said, using the Vietnamese word for indigo, but the villagers were from either the Red Dzao or H’mong tribes, and spoke a different language.

Louis quickly spotted a patch of indigo plants on the hillside just above us and made a beeline for them, followed by one of the village women. With her approval, he picked a couple of plants and we retired from the heat to the back of a village store to dampen and wrap the roots with cardboard.

Now to find the dye-makers. A local guide on the main village drag was speaking French to a couple of tourists, and Louis found out that one of the houses ‘over the river,’ made the dye.

“But they are H’mong,” said the Red Dzao guide, with great emphasis. The two tribes live in different parts of the village and have different traditions.

Zoom zoom. Back on the motorbike, we crossed over the bridge to a handicraft store and went in the back, where three or four men were lounging around, one of them half-heartedly banging nails into planks of wood.

They watched bemused as Louis marched straight over to a ceramic vat in the corner, took a piece of white cloth from his backpack, asked “May I?” and with a nod from the oldest man, plunged his bare hands and the cloth deep into the vat. He swirled it around and emerged with the cloth a little later, and laid it on the edge, his arms and the cloth already turning blue.

“I must do this three times,” he said, so I killed time at the front of the store watching the women villagers trudging back from the rice fields for lunch, carrying hoes over their shoulders and sometimes trailing water buffaloes. Both humans and animals looking exhausted.

As I idly waited for Louis, I saw the youngest man from the handicraft store head off on his motorbike and return several minutes later, holding a dripping plastic bag in his left hand.

“Ah,” said Louis knowledgeably. “The indigo paste. Where did you get that?”

The yellow-vested young man spoke no English but seemed to understand him perfectly and pointed to the motorbikes and up the hill.

H’mong family, with Sa Ly (left) and one of her daughters, explain their blue dyeing methods

Zoom, zoom. And we were off up the mountain track, following him onto a smaller concrete path separating terraced rice fields flooded with red mud and water, this early in the growing season. He pulled up at a secluded homestead set in beautiful horseshoe-shaped valley.

His mother Sa Ly (or Ly Sa in Vietnamese word order) was waiting for us, a petite lively matriarch with astonishingly good English.

For the next four hours, we hung out on their cool concrete deck and Sa Ly and her two daughters patiently and enthusiastically described each stage of the time-consuming process of dying, from collecting the indigo plant, drying the hemp, weaving, then adding a sheen with beeswax onto some of the finished cloth. It involved using rice wine as a reduction and their own lime cut from local rock.

The process sounded incredibly time-consuming, and a lot of hard work. And more to come. When we left to zoom-zoom back to Sapa, the family were already back at work weeding in their cornfields.

© Alison Bate 2012

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