Modern meets tradition

The balance between the old and the new is especially evident among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities in the country’s remotest regions.

By Quang Lam on November 12,2014 01:10 PM

Modern meets tradition

This was my second trip up to the mountains of Ha Giang province. Something about the place struck me the first time I was there and I just had to go back. This time I invited my French friend Antoine Blachez to take the motorbike trip with me.

At the end of the wet season the rice terraces of Hoang Su Phi wear green coats as far as the eye can see. This part of the trip, in the southwest of Ha Giang at an elevation of several hundred metres, brought us to somewhere akin to Eden, with singing waterfalls and lush jungle invaded by giant ferns that took us back to prehistoric times!

This fertile countryside was in contrast to the second part of the trip, which took us over two mountain passes almost 2,000 metres above sea level to the lunar landscape of the Dong Van National Park. Protected by UNESCO, the Dong Van Karst Plateau is well known for erosion giving the rocks in the landscape their characteristic dome-shaped form. We felt the harsh conditions of life at such a high altitude, riding through mist and rain that soaked us to the bone.

Antoine was impressed by the majesty of the landscape as well as by the various ethnic groups, which include Tay, H’mong, Lolos, and Nung.

The multi-ethnic character of Vietnam is the most fascinating aspects of the country. Recognised in the Constitution, about 54 ethnic groups live on Vietnamese soil and all benefit from its development.

‘What strikes me most is the adoption of modernity in an ancient life that seems immutable,’ Antoine said. Each house has a satellite dish. Farmers walking to the market in traditional outfits have a mobile phone glued to their ear. Paths and roads are well maintained, most of them paved.

In her book ‘Globalization and the Integration of Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam’, anthropologist Sandrine Basilico uses the word ‘Viêtcommunication’ to describe the process of integration of minorities into the Vietnamese nation: ‘With this concept we mean changes [...] inside ethnic minorities, but also within the ethnic majority who gets enriched [...].’

In addition to the economic, cultural, educational and health policies of the State, she also emphasises the aspect of trade in goods in a market economy that affects ‘the culture, the way of life of the minorities with the appearance in the home of modern and westernised objects.’

A distinct feature of Vietnam is the respect for traditions, which remain strong despite the modernisation that is often 
desired by the minorities themselves.

A distinct feature of Vietnam is the respect for traditions, which remain strong despite the modernisation that is often 
desired by the minorities themselves.

By chance, we stopped at a village of Tay people where a funeral was taking place. The abundance of offerings, of paper votive objects, the presence of a Taoist shaman, and the solidarity of the villagers to the family of the deceased testify to the permanence of traditional beliefs. ‘The failure to comply with them could incur the wrath of the spirits, spirits and ancestors on the whole family or village or ethnicity,’ wrote Ms Basilico.

As sociologist J. Baudrillard demonstrated in his book ‘The System of Objects’, the possession of new objects is not only a need - these objects are also symbols of a way of life and generate signs of a new culture.

Hence, material transformations induce a cultural change that can be catastrophic for traditional communities under pressure from both economic and media constraints. The concept of ‘intangible cultural heritage’ is recent and only in 2006 did UNESCO adopt the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

This heritage ‘includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’

The funeral made me understand the real meaning of this statement. The Tay rituals reflect their belief in the cyclical nature of life. The funeral rite is the largest, most complex, and most expensive. It reflects many elements related to their ancestral cult. It is also the desire to free and escort the deceased’s soul to the blissful land. The funeral rite steps are: announcing the death, inviting a shaman, shrouding the dead person, establishing the altar, preparing votive offerings, going on a specified diet, carrying out ceremonies (by a Tao), and burial.

The deceased was the father of a family of four girls and a boy. They crafted large effigies in votive paper, like kites, which will follow their father in the afterlife. The number of offerings, such as fruit, cakes, alcohol and, especially, sacrificial animals - a buffalo and three pigs - express the family’s wealth and importance.

In a procession of cries from mourners and the sounds of haunting gongs and shrill flutes, offerings were brought to the altar of the deceased in a tiny room into which all participants gather. The Taoist master then began to chant magical invocations written in Chinese ideograms.

Intoxicated by the incense-filled air and stunned by the hallucinogenic music, I seemed to be one with the gathered assembly in a mystical fervour. As a photographer, documenting the authenticity of their culture at that moment was reward in itself for undertaking this trip.

Despite the growing global consciousness and the need to preserve intangible heritage, some decisions on the development of Ha Giang province appear completely out of place. In its master plan for development to 2020, the region wants to build a casino in Dong Van, in the very heart of the national park, simply to attract money and tourists from China!

Defending minorities’ rights should also be about preserving their culture and soul in the face of globalisation.

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