Those who’re yet to grace these fine shores with their presence could be forgiven for assuming that Vietnamese food is just pho, banh mi and rice, but even a cursory glance around from the back of a speeding motorbike will dispel this notion instantly. And that’s just in Hanoi, where northern tastes dictate a culture of balanced flavours, but hop off the bike and onto a bus, hurtle mercilessly southbound to the central regions of Vietnam and suddenly a medley of seafood is accompanied by a spicy scent that lingers in the air. Head out further south and that yearn to burn vanishes in favour of sweeter, tropical tangs – these variations could all apply to the same dish enjoyed in different locations around the country. The geographically enforced resourcefulness of Vietnamese chefs has been well documented in these pages and beyond, but for the ethnic groups of Northern Vietnam necessity and tradition dictates the diet.
Within the ethnic minority communities in Vietnam, there’s a wide variation in culture, lifestyle and it can be seen clearest through their relationship with food. The Vietnamese are nothing if not versatile and they retain a boldness in their experimentation that would shame even the most ardent Batman villains. For many, it’s a rollercoaster of tastes, textures and smells, but for the ethnic communities of Bac Kan, it’s all just another day.
Rice – arguably one of the most bountifully available resources nationwide, the cornerstone of a huge range of Vietnamese dishes and just the sort of blank canvas that the culinary creatives need, but just how far can the limits of rice be pushed? The Tày communities of Na Ri have long since harnessed the powers of variation that rice grants them. This is a long way away from your bog standard sticky rice – here in Bac Kan people go all out. First off, we have the imaginatively titled Five Colour Sticky Rice – which, unbelievably, consists of five slices of different coloured sticky rice. Before you say you saw that coming, pipe down Sherlock – there’s a hidden meaning lurking behind the colours and Monsanto never made it out this far, all of the dyes used to create this eye-grabbing entree are entirely natural. Using the leaves of various herbs growing wild and free in the fields of Bac Kan, the Tày communities craft these visually striking rice cakes by boiling the rice with the herbaceous leaves until the colour stains and flavours the rice. The five colours allude to the five elements – which when combined in equal and harmonious measure, are believed to produce a balance between heaven, earth and humans. White is representative of metal, black stands for water, red is shockingly enough, fire, yellow is earth and green is nature – the Tày homes are also adorned with a stone or ceramic dog that sits, guarding the front door, where it keeps evil spirits and bad luck at bay.
For the Tày community – rice is not just a symbolic offering to their gods, it’s also a lifestyle. The majority of Na Ri’s residents are employed in some form of agriculture – especially the women – and rice is one of the simplest things for them to grow, given that the Tày communities live the furthest down the mountainous slopes of Bac Kan. Their proximity to the rest of Vietnamese society has enabled them to adapt and infuse their own culture with more traditionally mainstream Vietnamese customs and tastes, but this cannot be said of the various other ethnic groups we met.
For the 21 households that make up Na Pha village, rice is not an option, which is understandable considering they live as high up the mountains as they can reach. Perilous broken ridge-way roads snake back down towards the district of Ba Be, but even in the cooler air – it’s a journey that sends beads of fear sweat crawling out of your skin. Anything that cannot be grown naturally on the mountain has to be acquired via these roads, so naturally enough the H’mong inhabitants of Na Pha are reluctant to make the pilgrimage unless absolutely necessary. This holds a huge influence over their diets which have adapted consequentially to the limited range of agricultural endeavours that can be achieved on the side of a mountain.
Without the space and environment for rice, the H’mong people have taken to growing corn and this has formed the preferred centrepiece of most meals here. Màn mán is the H’mong specialty in Bac Kan and consists of little more than a bowl of ground corn – corn that was ground by hand, no less. The H’mong people have no need for the folly of gym memberships and those spiteful yuppie personal trainers are most certainly not welcome this high up in the mountains, grinding corn has given the ladies of this community the biceps of buffalo and so to keep up their strength, the ground corn is steamed and served with a herbal soup infused with sour tasting leaves. Meat is a luxury that few can afford, but for Tet or other special occasions, they will venture down the mountain to acquire something’s flesh. The distinct absence of rice means there is also no rice wine. Sobriety is not something anyone should be asked to deal with while living halfway up a treacherous mountain, but the ingenuity of the H’mong people has allowed them to move beyond this issue. With rabid enthusiasm, they introduced me to corn wine, which was unsurprisingly a lot like rice wine, but with a slightly warmer taste to it.
Meanwhile, màn mán is a potent reminder of harsher times now since past. The H’mong people used to be far more nomadic, which in turn left them somewhat isolated from the rest of Vietnamese society – even other ethnic minorities. This tradition is now so old that few remember why it started and what it was in aid of, but while that hasn’t stopped many H’mong people following in the footsteps of their ancestors and taking to the road, there are those who have hung up their boots and intend to settle. With living standards slowly increasing across the Northern regions of Vietnam, fewer H’mong people are willing to continue hitting the road and are now more content to inhabit their ancestral home of the mountain.
Between the hardy H’mong and the rice-farming Tày communities of the flatlands at the base of the mountain, the Dao people sit happily as a happy medium in Bung village. A more cynical man than me might have pointed to the abundance of over-proofed rice wine and local tobacco as the source of the Bung villagers’ happiness, but despite language barriers and rampant alcoholism at 11am, the Dao people enjoy the best of both worlds. Isolated enough from society that they’re free to do and worship as they please, but with strong enough ties to the rest of Vietnam that they don’t live through such hardship as the H’mong people. Their culture remains entirely intact and yet they enjoy some of the more modern conveniences such as TV, bottled water and motorbikes. For the Dao, their specialty is homemade spongy tofu – thankfully only a distant cousin of the slimy gelatine-esque tofu that we see in Hanoi, but to add some flavour this tofu is soaked in the sour fish soup that is a favourite of the Dao people.
Ban Van Lam has been training to be a shaman since he was 17, now aged 60 he’s deemed worthy and worldly enough to be able to train others, so he walked us through the three phases of the ritual that the Dao community believe will bring them a good harvest. The first phase happens sometime in March, where the shaman will ask the god of agriculture if now is a good time to plant seeds or if they should wait. How do you get the attention of a god? Easy, make an offering, of course.
A table is laid, replete with a whole boiled chicken, fried chicken blood, bowls of rice and rice wine to wash it down. The shaman drops two sticks of wood on the ground while chanting, both the sticks are rounded on one side and flat on the other. If the sticks both land face up, then it’s time to get out and plant the rice. The second phase comes around July where the shaman once more whips up an offering for the deity of farming and asks him to bless the rice, this will ensure it grows well. Finally the third phase takes place around August, where rice is welcomed back home into the family. Once again, the god of agriculture is treated to a similar meal of gratitude, this meal is then offered to the ancestors of the family and then at last, it is eaten by the family themselves. There is one last part to this phase of the ritual – a small portion of rice is imbued with all of the bad luck for the year and is then thrown out of the house in a symbolic gesture of prayer. If a dog should then eat the rice, then the family will be safe from the sorrows of ill-fortune for the next year or theoretically, at least.
What’s incredible is that this is a tiny slither of the cultural and cuisine variations that you can find within the ethnic communities of Vietnam’s northern provinces and with 54 varieties of ethnic groups residing within this country, there is bound to be an untouched myriad selection of dishes and customs that you’ll struggle to get on the beaten track.