Administratively, the province of Dien Bien was created in the beginning of 2004 when the former Lai Chau province was split into two new provinces. The new Lai Chau province covers the north of the former province (north of the Da River) while Dien Bien province covers the south.
Dien Bien Phu is both a modern and historical city with a blend of administrative buildings, modern hotels and cultural or national relics. There is also a traditional side to Dien Bein Phu with several ethnic Thai villages on the outskirts. Tourists can enjoy home-stay style accommodation in the villages – a wonderful way to discover Thai culture.
On our first night my friends and I stay at a private guesthouse in the centre of the city, but on day two we decide to visit Men village, just 5km from the city centre.
The village is a made up with traditional Thai stilt-houses. It’s a charmingly picturesque and tranquil spot. Lush surroundings are complimented by murmuring springs and fresh air.
My stilt house is actually a more modern creation – I’d probably prefer the absolute rustic experience offered by a simple stilt house with a thatched roof and a bamboo screen floor. The new stilt houses offer modern toilets and bathrooms and tiled roofs.
Accommodation costs VND150,000 and includes a meal of sticky rice cooked in bamboo baskets, com lam (grilled sticky rice), boiled vegetables, dried buffalo and grilled pork, chicken or fish. Thai people from Dien Bien cook the most delicious rice I have ever tried. You might also be treated to local delicacies such as roasted bees or chicken broth with fresh moss.
The Thai tribe believes in Muong Con (the land of the living), Muong Phi (the land of the dead) and Muong Then (the land of God). Dien Bien province, where 40 per cent of the population is estimated to be ethnic Thai, is God’s country as here you will find the valley of Muong Then.
According to a Thai legend God (Then) created human beings in a gourd, which he punctured with a pin to release the humans onto the earth. The first people to emerge from the gourd were the Xa. They were followed in turn by the Thai, the Lao, the Lu, the Mong and finally the Kinh (the Vietnamese ethnic majority). The gourd then became a mountain, which stands today in Tau Pung commune in the middle of the Muong Thanh valley.
There are two main Thai tribes in Dien Bien Province: Black Thai and White Thai, which you can distinguish from their head-dresses. White Thai women wear white scarves on their heads, while Black Thai usually wear a folding scarf.
Every town house has two sets of stairs – one on the left for men and one on the right for women but don’t worry if you forget which way to go! Thai people are very hospitable and easy going. You’ll often be asked to toast with alcohol during meals.
I have learned through experience that Thai women can drink pretty well! Sure enough one of my male friends, who is fond of a tipple, is quickly drunk under the table by Hue, our indomitable host.
Everyone who managed to remain clear headed over dinner is then invited to watch a traditional dancing performance by Thai girls around a fire. The dancers are wonderfully graceful and lissome. All the men watching are instantly smitten, while the women are more begrudgingly impressed.
The dancing is known as “Xoe dancing”. There are many different kinds, one called Kham khan moi lau, involves a handkerchief and betel nuts, and is intended to be used as a romantic dance and a way of showing hospitality. The dance known as Pha xi implies community solidarity and ancestral devotion.
The Doi hon dance moves forward and backwards, implying that human love is unshakable and faithful. The Nhuon khan dance is the most jubilant dance and is often performed after a good crop or at a wedding or house warming party.
“We have a saying that goes: ‘No xoe dancing, no good rice. No xoe dancing, no rice in the basket’,” explains our host Hue. The routines are constantly evolving so performances are more and more diversified and bewitching even for Thai people.
End of the evening
At the end of the performance everyone is invited to join in the Kham Khan dance – for this a large circle is formed. The dance signifies both community solidarity as well as a common wish for a happy and prosperous life. Everyone dances hand in hand around a wood fire creating a wonderful social and festive atmosphere.
After a sumptuous meal with a few shots of liquor and an evening of dancing we all fall into a deep sleep on the brocade mats spread out across the bamboo floor desp
ite the wind and the rain that has picked up outside.
In the morning there’s enough time to pick up some of the brocades and embroidered products which are all handmade by women in the village. This traditional trade is now part of the flourishing tourism industry which is helping the Thai communities prosper and retain their cultural identity.