Story: Chi Hoa
Photos: Van Thanh Chuong
While Dien Bien still evokes memories of fierce battles and heroic national victories, today, this province charms visitors with its peaceful beauty. Spring is a spectacular time to visit Vietnam’s Northern Highlands. After a cold winter, when mist and frost cover the whole plateau, spring brings a blanket of white bauhinia blossoms. The pure white blooms of bauhinias are mirrored in the Nam Na and Nam Ron Rivers. Travelers pass beneath flowering bauhinia trees as they cross Pha Din Pass, one of the Four Great Mountain Passes of Vietnam. These fragile white blooms grow between bright green leaves on scraggy branches, like white butterflies fluttering in the wilderness.
For ethnic Thai people in Dien Bien, bauhinias are a symbol of longing for happiness, purity, faith, beauty, filial piety and hope. These flowers are closely linked to the lives, customs, traditions and folk chants of Thai communities. Bauhinias are often compared to young Thai girls: radiant and graceful, wild yet innocent, living in these remote mountains. A line in a Thai chant compares young women to bauhinia flowers as follows:
“Thinking of you, I only see rugged rocks in my way
And peach blossoms, bauhinias and mallow flowers strewn along the stream”
(Excerpt from the Thai chant: I miss you like my breakfast)
A local folk tale tells of a fair maiden named Ban who had a mesmerizing voice and was sought by many suitors. However, she gave her heart to a young man named Khum who excelled at hunting and farming. Ban’s father felt Khum was too poor to marry his daughter, whom he hoped to marry to the lazy, hunchbacked son of a chieftain. When the two families were discussing about the wedding, Ban sought Khum to rescue her, but unfortunately he was far away. In despair Ban tied her piêu scarf to the staircase of Khum’s house and wandered into the mountains to search for him. Finally, she collapsed from exhaustion. A tree with pure white flowers grew on her final resting place. The blossoms were later called “Ban flowers” (bauhinias). When Khum returned and learned what had happened, he rushed into the mountains to search for Ban. He too died of exhaustion and was turned into a bird. Every spring when white bauhinias fill the woods, courting couples take spring outings, dance, sing and pluck bauhinias to give each other as love tokens – a reference to the faithful but tragic love of Ban and Khum.
In the Highlands, spring is the season for festivals, so bauhinias symbolize festivals for the locals. During the Spring Dance Festival, people hold hands and dance around a wild bauhinia tree. Dancing to the upbeat drum beats and sipping pipe liquor lifts people’s spirits in harmony with nature. During meals offered to the ancestors at New Year’s (xên bản, xên mường ceremony), Thai people in Dien Bien usually place a bauhinia branch on the sacrificial tray to pay homage to the deities and the departed.
The Bauhinia Festival is now part of the National Tourist Year of the Northwest celebrations that will last until the end of May 2017. Arguably, bauhinias are a symbol of the local people, spreading far and wide and adding beauty to this wild landscape. Visitors who come to Vietnam’s Northwest Highlands in the spring can’t help but be enchanted by the pure and tranquil beauty of wild bauhinia flowers.