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People of Many Colors: The H'mong

People of Many Colors: The H’mong

Most competitors in a RacingThePlanet race spend a lot of time thinking about their gear. They look for the lightest equipment and materials, in order to minimize weight and maximize performance.

Try plastic sandals. For Team Vietnam, consisting of Black H’mong tribesmen Sung A Dung, Sung A Lung, and Sung Khai, the footgear of choice is plastic sandals. Not just any plastic sandals, but the one-size-fits-all sandals that are the only sandals sold locally, with a nice strap around the ankle to keep the mud from sucking it off and little heels to grip the occasional rock or rut.

In fact, when race director Eric Marxmiller tried to give the team Western-style gear – wind breakers and running shoes, the Black H’mongs tried to turn them down, reluctantly putting the running shoes into their backpacks.

They’ve taken some time to get down the system of the race – when told about the course, they suggested more direct routes and were baffled by the idea of taking the long way around intentionally. They failed to see the rationale of stopping at checkpoints to log their times, or, for that matter, wearing numbers. But they are fast, especially when working their own trails, and two of them, Sung A Lung and Sung Khai, placed in the top ten on Stage Two of RacingThePlanet: Vietnam.

All three work as farmers in the magnificent rice terraces that spread around, up and over the hills in this region of northeastern Vietnam. Off-season they work as porters, and for them running was a paying job, slightly bending the normal rules of the competition.

But these men have no idea what it means to work for fun, and endurance is part of their everyday life. They live in an environment and culture that is challenged every day of the week by poverty and the relentless encroachment of an urban economy.

Their tribe goes back at least 2,000 years in the mountainous highlands of the Southeast Asian massif, merging into groups that the Chinese described simply as “Miao” or barbarians. They are people defined by the color of their costumes, and the Black H’mong are simply one of many – including the Flower H’mong and the White and Green H’mong.

This week, RacingThePlanet:Vietnam competitors have run through hills and valleys dotted with the hamlets of these and other tribes. Their history is one of constant economic pressure, with more recent immigrants inhabiting the higher ranges of the hills while established groups are in the high valleys.

Among the newest groups, the Red Dao, live in the steepest areas, and are the poorest. But one result of the upward push of migration toward ever-higher altitudes is one of largest systems of rice terraces on earth, with whole mountains carved in sinuous step pyramids to create platforms for cultivating rice. Beyond the rice, where the paddies can go no further, are corn and cassava.
In this remote area, the technologies and life style of the H’mong and their neighbors are still intact. The Red Dao women wear magnificent headdresses, with big red tassels and silver decoration, and their tunics and trousers are intricately embroidered. On Wednesday, as competitors passed a village known as Xin Cai B, an elderly woman barely looked up from her embroidery, peering closely at her stitches through reading glasses.

The Black H'mong, as reflected in their name, wear dark indigo garments, so blue that they look black. Sung A Dung, Sung A Lung, and Sung Khai wore their traditional clothes, not Spandex, to race. They may have helped their spirits as much as the plain, K-mart style sandals helped their feet. Proper running gear doesn't have to be made of nanotechnology fibers or titanium to work.

These tribes are rapidly vanishing windows into our own past. Their cultures are precious and for the last century have been shrinking until only a few tiny islands are left. This is the time to at least learn the lessons they have to impart. Simplicity, in the form of plastic sandals, may be one of them.

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