Tuyen Quang province in the north of Vietnam is home to women of legendary beauty. So Viet Hung, far from reluctantly, sets off to put the legend to the test.
The beauty of Tuyen Quang girls is so famous that most Vietnamese people have heard the short saying, “Che Thai, gai Tuyen”, which means – Thai Nguyen’s tea, Tuyen Quang’s girls.
Thai Nguyen, which neighbours Tuyen Quang, is the second-largest tea growing area after Lam Dong province in Vietnam. But Tuyen Quang people are prouder that they have their own abundant speciality – beautiful women. Hence the expression.
When I arrive at Son Duong Town, 35 kilometres southeast of Tuyen Quang Town, a group of girls are preparing festivities to commemorate the August Revolution (1945) and Independence Day on September 2.
“Do you know the saying che Thai, gai Tuyen?” I ask Hoang Thi Yen, an 18-year-old Tay-ethnic girl from Ham Yen District, but she only answers me with a charming smile.
Perhaps, she’s too young to even know that once, Tuyen Quang was known as Tien Quang or the bright land where the fairies came to stay.
After convincing Yen and her friends to pose for one photo, I travel on through Yen Son in the afternoon, thinking of Nguyen Trong Tao’s poem, Through the Land of Pretty Girls, along the way.
“The Tuyen Quang beauty wears a silver necklace/ Her lips look red like chilli, both sweet and peppery/ Snowy skin, long legs/ Her skirt flying over the pass.”
When I arrive in Tuyen Quang town, I meet up with Trinh Thanh Phong, a writer and the editor-in-chief of Tan Trao paper.
“The saying ‘che Thai, gai Tuyen’ can’t be that old. But I do recall hearing it when I was about 15,” Phong says. “And yes, Tuyen Quang Town does have a lot of nice girls but they come from everywhere. But in Chiem Hoa District, particularly in Vinh Loc, the girls have a beautiful complexion. I think the mountain air and peaceful rivers there suits them.”
“When I was nearly 20 years old, I loved a very pretty girl from Chiem Hoa, before I joined the army,” he says nostalgically. “Her skin looked just like trung ga boc (boiled chicken egg with no shell). But our love only went as far as holding hands or stroking hair. We maintained contact via letters for three years when I went to fight in Laos. I returned after being wounded in an explosion but by then she’d married another. A first love would do well to end in marriage, I know, but sometimes I wonder,” he says.
I had heard from Dang Huy Quyen, a painter and a playwright, working for Vietnam Television, that after 1954 a wave of overseas Vietnamese from Europe and Thailand repatriated and settled in Tuyen Quang, which Phong acknowledges, adding that in 1956, President Ho Chi Minh issued a document calling for overseas Vietnamese to return home to help build the country’s defence against the French.
Some say Tuyen Quang people’s beauty is a result of Kinh and other ethnic minorities’ marrying.
During the Ly Dynasty from 10 to 12 centuries, princesses were given away in marriage to the local ethnic leaders so as to win their support when the country’s far borders were breached.
Today, Kinh and Tay groups make up 45 per cent and 25 per cent of Tuyen Quang’s total population respectively.
It is also said in 16th century, a king and his senior officials of the Mac Dynasty fled from the Thang Long Citadel bringing many pretty imperial maids along with them to Tuyen Quang.
In 1999, Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, a writer born in 1937 and a native of Hue City, travelled to Tuyen Quang together with his friend, an overseas Vietnamese man from France.
Both men were startled by the amount of beautiful women and Tuong even published a book entitled Zone of Beauties, which picked up a prize at the Vietnam Association of Writers Awards in 2002.
Tuong says Vietnam has other “zones of beauties”, such as Chau Phong in Ha Tinh province and Chiem Hoa in Quang Binh province, but none can compare to Tuyen Quang, where you can see beautiful girls almost everywhere, all with a natural, unoccupied and elegant grace.
Tuong’s personal theory is that feng shui plays an important part in shaping the beauty of Tuyen Quang girls.
The Lo River, which stems from a river named Qingshui (Pure Water) in China, runs through the province’s mountainous and hilly lands. It is the rule of the gods that where there is nice terrain, there are many beauties.
In fact, Tuyen Quang has a high density of rivers and streams (0.9km per 1 square kilometre). There are three main rivers – the Lo River, the Gam River and the Pho Day River.
But like any other countryside province, young people move to the city for study or work. So local towns in Tuyen Quang not only suffer a brain drain, but a beauty drain too.
As Phong the writer says with a smile, “Hanoi is like a big magnet that lures away Tuyen Quang’s beauties.”
After meeting Phong, I set off back to Chiem Hoa District as night falls. Perhaps, the pretty girls are still there, but there’s another local legend I’m worried about, it is said Tuyen Quang’s girls are also famous for downing spirits.