Though Hmong eagerly accept new ideas, villages as isolated as Teu La preserve the old culture intact. Houses share a suburbia-like sameness: all built on the ground with a dirt floor and no windows. Inside: a stove and an open fire pit, family bedrooms along one wall, the guest bed—a bamboo platform—at the end of the living area.
In Teu La 20 such houses hunch just below the ridgeline. No ceremonial or public building or even a shop punctuates the uniformity. Markets? The nearest is several days’ walk away.
Chong Houa, 33-year-old headman of Ban San Phu, has explained the rationale of the traditional village layout: “We must build every house so you can see a distant mountain from either the front or back door. It is our rule.
“Before building, we dig a hole a few inches in diameter. In it we place as many grains of rice as there are people in the family. If the spirits move the grains during the night, another site must be found.”
Presumably a neighbor wouldn’t dare jostle the grains to preserve his view. Hmong women don’t like to be photographed in their work clothes. When one of the young men in Teu La asked me if I would photograph his sister the next morning dressed in her good clothes, I agreed.
All night a monsoon rain attacked Teu La. Clouds still wreathed the village the next morning, but outside our door the muddy hillside shimmered. Dozens of self-conscious mothers and young girls stood waiting to have their pictures taken. The boy must have been brother to every woman in town. Many wore colorful sashes and blouses with delicately embroidered collars. A few had massive silver necklaces.
Moments after birth every baby receives a simple necklace to warn the spirits that he’s not a slave and belongs to a family. The women’s silver necklaces reflect family wealth. The more prosperous wives have five-bar models—made from five of the heavy silver bars called “Meo money,” used in the opium trade. Some of them are available for sale, but the price varies. So be prepared for using extra cash. John, with his camera, helped me fulfill my promise. Father B would see that prints reached the village. The farewells had a come-again warmth.