The Opium King's Palace
The home of the Imperial France's opium trade in the heart of the Chinese-Vietnamese boarder region.
Deep in the mountainous borderlands of northern Vietnam, you can find a tangible ghost of a forgotten world. A world where an elicit kingdom would grow, produce, and export opium secretly. A world of royal refinement with fine cloths and court musicians, amongst a green moonscape of karst and waterfalls. A world receding into the oblivion of history.
When I went to Ha Giang, I didn't know what to expect to see. I definitely wasn't expecting to find what is quite possibly Vietnam's only true castle. Listed as the H'mong King's Palace on maps and tourist info, I can't see it really drawing many people. The few that do show up, end leave disappointed within minutes as there are no docents, and little explanation for what you're looking at. With little more than a few dusty artifacts and some weathered spells scrawled on flimsy paper around an alter, there isn't much for the average traveler. For me though, there was much more. I was captivated by the place. Unlike so much of Vietnam here was a proper, albeit small, castle. Complete with defensive towers, storehouses, courtyards, and a stone wall. At every turn, there was finely crafted woodwork depicting mythical birds, dragons, lions, and all important opium. Hidden behind glass, caked in permanent dust, aged pictures yellowed by time revealed what life was like just a hundred years ago. A single man wore clothes as fine and ornate as the Emperor of Vietnam and ruled over a secret kingdom fueled by the elicit production and smuggling of opium for French Imperialists.
The English had Hong Kong, the Portugues had Macau, the French... well they had nothing. While every other European power was able to take a bite out of China's failing empire, France had failed. In turn, they resorted to more secretive affairs and turned to a local ethnic H'mong man who promised the French he could make them rich in return for French guns and support. Within a few short years, all who opposed the H'mong King fell or joined him, and he grew large and prosperous. He controlled the opium flow from Indochina to China. Nothing passed through the borderlands without his knowledge or grace. His rule was unchallenged.
Then in the 1930s, everything began to change, and suddenly a man who lived a life grander than many imperial mandarins heard the whispers of revolution, communist revolution. While his true motives are unclear, one thing is sure the Opium King, a beacon of capitalism, was spared by revolutionary forces. What is known is that he became a "hero of the people", as he smuggled weapons and foodstuffs for communist forces. As the years passed, the castle was abandoned and the king's descendants left to live in the more prosperous Red River Delta.
All that remains today is this castle and small art commune that tries to capitalize on the tourist draw of the Palace. I wish I had taken better pictures, but unfortunately, I'll have to do that when I go back next time. All I could salvage was a small clip and a couple pictures.
From left to right: 1) The opium king as a younger man, dressing in Western Fashion. 2) The Opium King surrounded by his family and protected by three guards wearing imperial style uniforms. 3) The Opium King with his pipe and medals. 4) The Opium King was in every way a king of his own domain. Even Mandarins of the imperial court would be hard pressed to find clothing as fine as his.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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