Ties between Muang Phin and Vietnam go back a long way. During much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the area’s Phu Tai inhabitants paid tribute to the court in Hué. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese rulers, having just wrapped up a war with Siam, were content to exact a light tribute of wax and elephant tusks from the Phu Tai, preferring to leave the Tai minority’s territory as a loose buffer zone between regional powers. By this point, Vietnamese merchants, following the traditional trading route across the Lao Bao pass, were already arriving in Muang Phin with cooking pans, iron, salt and fish sauce, and returning east with cows and water buffaloes in tow. A story told by an early French visitor to the town attests to the business acumen of one of these merchants. Upon arriving in town, the merchant found prices too high, but was reluctant to return home without making a good profit. With a quick conversion to Buddhism the merchant’s problem was solved: he shaved his head and shacked up in the local temple where he could defray his expenses until prices dropped, at which point the merchant donned a wig, bought up a few buffalo and hightailed it back to Hué.

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