Walk through Muong Hoa valley of Sapa district, Lao Cai province, and you will stumble upon a scattering of large stones engraved with decorative patterns. The stones are made of quartz, sometimes over ten meters long, and are strewn about the sloping mountainsides, fields and streams. To this day, the creators of these mysterious engravings remain unknown.
The large stones are deeply carved with strange patterns: about 90 percent of the carvings are parallel lines, but there are also curves, human-like shapes, and what appears to be handwriting. In recent years, these stones have increasingly attracted tourists, as Muong Hoa is easily reached from the town of Sapa.
More than eighty years ago, these patterns were researched by Western scientists. In August of 1925, Professor Victor Goloubew at EFEO was the first to study the Muong Hoa stones. Most of Goloubew’s findings were inconclusive. Based on Goloubew’s documents, in 1938, anthropologist Paul Levy compared the carved patterns with ethnographic studies of carvings from other parts of the world.Levy found similarities with the artwork of natives from New Guinea, Australia and Taiwan.
At that time, only thirty large blocks of stones were studied. But since then, more and more carved stones have been discovered. In 1992, another carved stone field was found in Ma Tra Village, about eight kilometers from Muong Hoa. According to statistics by the Lao Cai Service of Culture and Information, the number of carved stones now totals 159.
In the recent past, Vietnamese archaeologists, social anthropologists, and researchers began to pay attention to these strange rawings. Nobody, however, has found concrete proof of the stones’ origins. The artists behind the drawings still remain anonymous, just as the meaning behind the drawings still remains a mystery. The current inhabitants of Muong Hoa such as the H’mong, Giay, and Dao have occupied these valleys for only a few centuries, but the stone carvings date further back. According to the Vietnamese Institute of Historical Research, these patterns have existed for at most nine hundred years, originating around the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD.Goloubew contended that these patterns were the local people’s village map while Vietnamese researcher Vu Ngoc Lien decoded them as the way to record ancient astronomy. Some even argue that the carvings are the primitive handwriting of the ancient Vietnamese. Regarding the scripture on the stones, only one Chinese line has been translated to (in 1490).
Beyond the meaning of the carvings, another element of the mystery is the stones themselves. Researchers cannot seem to explain how the unusual positioning of these stones was determined. Sometimes the stones are close to groups of other stones of the same large size, but with no carving patterns. Why some stones were engraved while others were not remains unknown.
In October of 2005, the Lao Cai Service of Culture and Information cooperated with EFEO for a long-term study of decoding the stone carvings. The research team took photographs of all the carved stones, using GPS to locate them and map their location on nepal papers. The arduous work of scaling mountainsides snf removing debris from stones could only be done during the dry season, from November to April.
Doctor Philippe Le Failler, who directed EFEO, said that after three periods in the countryside the research team has stored 1,900 photographs and mapped about 100 carved stones in Hau Thao Commune to 1,321 sheets of paper.About one fourth of the documented stones were found recently. When analyzing these newly discovered stones, researchers must distinguish between original stones and recent creations. It is still too early to draw conclusions from EFEO’s research. It is obvious, however, that the handwriting and carved designs are rare.
Although it has been decades since the stones were first discovered, the original questions remain: who created these peculiar patterns? Perhaps the secret will always exist, adding one more mystery to cloudy Sapa, the place of many legends.