A legend known to all Vietnamese people accounts for the split between lowlanders and highlanders. The Dragon King of the south married Au Co, a beautiful northern fairy, and at first they lived in the mountains where she laid one hundred eggs, which hatched into one hundred boys. However, after a while, the Dragon King missed his watery lowland home and decamped with half of his sons, the ancestors of the main ethnic Vietnamese, or Kinh (Viet) people. The fifty left behind in the mountains were the ancestors of the ethnic minorities, also referred to as "Montagnards" or "hill tribes".
While the lifestyle in the heavily populated plains and coast areas is relatively uniform and sees a rapid a westernization, in all the countries of Southeast Asia, the mountains remain populated by a mosaic of ethnic groups which straddle today's international boundaries. Each of them have their own history, language, dress, traditions, and way of life. Some of theses groups have several million members, while others have dwindled down to a mere hundreds or so members. As if this was to confirm the Dragon King legend, there are around fifty different ethnic groups in Vietnam, comprising an estimated total of seven million (of a total population of 75 million) which gives Vietnam the richest ethnic make-up of Southeast Asia.
As we reached rolling hills on our journey to the far north, it seemed that with every corner we turned, we met a different ethnic group, each easily identified by a variation of their colorful clothing. While almost all the Vietnamese women wear a blouse and pants and carry their loads on two platers balanced using a long bamboo stick, the women we saw wore elaborately decorated dresses and carried large woven baskets on their backs. A group was carrying large banana trunks. They bared their black-lacquered teeth (a traditional sign of beauty), as they giggled shyly when we tried to exchange greetings with them.
Because mainstream Vietnamese influence has been strong in the central highlands, where the war also caused severe disruption, the cultures of their ethnies has weakened to a point where it is difficult to distinguish them at a first glance from the Viet people. In the northern highlands, the economically dominant minorities, the Tay and the Thai, who occupy the fertile valley-bottom land, have also been partially assimilated. This was definitively not the case of the minorities we saw in the northern mountains where we were traveling.
The paved road ended at the old French hill station of Sapa, nestled among the Hoang Lien Son Mountains near the Chinese border. The town has been for some time a popular destination for vacationing Vietnamese seeking to avoid the heat. Most of the people who lived there were ethnic Vietnamese, but during the day you would see many people of the local ethnic minorities coming into town to do business.
In the 1993 edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook, it is said of the people of the Lao Cai and Sapa area: "..they have not yet seen many foreigners and therefore are intensely curious. If you drop in, expect to be treated like a visitor from another planet". However, it seems that things have changed quite quickly. The Black Hmong in Sapa have learned in the while mass craftsmanship and strong arm sales tactics. In the Sapa market, I was cornered by a mob of elder women who placed (larger) Western-sized clothes and hats on me. They didn't speak Vietnamese, but in the joyous cacophony dominated by the word "joli" ("beautiful" in French), I could hear canned phrases, sometimes in English, but most often in French, pronounced with a perfect accent.
The two dominant ethnies around Sapa are the Black Hmong and the Dzao. The Hmong and the Dzao people had to occupy the least hospitable land at the highest altitudes because they arrived the last. First Hmong immigrants arrived in North Vietnam from Southern China in the late 18th century. The Hmong made their trek in flight from the Ming Emperor's authority, objecting to the replacement of village chiefs with court-appointed Han Mandarins. The immigration intensified in the 19th century, and continued sporadically until the beginning of the 60s. Once in Vietnam, the Hmong split into several groups, White, Red, Flower, and Black.
The Black Hmong can be identified by their indigo dress and long belts worn several times around their waists. Black Hmong women also decorate themselves with many silver bracelets and large silver necklaces. One of their more interesting customs is marriage by kidnapping: a young man takes away a young woman with the help of his friends and family. After forcing his wife through the threshold of her home, he informs his new in-laws only two days after the kidnap. The Red Dao, a group much more camera-shy than the entrepreneurial Hmong, wear huge red turbans covering their shaved heads and eyebrows. I read about the Saturday night "love market", during which the Dao women take advantage of the "free loving" night granted to them by the tradition, by flirting amidst the candle lit market stalls, but the custom seems to have vanished.
The scenery around the town was stunning. In the morning, as the mist was lifting over the dark green peaks, it revealed endless valleys of sweeping rice fields. Amid the tender greens, you could make out clusters of small huts. They were the villages and hamlets populated by the local ethnic minorities. I hiked for the whole day on the trails which connected the villages, often crossing paths with groups of women returning from the fields. While walking with their typical baskets on their backs, they would often chew on a bit of sugar cane. They smiled at me, and exchanged with each other some jokes that I didn't understand.
The homes in the village were wooden huts high up, surrounded by small vegetable allotments and pens of dark and tiny hogs and skinny chickens. Since the adults were at work, I was greeted in by small children playing lip instruments. They stared and laughed at me, then ran away inside to call someone to come up. The woman I saw must had stayed in the village because she was too old to go into the fields. I was surprised that she addressed me in Vietnamese. There was no formal greeting of "How are you?" but instead inquiries about where I was from, where I was going, to the market, the home, or the field ? I supposed that is the essence of communication, to explain the comings and goings and the in-betweens. "How do you know Vietnamese?" I asked. "I fought with the Communists for 20 years. Recruited by the French, then by the Communists."
The French capitalized on ancient distrust between the lowland and highland people, and entire battalions of Hmong people fought alongside French troops, while others supported the Communists. Later, in the central highlands, Montagnard fighters also split between the USA and the Communists. In order to secure the minorities allegiance, Ho Chi Minh created two autonomous regions for them in the newly formed North Vietnam.
There were no machines around, and no electricity in that particular village. As the woman passed me silently a cup of rice wine, I thought about how little the lifestyle of the villagers had changed from the middle ages to only a few years ago, despite the complex unfolding of history under which the country went. Remembering the hectic traffic, noise, and pollution of Ho Chi Minh City, the difference was so extraordinary that I felt in another country.
Sunday is market day in Bac Ha, which is the occasion for the various local ethnies to gather in huge crowds to exchange the last news, gossip, shop, and eat a copious lunch. It was visibly a festive event. I was surrounded in a sea of color, and had the feeling to be on a movie set. Everyone seemed excited. A few men rode small horses. Those fortunate enough to be able to pay 10000 dongs (75 cents) arrived at the back of a motorcycle, sharing the ride with two other passengers. Most came on foot, from villages as far as 20 kilometers away. Even the old hunched lady was not going to miss the weekly party. Although there were several ethnies at the market, the Flower Hmong women stood apart with their vibrant dress. They wear a number of skirts and underskirts all made with very colorful fabric and some batiks. Their tops are embroided, often with flower motifs, and their heads are covered with elaborately shaped and balanced scarfs. In the rapid global uniformization of today's world, it was refreshing to see this untouched beauty in humanity. This was not only in costume, but also in spirit. Unlike in Sapa, nobody tried to sell me anything. Instead, the mothers spontaneously indicated to me in sign langage to take a picture of the wide eyed children who squawked with delight as I pointed the camera at them before letting them look through the viewfinder, while fathers just watched, laughing.
The terraces around the town looked more dry than in Sapa, and were dotted with trees. At first, I thought that the two water buffaloes were left to themselves. Water buffaloes, used all across Southeast Asia, are often the most valuable assets that a rural family might own. Their strength is necessary for the back-breaking cultivation of rice. Then I saw the boy, certainly younger than ten, looking tiny besides the powerful animals. He tied a string to one of the buffalo's nostrils and, after several attempts to mount the huge animal, began to ride the other buffalo with absolute confidence. He smiled shyly at me. We arrived at the village. His father dispatched him with a few words that I didn't understand, then took me around the garden orchard, and handed me a few prunes. He then invited me to enter the house. Such is Hmong hospitality that if you wander around, someone will always invite you in.
The interior of the house was spartan. The floor was just bare dirt, and there was no furniture, save for a bed, a stove, an altar, and a few chairs. He brought a large cylindrical water pipe, two feet long, lit up a few grasses, began to inhale, and offered me to try. We began to talk, in approximate Vietnamese: "It is difficult to grow rice at these elevations. The soil is dry and poor. Our main culture used to be opium, but years ago the government didn't want us to grow it anymore. Since then, instead we grow plums. The government buys most of our crops, and we earn just enough to live.". While there is no official discrimination, the hill tribes remain at the bottom of the economic ladder.
I clutched with both hands the driver of the Russian made motorbike, to avoid being ejected, as we hit another bump. After riding for more than one hour, we reached the remote outpost of Can Cau. Because of a flat tire, we had arrived to late for the market. As I was walking, disappointed, around the empty stalls, a young and pretty Vietnamese woman motioned me to follow her. She introduced me to her four roommates. They were happy to have a visitor, and put their best clothes to pose together for a photo that I promised to send them. I asked them what they were doing in such a remote place, especially since all the other people I saw seemed to be Hmong. "We are teachers. We are all from Hanoi, but we were sent here for five years. We teach the Vietnamese language to all these kids. School is free for the minority people. There is also a nurse from Hanoi in every village." Through our conversation, I sensed a sincere desire to help. Sometimes, I perceived a contempt of traditions that they perceived as savage ("moi" in Vietnamese), but they invited me to come back the next morning to admire the little girl's colorful garb.
Whether hill tribe culture will survive into the 21st century is unclear. No one would want to deny them progress, or a better standard of living, brought by the introduction of electricity, modern medicine, education, and tourist revenues. However, it would be sad that, as in other countries, progress could only be gained by cleansing the tribes of their age-old traditional culture. As I left the highlands, heading back for Hanoi, I felt that I was watching the last stand of a a vanishing way of life.
However, if you prefer to travel independently, this is quite easy. Lao Cai is 330km from Hanoi. The trip on a bus takes 13 hours. There is a train which runs three times a day between Hanoi and Lao Cai in 10 hours, and which is a better solution, especially is you can save time by taking an overnight sleeper. Hard sleepers cost $17 one way reserved in advance through a travel agent (recommended). Some travel agents (like Kim Cafe) provide small mattresses ($15 deposit). See http://www.vietnamtourism.com/e_pages/giaothong/01/01ltdsat1.htm for time tables. Soft sleepers operated by Victoria hotel (http://victoriahotels-asia.com/) are more confortable but cost $35 one way and run only three times weekly.
From Lao Cai, it is 38km to Sapa. The trip can be done on a public bus ($1.5), or on the Victoria hotel shuttle ($6). There have been reports of motorbike drivers stopping in the middle of the way asking for more money.
From Sapa, it is 93km to Bac Ha A mini-bus does the trip betwen Sapa and Bac Ha daily. The trip takes 3 hours and costs $6 one way. It is possible to visit Bac Ha as a day trip while being based in Sapa, or reciprocally.
If you go directly to Bac Ha from Hanoi, do not go to Lao Cai, but instead stop at Pho Luu (1 stop before Lao Cai) from where you can catch a public bus to Bac Ha who does the trip in 2 hours. way.
The Cafe d'Auberge is a restaurant whose terasse has great views. The Observatory, next to the post office has good and cheap food.
Bac Ha isn't as developped as Sapa. In general, a hotel far from the town center is better because further from the loudspeakers who broadcast "the voice of Vietnam" starting from 5am. A few restaurants can be found close to the market. In particular Quong Phu is good.
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