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 Story & Pictures by Anita Marto

Elaborately embroidered dresses in day-glo colors; tartan patterned head scarves in hot pink and lime green; the cutting edge of fashion in London’s underground clubland? No, an ethnic minority market in Northern Vietnam’s alpine-like mountains just a hop, skip and a jump away from Hanoi.

If you’re going to Vietnam (which is currently a well-deserved hot spot on the tourist itinerary) you should not miss seeing the tribal people of its scenic northern mountains.

Vietnam has about 83 million people. Eighty-five percent of them are ethnic Vietmanese (known as Viet). Eleven million people from the remaining 15 per cent are from one of Vietnam’s fifty-two ethnic minorities (yes, fifty-two). They have their own customs, languages and origins. When I was in northwest Vietnam I saw primarily two different minority groups, each with their own spectacular and awe-inspiring handmade traditional clothing: the Hmong (particularly the Black Hmong and Flower Hmong) and the Red Dao.

Trips into the countryside to see these wonderful cultures can easily be arranged in Hanoi. There are flights to Hanoi from many American cities. One stop flights from Los Angeles can be booked starting at a little less than $1000 round trip. On this twenty hour flight you may want to bring a good book, your handy i-pod and a sleep aid to make the time go by a little more quickly. I arrived in Hanoi by bus via the Vietnamese coastal city of Da Nang, which was part of a multi-city tour of the country. Our tour had a photography emphasis and was led by the indomitable Nguyen Huy Son (Son for short). He never lacked enthusiasm and knew all the right places for the most satisfying and interesting experience. For contact information see the sidebar at the end of this article.

From Hanoi you’ll want to take a train from the main station building (at 120 Le Duan) to the border town of Lao Cai. You have a choice between a daytime trip (where you can take in the beautiful mountain scenery) or an overnight trip to save time. We chose a nighttime soft sleeper. Travel light, because you’ll be carrying your bags with you. You may want to leave most of your luggage at a hotel (one you’ll be staying at) in Hanoi. This service can often be had for a nominal fee. The train berths were quite clean and comfortable with bunks, room for four in each room and a communal bathroom down the hall for each car. We brought a thin cloth sleeping bag in case the bedding was not-so-fresh. It’s a bumpy ride so I’d advise bringing earplugs and anything else that will help you get some shut-eye and let the train lull you to sleep. But don’t go too far off into dreamland; the train gets into Lao Cai at about 4:30 a.m. and you won’t have much time to disembark. Lao Cai is okay for breakfast but there’s no other reason to linger.

Here’s where the fun really begins! We arrived in Lao Cai on a Sunday, which made a trip to Bac Ha (about 40 km away by bus) and its once a week Sunday morning market essential. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful this market is. On Sunday villagers from around the area come to trade everything from mysterious-looking vegetables to edible caterpillars and haircuts. Many young people go there looking for a mate. The villagers consist of Tay, Dao, Nung, Giay and most apparently lots of Flower Hmong people. Here you will find a more authentic experience than in the bigger Sapa (where our base was). The Flower Hmong women’s costumes are elaborate and amazingly colorful. They usually consist of a head scarf, often with a neon-bright tartan pattern, a delicately hand-sewn long sleeve shirt with beautifully embroidered designs, an apron and skirt (decorated in the same way) stitched in a myriad of colors (there seemed to be a preponderance of hot pink). What’s so cool is that all of the clothing can be bought for bargain prices. I bought a full costume, as described, for the equivalent of twelve American dollars. The young woman I bought the clothes from said it took her a year to make the outfit. I’m telling you, spend your dollars in Asia rather than super-expensive Europe this year. Among the items to be had were quilts, wall hangings and chunky silver jewelry. Just wandering the dusty road and people watching is thrilling enough.

Happily exhausted, we boarded our bus Sapa, a rapidly growing town about ninety minutes ahead. As the bus went higher into the mountains there were gorgeous views of dramatic and expertly terraced rice fields. The air got cooler and had an almost alpine-like scent. Because of its mild climate and magnificent setting Europeans from Hanoi visited the town by sedan chair in the early twentieth century. It was quite the resort by 1930. There are plans to further develop Sapa as a tourist destination in the next few years so its days as a cozy sanctuary are numbered. I even heard rumors of a superhighway being built from China that will pass nearby.

There has been a building frenzy of late so there’s no lack of hotels and guesthouses from which to choose. We stayed at the luxurious four-star Victoria Hotel. The Victoria features 77 rooms starting at around $150 for a room with two twin beds or a queen. They have balconies overlooking Sapa village, some including views of Mount Fansipan (Vietnam’s highest peak). There is a pool, tennis courts and a sauna and jacuzzi on site. Their restaurant, Ta Van has excellent European and Asian specialties which include Cheese Radette and Fondue. I love Vietnamese food but it was nice to enjoy some well- prepared Western food for a change.

The next day our Vietnamese guide, Son, hooked us up with a young Black Hmong woman guide. She was knowledgeable, friendly and spoke great English. We wondered why she wasn’t married, as it is the custom in her culture for women to marry very young. She seemed to find being a tour group leader more lucrative. You go girl! We toured and captured photos of the off-the-beaten-track Black Hmong village of Giang Ta Chai. There we visited a school and the house of a Black Hmong family. I was struck by how basic their accommodations and lifestyle were. The house was a wooden barn-like structure with two floors the lower one with a dirt floor and a simple dugout campfire for heating. I wondered how they stayed warm during cold winter nights. The people are impoverished sustenance farmers, but proud and hospitable. I thoroughly enjoyed our interactions with them.

The Hmong people come from Southern China where they are called Miao (a derogatory term for “barbarian”). They have been fleeing China since the end of the 18th century and have adopted the new name Hmong (“Free People”). There are 800,000 Hmong in Vietnam and more in the neighboring countries of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). They can be divided into the main subgroups of White, Red, Green, Black and Flower Hmong. They differ in dialect, customs and dress. There is no written Hmong language but a strong oral tradition.

We then visited the Red Dao people of Ta Phin. This village was fascinating, but decidedly more touristy. The people were quite aggressive about peddling their hand- crafted wares. The outstanding feature of the Red Dao women’s distinctive attire is a bulky, bright red turban. It was interesting to watch the women embroider clothing and sew on their foot-powered sewing machines.

The Dao ethnic minority is incredibly diverse. They have been crossing the border from China for the last several centuries and number about 600,000 in Vietnam. They also have communities in Laos and Thailand. There are five colors of Dao embroidery representing the five-colored dog which is their traditional mythological ancestor. The Dao people have adopted the Chinese writing style and have a rich literary history.

That night our group boarded a night train from Lao Cai back to Hanoi. I would’ve loved to have stayed longer. Trips can be arranged with homestays in outlying ethnic villages for a better, more authentic look into their cultures. I left with beautiful memories and photos of cultures on the brink of westernization. It is an experience not to be missed. / Issue 93 - September 2018
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