Vietnam: Meet the village people

Journeying into northern Vietnam, Francisca Kellett finds a land of bamboo and water where the locals are as vibrant as their environment
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The Independent Travel

She's a member of the Red Dao tribe, which, our guide Truong tells us, has lived in the northern Vietnamese mountains since travelling down from China in the mid-18th century. It was a Mandarin emperor who found the hair. He passed edicts to ensure no man need suffer a hairy supper again. Rules turned into fashion, and fashion became tradition. Today, a Red Dao woman wouldn't even consider letting her eyebrows flourish. Nor would she wear anything other than her traditional red headdress, indigo trousers and long, embroidered coat. She's not doing it for tourists, Truong assures us. I believe him. There aren't any.

We're in northern Vietnam to see the beautiful mountains - the Hoang Lien Son rangealong Vietnam's border with China - and to visit the area's tribes. Of Vietnam's 54 different ethnic groups, around a dozen live in these foothills, each upholding its own language, tribal dress and traditions. They have two things in common, though: they all cultivate rice, and they all converge on Sapa at the weekends.

Sapa is a small mountain town built as a summer retreat by the French in the early 1900s. Tourists have made inroads here: alongside the local market are budget hotels, craft shops and internet cafés. Red Dao women argue over pyramids of tangerines and tangles of fresh herbs. Groups of Black H'mông (dressed in near-black indigo, with black headdresses and velvet legwarmers) haggle with Tays, who wrap their heads in electric pink and bottle-green scarves.

In the murky shadows of the eating area, differently-dressed groups sit over steaming pans of noodles, exclusive pockets of red, black and green, like patchwork. But, says Truong, they all get on very well. They might not intermarry or share traditions, but the different groups trade and work collectively, go to school together, converse in Vietnamese and have lived amicably side-by-side for centuries.

Next day, as we leave Lô Lo Mây's hut and descend into the valley, the mountains rise up around us in a semicircle of jagged peaks, plunging to slopes sliced into thousands of terraces. Despite the warm breeze and hazy sunshine, it's winter here so the rice paddies are empty. In summer, Truong tells us, the new shoots swathe everything in a luminescent green - "green like bamboo," he says. Bamboo is everywhere. It holds up electricity wires, channels drinking water between villages and holds up houses. People sit on bamboo benches, sleep on bamboo beds and smoke tobacco in bamboo waterpipes. And the old bridge, swinging beside the suspension bridge to the next village, is bamboo.

Water, too, is ubiquitous. Below us rushes the milky green Muong Hoa river; water cascades between flower-fringed paddies, sloshing over into furrows and streams. Water buffalo wallow in ponds and ducks plop from one rice paddy to the next. Banana trees sprout between rocks, and vegetable patches bloom wildly. It seems a kind environment.

After around 50 metres, we come to the Black H'mông village of Lau Chai; I'm astounded at how close the villages are - just a few minutes' walk, yet here the people speak a different language, wear different clothes and leave their eyebrows unshorn. The village looks similar, though. The houses are made of woven bamboo, fronted by hard-packed earth where toddlers romp about with pot-bellied pigs.

Inside a smoke-filled H'mông home, we watch Zaie, a 96-year-old great-grandmother with blue-dyed hands and milky eyes, using her feet to polish a length of indigo cloth. Four female generations crowd around us, all with matching sharp cheekbones, elfin figures, dark indigo dresses and glossy black hair, snaked around their heads and secured with plastic combs. Where are the men, I wonder? Perhaps hunting, Truong says, or making rice wine. Or working as motorbike taxis in Sapa - less romantic, but more lucrative.

At Ta Van village, surrounded by the apple green of a bamboo forest, the huts are made of wood. Some are two-storey, with smart concrete patios and television antennae. Ta Van is home to Tay people, who dress in Chinese-style shirts and bright headscarves. They are more affluent than their neighbours. Most Tay go to secondary school; many go to university, move to the cities and send money home.

Although we've only seen one other tour group during our trek, the level of English spoken by the villagers shows the area is opening up. But the way the local government is handling tourism seems sensitive. Tourists aren't allowed into villages without a local guide, for example, and we pay a daily fee to all the areas visited.

Come sundown, we head to the Topas Ecolodge, a new clutch of bungalows set high above the Muong Hoa valley. Here, too, is an ethos of sustainable tourism: they have a policy of employing and training local people, and everything is run on solar power. As the sun dips behind the peaks, we're plunged into chilly shadow and the mountains fade off in shades of purple like a mass-produced Chinese watercolour. We're the only people staying there, and that night four cheerful local girls serve a feast of banana blossom salad, ginger beef, poached river fish and honey-glazed pork.

On our final day, we drive north-east along the border with China and into an undulating landscape broken by shard-shaped hills. After three hours, we come to the banks of the Chai river and the weekly Cocly Market, held by the Flower H'mông. The name stems from their multicoloured dress: vivid embroidered jackets, matching skirts and neon-pink headscarves. Some girls wear plate-shaped headdresses fringed by long pink, white and blue beads. They cluster around boys on mopeds, flirting, while their mothers throng between stalls selling rainbow-coloured clothes and rows of machetes. The men stagger between rice wine vendors, and lounge in the shade, red-faced and bleary-eyed.

It's crowded and sweaty, so I stop at a stall, squeezing onto a bench with a group of women. We smile at each other, and I order tea. With my second sip I feel something against my tongue. It might be a shred of bamboo, or a blade of grass, but I notice the girls' eyebrows - and those of the cook - are as full as mine. Lô Lo Mây would be horrified.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled to Vietnam with Travel Indochina (01865 268940; www.travelindochina.co.uk), which offers seven-night tailor-made tours of northern Vietnam from £525 per person. The price includes five nights' bed and breakfast accommodation, selected meals, return overnight train to Sapa, local transport, the services of a guide and all entrance fees and sightseeing. International flights are not included, but can be arranged by Travel Indochina.

There are no direct flights between the UK and Vietnam. Instead, airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Air France and Thai Airways all fly to Hanoi via their hub cities. The best fares are likely to be through a discount agent such as Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.com).

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Hanoi, in economy class, is around £20. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

RED TAPE & FURTHER INFORMATION

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Vietnam, which can be obtained at the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 12-14 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD (020-7937 1912; www.vietnamembassy.org.uk). You will have to submit two application forms with two passport photographs. The embassy is open for applications from 2-5.30pm Monday-Friday. Thirty-day visas cost £38 if applying in person; £43 by post. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) advises: "Outbreaks of avian influenza (bird flu) in Vietnam have resulted in a small number of human fatalities. As a precaution, you should avoid live animal markets, poultry farms and other places where you may come into close contact with domestic, caged or wild birds; and ensure poultry and egg dishes are thoroughly cooked."

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