Friday, December 20, 2013

Travelling Northern Vietnam

Lao Cai province of northern Vietnam borders the Chinese border and is home to a number of different ethnic minorities that have lived in the area for centuries. I came to Vietnam with very few expectations as our time was relatively short and our tickets were bought over six months ago. The original purpose of this trip was a mini-vacation of sorts and out of necessity to leave the Philippines for my visa renewal. We flew into Hanoi and decide to head straight to Lao Cai Province after a couple of days in this fast pace city. Parts of Lao Cai are fairly popular tourist destinations because of the beautiful landscapes and colorful minorities that live there, especially the mountain city of SaPa. Because my initial inclination is always to go as far away from tourist hotspots as possible, we decided to first head to a town called Bac Ha. Bac Ha is well known for it’s large Sunday market, where locals and minorities come to sell their goods, but during the week the town is really low-key and a great place to start exploring the mountains of Lao Cai.

Sunset in the mountains of Lao Cai Province, Vietnam.
We ended up finding a really good local guide in Bac Ha who was willing to take us to some mountain communities via motorbike. Because of the language and cultural barrier having a guide who understood what we were looking for was key to getting a little more off the traditional path. We spent a week around the area of Bac Ha exploring the north and south and sleeping at homestays. The mountains in this region are grande and the landscape is covered with corn, tea, rice and other agricultural crops. My first impression of the area was that it looked centuries old. The fields looked like they had been tilled for many years and the homes made of wood and mud added to the uniqueness of the landscape.

Indeed, this area has had it place in history primarily as a historic trading post between the Chinese, Vietnamese and different ethnic minority groups. Today, a number of the 54 recognized ethnic minorities of Vietnam still live in Lao Cai province, including the H’mong, Tay and Dzao people.

H'mong women weeding their corn crops near the town of Bac Ha in northern Vietnam
Most of the agricultural crops in the area are grown on steep hills or the sides of mountains.H'mong girls in the mountains around Bac Ha. It seemed like almost all of the Hmong women we encountered had a basket on their backs for carrying goods. These girls told us they were out collecting food to feed their pigs.
A Tay women collecting tea leaves in a field near her home.
Like in most subsistence-based cultures a good portion of the day is spent tending to crops and preparing food. From our limited time in Lao Cai we got the impression that the women are the hardest workers and are often the ones doing these jobs. It was always the women we saw carrying the heavy loads and working in the fields. Although the men have their roles as well and often help in the fields, it’s the women we saw doing the bulk of the work. We were told that the men are fairly shy so it’s also the women who interact with tourists and sell their products in the market.

A H'mong women and her child heading to their field to work. It's the women that are often the ones who carry the heavy loads when transporting produce or other goods.
H'mong women taking a short break and a smile as they work in the field during the heat of the day.
A Flower Hmong women distilling corn wine. Corn and rice wine are very popular drinks with the minorities and very potent as well. From what we gathered they drink socially and it's hard to say no when they keep pressuring you to drink. I myself fell drunk on a few occasions.

One of the most striking features of the minorities in northern Vietnam is the colorful and elaborate dress the women wear. Each group has it’s own dress and the women told us it makes them feel beautiful. Some of the pieces are bought in the market, but the most intricate portions are all hand-made by the women. Our guide told us it can take her up to a year to make a new top because of all the elaborate embroidery that she has to do. The men tend to wear more western style clothes, however, they also have a unique dress they sometimes wear. I myself found the mens dress to be intriguing, particularly the old military style that many of them wear.

We ended up heading over to the more popular destination of Sapa, a mountain retreat town frequently visited by foreigners and local Vietnamese. The mountains around Sapa felt larger than those in Bac Ha and I can see why Sapa has become a popular destination. The city itself is lined with travel agencies, hotels and western style restaurants, but the scenery is beautiful. We ended up trekking into a local H’mong community about three hours outside of Sapa after meeting a local guide in town. Sapa had a much different feel than Bac Ha, likely because of tourism there. Upon arriving into Sapa we were constantly asked to buy stuff by the local minorities even when we got outside of the main town. I had some idea that this is how it might be and that’s why we waited to go there towards the end of our trip. On that note we had a great guide that brought us into her home to sleep and took very good care of us. However, once people from her community knew we were there they all tried to sell us stuff. Much different that in the rural communities around Bac Ha.

The scenery around Sapa is covered with rice terraces and huge mountains
ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Motorcycling adventure in Northern Vietnam tour.The mountainous area of Northern Vietnam has long been famous for its beautiful scenery and great diversity of ethnic minorities. With our adventure motorcycling trip you will make a big loop to experience all the bests that area can offer. Starting in Hanoi you will explore Northwest before jumping into Northeast, back to Hanoi after a day relaxing in Ba Be Lake. The perfect itinerary and the support crew ensure you get the most out of the trip in terms of comfort, enjoyment and adventure. Along the way we encounter dramatic landscapes and sweeping panoramas as the rural population goes about its business. Highlights include the terraced valleys of Sapa, beautiful Ban Gioc Waterfall and many different colorful minority groups. 

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