Vietnam: Among the mountain people

A hundred miles from hectic Hanoi, a journey along Vietnam's mountainous Northwest Loop reveals the country's rich diversity and the lesser-known people of Uncle Ho

By Ben Lerwill
Published 8 Jan 2016, 08:00 GMT

On a roadside in Vietnam's northwest highlands, beneath the cloud-snagged mountaintops and terraced tea plantations of Lai Châu province, there's some furious haggling going on. An old lady from the Hmong minority, weathered but wise-eyed and decked out in a headscarf and indigo smock, has goods to sell: a dozen live frogs, trussed together with twine. She doesn't want to let them go cheap — they were caught from local hillside streams and make for a good meal — but the unsmiling man on the moped, who has pulled over to browse her makeshift stall, is pressing for a bargain.

The frogs, poor things, are placed on a set of rusty scales and proceed to squirm in twelve directions at once, sending the needle into a rattling bounce. "They weigh a kilo," the lady announces. "No," frowns the man, "they weigh less."

Flashing a gold-toothed smile, the lady tells him he'd better hurry up and buy them or they'll have grown even fatter, and therefore more expensive. Her two marketplace companions, embroidering in the shade, hoot with laughter. Humbled, the man agrees to pay 160,000 dong (£4.70), tosses his newly-purchased frogs into the moped's seat compartment and rides away. It's a win for the vendor.

Scenes like this are common in today's Vietnam, a country as complex and colourful as a Delta sunset. Forty years since the end of the American conflict, and almost three decades after the Doi Moi political reforms that revved up the national economy, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has become a place where communism and shrewd commerce hold equal sway. Entrepreneurship is everywhere. So while it takes little effort to find a hammer-and-sickle flag for sale, you should expect to barter hard to buy one.

As a travel destination, of course, it's never been so popular. Arrival numbers have swelled almost fourfold in the last fifteen years, with visitors drawn by the food, the beaches, the history and the potently green landscapes. New towers of sharp design and sleek ambition have appeared, and market T-shirts bearing the slogan 'Vietnam: A Country, Not A War' now seem long outdated. From the cities to the sugar-cane fields, this is a place thrumming with life.

But not everywhere is equally swept up in the drive for progress. I'm exploring the untrammelled north on a week-long mountain circuit known as the Northwest Loop. It's far removed from the busy coastal towns and, at times, with its sun-slowed villages and hidden valleys, feels like a separate country altogether. There are genealogical differences too; Vietnam is the most ethnically diverse nation in Southeast Asia, and the northwest is thick with minority groups.

"It's important to understand that every single group in the country is part of the family of Uncle Ho," says my guide, Luong, one morning. We're slurping our way through chilli- and lime-laced bowls of breakfast beef noodles at a roadside kitchen in the hills as a buffalo lazes in the nearby paddy field and above our heads a lone fan churns pointlessly in the thick, hot air. Luong is referring, of course, to Ho Chi Minh, the former leader whose role in the country's independence movement ensures he remains a wisp-bearded presence on billboards across the land. "Patriotism is not really optional in Vietnam," he adds.

The unhurried feel here is typical of the region, but a hundred miles or so to the east, at the starting point of the Northwest Loop, Hanoi makes up for this lack of urgency.

My trip begins and ends in the nation's capital: a babbling, sense-searing city of pavement-hawkers, hot steam and marauding traffic. No description of the city could ever overlook its army of scooters; it's estimated that the seven million locals own four million scooters between them, and the 24-hour flow of two-wheeled vehicles on the roads provides a neat blood-in-the-veins metaphor for the place as a whole. Its Old Quarter might still be a world of slow-cooked meat and elegantly crumbled French colonial buildings, but Hanoi runs high on energy.

This is clear on my first morning when I take a jetlagged walk at dawn around Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the city. At 6am the nearby roads are already stirring with the bustle of street kitchens opening up for the day — stools are being laid out, herbs are being washed — and at the base of a huge statue of 11th-century ruler Ly Thai To, a flurry of waterside activities are underway. Several dozen people are being led through a laughter yoga session, rocking on their heels and hugging. Behind them, elderly couples ballroom dance around a speaker, chins raised and faces serene. Badminton, football, weightlifting and aerobics are all taking place around the square as well. There's a wonderful lack of inhibition across it all. Uncle Ho was no stranger to a morning work-out himself, and the popularity of daily calisthenics is still seen as his personal legacy.

Later, a little way across town, it seems fitting to join the queues to see the man in person. Forty-five years after his death, Vietnam's father figure remains on display in a grand mausoleum, looking slightly waxy but otherwise in good condition. Ironically, it's said he specifically requested a modest private burial plot. It seems that in Vietnam, amid the jostle of slogans and scooters, you never know quite what's coming your way.

Hmong tribe women, Vietnam. Image: Getty
Hmong tribe women, Vietnam. Image: Getty

Black Thai dinner

As Luong and I head west, the country's diversity reveals itself valley by valley. Around 85% of the nation's 90 million inhabitants are ethnic Vietnamese, but the remaining 15% are split between more than 50 minority tribes. These groups settled here over divergent eras and, to a large degree, still live in communities defined by their own dialects, traditions and costumes. They tend to be less well off than their ethnic Vietnamese compatriots, in some cases profoundly so. The French, who ruled Vietnam for around 80 years, often referred to them as Montagnards, or mountain people.

The earliest settlers, who arrived more than 2,000 years ago, claimed the fertile valley floors to develop farming townships. Tribes more recently settled, such as the Hmong, who started migrating here in the 18th century, had to eke out an existence on the higher slopes. These generalisations still hold. Falling into the more fortunately placed, longer-established grouping are the gregarious Black Thai, and it's in their company that we spend much of the first portion of the Loop.

"Eat," beams Thinh, one of our Black Thai hosts, gesturing for me to sit cross-legged on his floor. He places before me the boiled body parts of a chicken that I'd seen him engaged in a dusty, squawk-filled chase with a few hours earlier. Outside, night is closing in on the quiet coffee hills of Chieng Chung. When we'd arrived, the bushy green slopes had been dotted with Black Thai field-workers wearing the conical nón lá hats that have become so emblematic of the country. Certain things in Vietnam transcend any ethnic grouping.

Despite their name, the region's 500,000 or so Black Thai have only the remotest connection to the Thai of Thailand, instead counting southern China as their ancestral homeland. They also have no direct affiliation to the Tay people, who live in northeast Vietnam, although they were once closely related to the primly dressed White Thai. The Black/White designation is generally attributed to the prevalent colour of the groups' traditional shirts.

We're eating in Thinh's stilt house, a basic but traditional wooden Black Thai dwelling set six feet off the ground. As a young village farmer producing some two tons of coffee beans a year, he makes an annual income of around £3,000. Also sat with us are his wife, his mother, his sister-in-law, his daughter, his dog and two of his farming friends. The three women all wear their hair in large topknots, in the style adopted by married Black Thai females (who often need customised moped helmet straps as a result). In one corner of the main space, which is crammed with beds, sits an ancestral shrine to Thinh's father, complete with packs of the deceased man's preferred cigarettes. Opposite, a large television is flickering with adverts.

As the heaps of tofu, greens and chicken in front of us gradually diminish, the mood becomes more convivial and boozy. I'm coerced into a baffling local version of rock-paper-scissors, and Thinh and his friends successfully get me, and themselves, blitzed on home-made rice wine. Too few hours later, cockerels are crowing under the house and the sun is beginning to rise, spilling orange light across the hills.

Later that day, still in Black Thai territory, Luong and I explore some of the area's more remote villages by scooter. In tiny Mng Cha, a hamlet of rickety bridges and startlingly green fields, the community is in full afternoon celebration after securing a big coffee sale to an out-of-town buyer. The entire village, it seems, stands to benefit from the deal. One particularly thankful man has fallen asleep on an old pool table. There are huge smiles beneath the topknots.

Back on the mountain road, passing verge-side vendors selling a variety of fresh pineapples and dead forest rats, I see a large government placard. It translates as 'People of different minority groups — let's study to follow Ho Chi Minh's character. Be honest, be responsible and show solidarity.' The sentiment holds particular resonance at our next stop, a place tucked tight against the Laos border, and somewhere that can still bring French military historians out in sweats: Dien Bien Phu.

A woman in a nón lá hat walks through a village near Muong Lay. Image: Ben ...
A woman in a nón lá hat walks through a village near Muong Lay. Image: Ben Lerwill

Against all odds

A road trip through northwest Vietnam is rarely low on local colour. Fattened pigs in motorbike trailers trundle by as boys with slingshots send stones flying into the treetops. Villagers wade in their dozens into lakes to catch fish with hand-held nets. There are eyecatching tribal costumes at every turn: the shoulder-buttoned tunics of the Giay people; the pink-banded skirts of the Hmong; the scarlet turbans of the Dao. When you reach the wide avenues of the hill-ringed town of Dien Bien Phu, however, you feel the presence of greater Vietnam — of Hanoi and Uncle Ho — more tangibly.

It was here, over a period of eight weeks in 1954, that Ho Chi Minh's troops won a crushing victory in a battle against French forces. The French had chosen to camp here in the natural amphitheatre of the setting, thinking their position impregnable. Then a hastily mobilised army of locals performed a minor miracle by hoisting artillery into vantage positions, encircling the occupiers. The 15,000 French troops, having to rely on air-dropped supplies to keep the fight going, were quickly decimated by the 40,000 Vietnamese. The defeat brought about an end to France's involvement in Indochina.

To get a clearer picture of the town's history, we visit its related monuments and museums. A colossal power-to-the-people statue looms above the rooftops, while on the mound still referred to as Hill A1 — as it was known by Vietnamese troops — an old tank stands rusting, pointing over a now-agricultural landscape. It seems the town settled back into itself long ago. At street level, the riverside market is full of chattering vendors and writhing seafood and, in the humid evening air, I settle down at a busy little place serving bun cha pork noodles and cold Hanoi beer.

The town we visit the next day has an equally turbulent history. The settlement of Muong Lay was intentionally flooded a few years ago following the construction of a new hydroelectric dam. Today, its residents live in newly built houses on the shores of what is now a reservoir. Somewhere, metres beneath the water they see each day, is the place in which they used to live.

"Yes, I feel happy," says Van, the fifty-something White Thai man I speak to. He's sharing green tea with his wife and neighbours in the space outside his new house. "The bad thing is that I have no fields to farm. We have no land anymore, so the government gives us rice supplies twice a year. I have nothing to do except collect firewood." I ask if he was happy when the decision was made to flood the town he grew up in. "No choice!" he laughs. "Government project! But life now is better."

The following day we leave the main road and stop near a remote Giay minority village. We've been there for just a few minutes when a green-shirted policeman arrives at speed on a motorbike. He speaks to Luong and we're asked to leave. "He says it's for your safety," Luong tells me. "But the real reason is that he thinks you might be a Christian missionary."

The return journey to the capital culminates in an overnight train back to Hanoi but, before then, the last station proper on the Northwest Loop is the old French hill stop of Sapa. Its high-altitude location and relative proximity to Hanoi have long made it popular on the traveller circuit. The air is cool and damp, and the cloud clings to the pine trees. When visibility returns, it reveals an extraordinary spread of 200-year-old terraces, vibrantly green, cloaking the high slopes.

The streets themselves are lined with massage outlets, pizza restaurants and enterprising Hmong trinket-sellers. It's a total contrast to the week that has just been. At the market, I buy some local Dao needlework to remind me of the trip — but, in truth, there's little I could purchase that would sum up the journey. Vietnam is a country of countless faces, and on the Northwest Loop you encounter plenty.


Getting there
Vietnam Airlines has three direct flights a week between Heathrow and Hanoi. Various carriers offer one-stop services, including Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
Average flight time: 11h 30m

Getting around
Travelling the Northwest Loop is simplest with a car and guide/driver, although completing the loop by scooter is possible. Self-drive car hire is uncommon in Vietnam. Public buses are another option, but require patience. Distances are not huge in Northwest Vietnam but travel can still take time. Remote roads are sometimes poor. The 8.5-hour rail journey between Hanoi and Lao Cai is a popular way of travelling between the capital and the Sapa region.

When to go
The north is usually warm and sunny between October and December, and pleasant in March/April with temperatures around 17-22C. Between May and August, temperatures hover around 30C, occasionally reaching an extreme 40C.

Need to know
Visas: As of July 2015, UK visitors no longer need to purchase a visa for stays of 15 days or fewer. However, a visa is still required for longer visits — either from the embassy before departure, or through a legitimate visa-on-arrival company.
Currency: Dong (VND). £1 = 34,100 VND.
Health: Check with your GP to ensure your vaccinations are up to date. Anti-malarials are recommended.
International dial code: 00 84.
Time: GMT +7.

More info
The Rough Guide to Vietnam (April 2015) RRP: £15.99

How to do it
Inside Vietnam Tours' 11-night Dien Bien Phu Experience costs from £2,119 per person, including stays in Hanoi, Mai Châu, Son La, Dien Bien Phu, Muong Lay, Lai Châu and Sapa. All transport is included with guides, Sapa hiking and overnight Lao Cai-Hanoi train. Return London-Hanoi flights with Vietnam Airlines also included.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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