A typhoon had blown and white rain clouds lay like a boiling sea in the valleys, creating the illusion that the twisting mountain pass was an ocean road. As our vehicle turned a blind corner we came across a gaggle of motorcyclists, caped against the rain and gawping over the edge.
A lorry had gone over while overtaking another lorry, trusting to a hard shoulder that had gone soft in the rain. Through the clouds we saw that the plummeting vehicle had ploughed a vertical groove of red earth in the sheer mountainside. Its roof was visible, a couple of hundred feet below.
Incredibly, the driver had just been hauled up alive and whisked off to hospital. As the men continued to stare, a woman in a beautiful and strange costume strode away from the scene as if in disgust. She was the reason we had come to this remote, mountainous region in the north of Vietnam, just 50 miles from the Chinese border. Her distinctive look – black tunic and trousers embroidered with red-and-white patterned panels, red scarf and headdress – marked her out as a member of the Dao ethnic minority, one of 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. The Viets are the biggest group, accounting for 86 per cent of the population and dominating mainstream culture. To varying extents, the remaining minorities lead marginalised lives, both culturally and geographically.
Most live in rural areas, growing rice, practising slash-and-burn farming, keeping animals, making handicrafts, worshipping their ancestors and believing in spirits. Many still wear their distinctive, traditional dress – or at least the women do; men tend to go for the easy option and wear Western clothes these days – and this is part of what makes them especially intriguing and attractive to foreigners. Market days, when different groups come together in a throng of colour and noise, are thrilling spectacles.
In recent years, tourism has cottoned on to this, and some minority communities have benefited by offering homestays and selling their beautiful textiles. This “ethnic tourism” is at its busiest in the old French hill station of Sapa, 150 miles north-west of Hanoi, where each year hundreds of thousands of trekkers and photographers pitch up via train and bus from the capital.
Hearing stories of commercialisation and exploitation in Sapa, my partner and I had decided to hire a car, driver and guide and head instead to less-visited minority areas, culminating in the province of Ha Giang to the north-east of Sapa. Abutting the border with China, this province was the scene of heavy fighting with the Chinese in the Eighties; though it is now completely safe, tourism there remains undeveloped.
Our goal, a cluster of ridges and valleys said to harbour the largest diversity of ethnic populations in Vietnam, is so little known by the outside world that it doesn’t yet have a name. If I were a marketing person, charged with putting it on the map, I would name it after the high pass that is the main route into it.
The pass is called Cong Troi, which means Heaven’s Gate. We crossed it shortly after passing the scene of the lorry accident. The landscape around us, glimpsed through the clouds, was indeed celestial – rice paddies cut into the hillsides that looked like the steps of Aztec temples, valleys plunging to hazy nothingness and waterfalls in noisy spate. Here, where many had seen white faces only on television, we were often as much objects of curiosity to the minority peoples as they were to us.
From Cong Troi we twisted down through clouds to the valley bottom and the village of Thong Nguyen, which serves a local population of about 5,000 living in the surrounding hills. Tourism has already arrived in a small way here – there’s a French-owned lodge on the outskirts – and the village authorities are evidently fearful of what it may yet bring.
On a noticeboard by the road, “Forbidden Notes for Tourist” have been posted in Vietnamese and English. The proscriptions aimed at ensuring you do not cause offence when visiting the houses of ethnic peoples include: “Not cook cat or dog meat in the stove,” “Not dry the underwear in the stove” and “Not bring snake into the house”.
Using Pan Hou Lodge as a base, we spent the next two days trekking up into those shimmering green hills to visit remote communities perched on the lips of steepling rice paddies. In a Dao village we drank green tea beneath an old picture of Ho Chi Minh and then, inevitably, the woman who made it, with a baby in a sling on her back, submitted to photographs.
And that, of course, is the subtext of ethnic tourism. You come to gawp and click, to capture those eye-catching costumes and quaint customs in pixels. One woman I tried to photograph, with a mouth blackened by betel nut, covered her face, saying, “I am not beautiful any more. I look like a goat!”
I knew what she said because our guide translated. Thirty-year-old Tran Huy Son was from an ethnic minority himself, the son of a Muong father and Thai (different from the Thais of Thailand) mother.
Having him around enabled us to enrich encounters that were inherently voyeuristic. And his life story, which he related in a series of chats over the week, provided great insight into the minority way of life.
It was also an object lesson in overcoming hardship – the extreme family poverty, the long cycle rides to school, the prejudice of his Viet classmates, the teacher who persuaded him to stick it out. “There was a lot of cheating and kidding,” he said, “but she said I must not give up, and this is why I am here, talking to you now.”
After graduating from university in Hanoi – one of just a handful of minority-group students to do so each year – he spent the first proper money he earned on replacing the earthen ground floor of his parents’ house with a concrete one and the bamboo first floor with wooden boards. He had plans, he said, for further “upgrading”.
On our visits to minority houses he would explain layouts and functions. The houses tend to be built on stilts, with motorbikes and chickens kept on the open ground floor and cooking and sleeping taking place on the enclosed first floor.
The Dao, of which there are several subgroups such as Red Dao and Long Dress Dao, live pretty hard and basic lives up in these mountains. One woman laughed at the idea of having a day off. “If we rest, nothing to eat,” Son translated. Other communities are visibly more prosperous.
We had started our tour in the village of Mai Chau, a three-hour drive south-west of Hanoi, where the Mai Chau Lodge was the base for walks out to White Thai villages. Here, among gardens of jackfruit and banana, and fighting cocks in wicker cages, they sell textiles and offer homestays with Western lavatories and hot showers.
As thunder drummed on the surrounding hills, women toiled in the paddy fields, their conical hats periodically bobbing up to the surface of the rice (quick, photo!). Daily life here is still back-breaking, but not as tough as it once was, judging by the cars parked next to some of the stilt houses.
Between Mai Chau and Ha Giang Province we broke our journey at Thac Ba Lake, where La Vie Vu Linh Eco-Lodge is part of a long-term project aimed at rejuvenating the local minority culture. The lodge – jointly owned by a French-Vietnamese called Frédéric Tiberghien and a Dao family from the adjacent village – runs a school teaching cultural history, languages and hotel management to 15 or so children.
Vietnam’s ethnic minorities had a particularly hard time of it following reunification, but projects like this give hope that their distinct ways of life can flourish. Tourism is certainly a vital part of the process. And it’s not, of course, a one-way street. As Tiberghien said to me, “Next time you come to Vietnam, stay longer with the ethnic people. After two weeks, you will be amazed how similar you are.”