Meeting the ethnic minorities of Vietnam

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Vicky recently returned from a trip to Vietnam, where she visited some of the remote communities and ethnic minorities of the northern highlands and opened her eyes to a very different side of the country.

My journey took me from Hanoi to Ba Be National Park, up through the northeastern mountains to Lao Cai and into the Truong Son Mountains of central Vietnam. Along the way I encountered many different ethnic minority groups and got a real feel for their lifestyles.

Ba Be National Park, a half-day drive from Hanoi, is home to the Tay minority. The views over the lake as you drive down to Pac Ngoi village are spectacular, and the village itself is located on the edge of the lake, next to rice paddies and surrounded by mountains and rainforest. Here I stayed with a very welcoming local family in a traditional Tay stilt house, with a terrace overlooking the lake and rice fields - perfect for a sunset beer! The home-cooked food was absolutely delicious.

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Ba Be stilt house amid the mountains

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Ba Be landscape

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Ba Be

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A feast in Ba Be

Continuing north, the landscape became gradually more picturesque as the villages we visited became more and more remote. Heading into Cao Bang region, limestone mountain peaks dominate the skyline and women from the Zao ethnic minority line the roads selling fresh produce. Zao women wear beautiful red-and-black clothes adorned with colourful embroidery, and shave their eyebrows and the sides of their heads when they get married to signal that they're spoken for.

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A little girl in Cao Bang

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A woman in Cao Bang

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Zao women on the road

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Beautiful Cao Bang landscape

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Steep mountains in Cao Bang

The Hmong minority are one of the largest ethnic groups in Vietnam. Many Hmong live in Ha Giang region, the northern tip of Vietnam, bordering China. Much poorer than the Zao, the Hmong live in communities scattered across the steep mountain sides with difficult access to water. Only about 20% of the children in these communities attend school. Walking through their villages and visiting their houses is a real insight into how strong the women are and how little the families have.

The Ha Giang region is also home to some of the country's most spectacular scenery, and much of the southern area is a UNESCO World Heritage Protected Geo Park. The views from Ma Pi Leng pass through "Heaven's Gate" gap are breath-taking and each new bend along the route brings a new photo stop!

Travelling towards Ha Giang town and onto Ba Ha, the scenery changes yet again: these two districts are covered by lush forest, tea farms and some of the most impressive terraced rice fields in Vietnam. Home to the Red Hmong and Flower Hmong minorities, these towns come alive on market day with many groups donning their best traditional costumes and meeting to sell their wares, buy produce and socialise.

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A woman in Ha Giang

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Ha Giang mountains

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Farming in Ha Giang

For those without the time to visit north Vietnam, Bho Hoong Village is a great cultural interaction option in the central region and a nice overnight stop on the route between Hue and Hoi An.

Bho Hoong Village is home to the Co Tu minority, and tourism here has been developed slowly and sensitively to avoid encroaching on the local culture. The accommodation is far from basic (think comfortable bungalows with modern facilities) and the experiences really immerse you in the Co Tu culture, without ever feeling forced or twee.

The evening was a highlight of our stay, offering the chance to interact with the villagers and listen to the older generation playing traditional musical instruments. After dinner, guests can watch (or if they're brave, take part in) a tribal dance around the totem pole.

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One of the Bho Hoong bungalows

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A woman in Bho Hoong

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Bho Hoong Village

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Evening entertainment

If you're interested in visiting Vietnam's northern highlands - or spending a night or two at Bho Hoong - get in touch with us to find out more. Photos by Vicky & Sara Pretelli, who travelled together in April 2016.

For more information on Vietnam's ethnic minorities, read some more of our blog posts:

Responsible tourism & Vietnam's ethnic minorities

10 tips for visiting ethnic minorities in Vietnam

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