Chủ Nhật, 10 tháng 11, 2013

Hill Tribe's True Colours in Northern Vietnam

Hill Tribe's True Colours in Northern Vietnam

 By Shaney Hudson

1. Meeting the interesting people in North Vietnam

Clutching a handful of spectacles, Julie tentatively approaches the sewing circle. Two of the women, dressed in the bright traditional outfit of their tribe, shake their heads. But the third places her needlework in her lap and cocks her head to one side, interested.
It's hard not to stare. She is wearing a stunning tomato soup-coloured headdress, folded over in a triangular turban. Red woollen pompoms cascade down her back, sectioned off by multicoloured beads and trimmed with dangling gypsy trinkets. A small sewing needle is pinned to her headdress. Her shaved eyebrows sharpen her features. She is magnificent.
                                              
Minority ethnic children in North Vietnam
One by one, Julie hands her the glasses and she tries on each pair. It's a process of elimination; some are handed back but the last pair has potential. We watch with bated breath. A few stitches are completed. The embroidery is held up for scrutiny again. Finally, she peers over the rim of the glasses at Julie, nods, and smiles. It's the perfect ice-breaker.

I have to hand it to the more canny members of our group. They'd done their homework on the Red Dao tribe of northern Vietnam and discovered not only their reputation for fine needlework and embroidery but that the women covet magnifying glasses for their sewing. Wanting a genuine reason to meet them, they'd come armed and ready with a few pairs of spare reading glasses as gifts.
 Hill tribe people in North Vietnam
Labelled Montagnards by the French, the ethnically diverse hill tribes have lived a largely independent rural existence in the Hoang Lien mountain range, near the Vietnamese border with China, for centuries. But as Vietnam has become a significant tourist destination in the past decade, their mountain home has seen an influx of international visitors, lured by their colourful costumes and easy nature.
Most tourists base themselves in Sapa, a mountain resort easily accessible by overnight train from Hanoi. Established by the French in 1922, the town is a melting pot for the various tribes who live in the area, drawn by the opportunity to sell their crafts to tourists. While it offers ample people-watching opportunities and a stunning vista of the valley below, it is overdeveloped, crowded and highly commercialised.

2. The Daily Life of Hill Tribe in North Vietnam
Wanting to witness a more traditional way of life, I signed up for a two-day trek through rural villages, farmland and rice paddies to the remote villages of Sin Chai B, home to the Red Dao people, and Ban Ho, home to the Tay people in Northern Vietnam . There, I was told, I'd have the chance to see tribe life virtually uninfluenced by the outside world.
Minority ethnic woman
There are 11 of us in our group and, after storing our luggage in Sapa, we drive an hour south-west to the start of our trek. We're a mix of ages, fitness levels and backgrounds, and the walk, which is mainly uphill, is a bit of a challenge for us all.
"How good are you at CPR?" one of the group wheezes on a particularly sharp hill.
"I'm no bloody good to you if I'm dead," her friend huffs back.
After five hours tramping up buffalo trails, walking along stone roads, splattering through muddy paths, balancing on the rim of rice paddies and bouncing across rickety suspension bridges, we reach our destination: Sin Chai B village. And it is worth every steep, breathless step to spend the afternoon with the Red Dao without having another tourist in sight.
Despite being among Vietnam's poorest people, the women here have style in spades: the mothers in traditional dress are graceful and their daughters, mixing Western-style tops and traditional embroidered pants with chunky silver jewellery, look gypsy-cool.
Minority ethnic children in North Vietnam

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We pass by a farmhouse where a family is preparing for a wedding. Seven small hand-embroidered pillows sit on the roof of the traditional stilt house, laid out for the groom's family. Although the groom pays for the wedding, the bride proves her worth by sewing each of his family a pillow to rest on. We glimpse movement and hear laughter inside as we move on towards the local school.
It's the end of the school day and the kindergarten teacher is happy to let us entertain her barefoot charges. Like a broken record, they chant "hello" for five full minutes, their faces awash with giddy excitement. Ever-prepared, Julie and her posse distribute balloons and packs of colouring pencils to their teacher. The giggling rugrats high-five us and clamber to look at their pictures on our digital camera displays, all the while not moving beyond the safety of their classroom door.
Rob, a Vietnam War veteran travelling with his daughters, stands a bit back from the group and watches. The next morning, over a cuppa, he quietly mentions in passing that not much gets to him about the war but when he sees children he gets a bit choked up.
Hill tribe people in North Vietnam

News travels fast about the glasses and we're approached throughout the afternoon by a few women with sleeping babies slung on their backs and sewing scissors hung by thread around their necks. But there's no urgency, no desperation, just a dignified exchange of words and smiles as they try on the glasses and compare them with their old pair. It opens a window for smiles, photos and laughter, the simple interaction and connection we had all craved on this trip.
Our accommodation that night is in a purpose-built bamboo hut a little way from the village, with flushing Western toilets, cold running water and beer cooled in a metal tub of water. Dinner is prepared over a traditional pit fire and is a feast of lemon grass and chilli chicken, tender pink pork belly, tofu in fresh tomato sauce, omelet, spring rolls and steamed greens. There's so much food on the table we eat with our bowls in our laps. It's a simple and satisfying end to a great day.
Minority ethnic children in North Vietnam

By lucky coincidence the second day of our trek coincides with Thanh Minh, the holiday of the dead. Celebrated on the fifth day of the third moon of the lunar calendar, family members must tend to the resting place of their ancestors to ensure good luck. We pass a series of freshly manicured graves, each marked with a single multicoloured paper streamer, representing a flower tree. On another grave, yellow and red paper money sits in polka-dotted clumps, secured in place with incense sticks.
As part of the celebrations, special rice cakes are prepared. We pass one woman pounding rice into flour with a giant mortar and pestle. Smiling, she lets us have a go as her children peek out from behind her legs. Further down the trail we try the finished product: rice flour and banana dough stuffed with chopped green beans, pressed into a patty and wrapped in a banana leaf. Later that night we are served bright purple sticky rice with our dinner. What doesn't end up in our bellies, we're told, will be placed on the altar for a good harvest. After we all try a gag-inducing nibble, we decide to leave most of it for the spirits to consume.
We pass on the opportunity to swim in the river as the water is murky and polluted, saving ourselves for the hot springs rumoured to exist in Ban Ho, where we are next staying. Together we approach the village in high spirits, eager for another afternoon with the hill tribes, like the one we had experienced the afternoon before. But before us is a sobering sight.
Hill tribe people in North Vietnam

The rice paddies around the village have been reduced to rubble. We cross a dirt ditch as wide as a football field to get to the hot springs, pursued by a group of women selling us handicrafts. Across from the hot springs, a whining bright yellow digger pushes debris into the river. Above the village, a hydro electric plant is being constructed.
It's not quite the traditional rural life uninfluenced by the modern world we'd hoped for. It's disheartening but we all realise how lucky we are to have had the experience of the afternoon before. And we decide to focus on that. "You know," one of the group begins, "yesterday was one of the best days of my life. Those women were just so beautiful ..."

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