Northwest Vietnam

Northwest Vietnam

Vietnam is a beautiful country that evokes strong images for many people who have never been there. The reasons behind this lie in a vision of Vietnam that is indelibly linked to war, and one which suffers in the West from a legacy of conflict perpetuated by the Hollywood dream machine.
Since the country has largely been cut off from the outside world of travel for decades, this image has prevailed, but if you follow the less well-trodden paths of Northwest Vietnam as I did, you will find a country that has an enchanting atmosphere; dynamic peoples who feel comfortable in their own skin, place and time, regardless of the pace of the West; genuine hospitality; and mountain landscapes so breathtaking that words won’t be able to do them justice.
On your return home your vision of Vietnam will be transformed, as mine was. Michael Herr’s quote illustrates this perfectly:
“All the wrong people remember Vietnam,” he says. “I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it.”
So by adventuring into an unknown world, the traveller, like an artist with a blank canvas, can find a new and more realistic interpretation of Vietnam and its peoples.
Northwest Vietnam has a ruggedness and a primitive infrastructure which offers a real thrill for those who want to discover the unknown. Even Sapa, which has been brought to the fore in terms of tourism, is still a very beautiful place with hidden enclaves and a rich tapestry of peoples just outside the town itself.
Planning a trip in these remote areas of Vietnam as a solo traveller might not be the wisest decision, primarily due to the need for special permits in the less well-discovered areas.
I decided to take an organised tour with Gecko Travel, so all the necessary paperwork was looked after by our tour leader and local guide, who also played an invaluable role when it came to holding conversations with the tribal communities we came across. I say came across, as we travelled by minibus from Hanoi out into the mountains so we had a chance to stop whenever and wherever we wished.
Myths and Legends

Northwest Vietnam

Northwest Vietnam

The country has 54 ethnic groups, giving Vietnam the richest and most complex ethnic makeup of Southeast Asia. The majority of the ethnic minorities live in the hilly regions of the Northwest, with other tribes being scattered in the central highlands and the South. However, the Northwest is the best place to start, as traditional dress in the central and southern parts has been displaced by a more casual approach.
The plush mountain territories along the Lao and Chinese borders we were to visit are home to the most prominent tribal communities.
Several of these communities have as many as a million people while others have dwindled to as few as 100. Most of the communities share a rural agricultural lifestyle – a prominent focus of our tour as we travelled in harvest season at the beginning of October.
Little is known about the origins of the tribes, some of whom inhabited this area before the ancestors of the Viet arrived from Southern China around 4-5,000 years ago. At some date the Viet finally emerged as a distinct group after absorbing smaller communities settling on the Red River Delta, until they became the dominant culture; while other indigenous groups, chose to keep their independence and maintain their place in the highlands.
The country itself is rich in folklore and legend and one story which accounts for this fundamental split between lowlanders and the montagnards (or hill tribes) has a rather more romantic leaning, based on the marriage of the Dragon King of the South to the beautiful Northern Princess Au Co.
A White Thai woman
At first the pair lived in the mountains where the fairy princess gave birth to a hundred handsome strong boys. However, after some time had passed the Dragon King began to miss his watery lowland home and decamped with half of his sons leaving 50 behind in the mountains, the ancestors of the ethnic minorities.
While this is only a legend, there is still something quite mystical about the tribes themselves, with their own specific rituals, practices and cultures existing in harmony with Viet society and one another.

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