Ask the experts: connecting with Indochina’s tribal cultures
When first journeying across Southeast Asia, Indochina Specialist Alex spent time getting to know the region’s remote tribes. He’s recently returned to the area to design a unique route that takes you on a tribal journey through the remote parts of Vietnam and Laos. On his return, we interviewed him to find out more.
Why did you want to revisit this part of the world?
Firstly, I wanted to go back to this region, Vietnam particularly, because it’s been going through a lot of change. The levels of tourism have increased and I’ve seen lots of development. I wanted to find more areas and experiences that are outside the norm. There’s a very well-trodden route now and, to get an authentic experience, you’ve got to counter that somewhat.
Secondly, I wanted to re-connect with the tribes. It was 2010 when I first stayed in an Akha village. Even back then, there was a mobile phone in the village, although only one. I wanted to see how, or if, their culture was being protected — and how we can interact with them as visitors in a responsible way. There’s little information on the internet and few TV programs and books on the subject — this is really unknown territory.
Thirdly, I’ve always wanted to cross the border near Dien Bien Phu. It’s the least-used border crossing between Vietnam and Laos, and one of the least used in Indochina. When I made the crossing it was just me and a couple of trucks pulled up on the side of the road. I almost missed passport control, it’s that casual.
How does your newly designed route help people to learn more about the region’s tribes?
Every place on this route is related to the tribes. For example, Ha Giang is Vietnam’s treasure trove of tribal heritage, including markets of bright, traditional dress. Dien Bien Phu is a battleground where the Vietnamese won an unlikely victory against the French thanks to the surrounding tribes who acted as the army’s supply line.
The route is topped and tailed by two cities, Hanoi and Luang Prabang. In Hanoi you can have a guided tour of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology to get a good introduction before setting off to explore the villages. There are around 50 minority tribes in each country, separated into highland, midland or lowland groups that then break up into many further divisions.
You’ll finish with The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang. It’s a fairly small museum of culture, put together with tremendous care and insight by Tara Gujadhur, who showed me round. It’s the only thing of its kind in Laos — they go to schools in ethnic minority villages to teach the young people about their own culture and history. You will have come across many of the traditions during your trip but sometimes it’s hard to get the whole picture, and this museum really sums everything up.
Can you introduce some of the key tribal experiences?
You’ll learn about some of the key tribes in the region, specifically what sets them apart from each other: they live differently, have very specific traditional dress and have unique beliefs and traditions.
The Hmong was one of the last tribes to migrate from China in the late 19th century. Lords of the opium, they used to get huge down payments on their harvests during the French colonial era, making them very wealthy. One of the things that makes a visit to Ha Giang so interesting is, amongst the rice terraces, you can visit the Hmong Palace at Sa Phin.
A Chinese feng shui expert came over from China to help the Hmong King design his palace. It’s not particularly grand, as it’s built in the traditional Hmong style with clay walls, but there’s certainly a Chinese aspect to the roofing and series of courtyards. It’s up in the mountains, near the Ma Pi Leng Pass — the most stunning drive in Southeast Asia.
The Hmong are one of the more basic, earthy communities. They smoke bongs as part of their culture (although now there’s no opium, they use tobacco). You can see the Hmong ladies weaving bright fabrics on traditional wooden looms, although like many tribes, black is predominant in their own dress because it’s an easy pigment to obtain from plants.
You’ll also meet the Dao, who migrated from China much earlier, in the 12th and 13th century. A more developed tribe, their homestays were very comfortable and there was evidence of recycling. The women are particularly striking as they shave their eyebrows and hair off, wearing a tightly wrapped headscarf instead.
With the help of my guides, I asked where this tradition comes from. It turns out that it’s to prevent poisoning. There’s a toxic plant that, when they were cooking, would drip down into their hair and eyebrows, and then into the cooking pot. During this trip I also saw a Dao man in traditional dress, which I’ve never seen before (tribal men tend to wear whatever they can get their hands on which is usually Western clothing), including a black hat that looks a bit like a beret.
Over in Laos, you’ll see many Akha tribes, who are spread across borders from Burma to Vietnam. I stayed with them on my first visit to the region and I’d argue that they are the most 'tribal' and interesting of all. Although, they live simply and my nights there were less comfortable on this trip (I’m older now), I’d recommend visiting them on day trips from the more developed town of Phongsali.
You can recognize an Akha community by a giant swing that heralds the village. Their wooden homes are built straight on top of the ground, with pigs, chickens and buffaloes everywhere. They are less developed than other tribes you might visit, although you’ll often see a car battery being used to run an electric light or music system (my guide said Akha weddings are quite the party).
The traditional dress is black, similar to the Hmong, but with intricate beading and bright headresses. It’s not unusual to see a bare-chested woman. As animists they are very superstitious and there are certain things that, as a guest in the village, you can’t touch — your guide will be on hand to make sure you don’t do anything untoward. There are strict gender divisions in the society and when you have lunch in the village you’ll see the women wait and eat second (female guests are welcome at the table however).
The most interesting is the courtship ritual, where two people are introduced by their families. They will spend a day together on the village swing and then decide if they would like to marry. If they decide to go for it, the couple won’t sleep in the same bed until their first son is born.
What’s the accommodation like in these remote areas?
You can stay in a mixture of basic homestays and more comfortable lodges. In the homestays, you’ll usually sleep on a mattress on the floor in a room where other people are sleeping (each sleeping quarter is divided with curtains). Its fine for a night or two, but you need to balance these stays with some relative luxury.
For example, in Meo Vac you can stay in a traditional Hmong house made of clay, set in a lovely spot up in the mountains. A few nights later you can then stay near the more developed town of Sapa in a comfortable ecolodge.
Are you accompanied by a local guide?
An English-speaking guide will accompany you from Hanoi, all the way to the border, where you’ll meet a Laotian guide to take you the rest of the way. The tribes don’t speak the national languages so your guide will often be fluent in their dialect or at least have a working understanding. To go to each tribe, you’ll also pick up a local guide who is part of that community.
For example, when you’re trekking, lunch will be in someone’s tribal house. Our local guide introduced us and they joined us for a lunch of smoked pork, rice and vegetables. Then, inevitably, the little shot glasses of rice wine came out. You couldn’t do that without a local guide.
The journey itself was a major part of the experience for you. What’s it like to travel through these remote areas?
You’ve got to be ok with some long journeys, including a few full days of driving. There’s an airport near the border at Dien Bien Phu so most visitors fly there – but that’s not what my itinerary does. Going overland via the tribal communities is something very few people do. You’ll go through unmarked tribal lands, farming communities and larger cities, with lots of opportunities to stop along the way.
For example, I saw a truck being loaded with rolls of bark. My guided stopped and went and got one of them. I was encouraged to smell it, taste it. It was cinnamon which they grow in the area. The intensity was incredible.
How does Laos compare to Vietnam?
Northern Laos is even more remote and undeveloped. Few people make it to the northern part of the Nam Ou River any more, especially after the construction of Chinese dams, which stopped uninterrupted journeys along river. The dams have had a huge impact on the community and made this region more isolated than before.
I took a boat journey along a stretch of the Nam Ou in the northernmost part of Laos. North of Muang Khua, the river becomes much deeper and wider. It was unbelievable: visitors don’t come this way so it was just the occasional local boat and thick jungle on either side.
Most of these experiences are for the more intrepid. Is there anywhere more accessible for people who want a little more luxury?
Muang La Lodge is potentially the best interactive cultural resort I’ve come across, ever. If you want to experience tribal culture and live in a tribal community, but do it in comfort, this is the place to be. The level of accommodation in Laos, outside of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, is not as refined as you can find in Vietnam, but this lodge is an exception.
Built on the riverside, the lodge is a collection of traditional buildings surrounded by landscape gardens. All the staff, apart from the managers, are from the local community. Hmong, Khamu and Ikho tribes live in the hills surrounding Muang La.
The lodge has built hot-spring baths that the villagers can use alongside guests (although you’ll also have access to a private hot tub with views across the river). Where else can you sit in your swimwear, next to a member of a remote tribal community, grinning at each other as you relax in the warm waters?
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