Time and time again, I always hear it from travellers; that the highlight of any trip to Vietnam is the chance one gets to not only interact, but connect with locals, sometimes on a very emotional level.
Like many others, I too find myself attracted to the people but Vietnam’s “người dân tộc” in particular, quite simply, they’re ‘minority people’.
Their smiles, colours and humble lifestyles are found in every far reaching corner of this wide world of Vietnam and usually far away from any well-trodden tourist trail. Nothing against the Vietnamese majority “Kinh” because they’re also lovely, but at times can just be a little too… hectic and become too familiar.
One such group I’ve had a chance to meet on a few occasions is the people of the colourful H’Mong ethnic minority. The charming and resilient H’mong seem to have been on the run a fair bit during the past few hundred years and many posses a sad but fascinating history of migration and refuge seeking (unfortunately a similar story shared with many other minority groups around the world). Originating in the southern mountains of China, they once upon a time belonged to the “Miao”, a group of people who have been settled in that region for about 2000 years.
Starting in the 18th century some of them would begin to move southward into the highlands of modern day Vietnam and Laos, mainly to avoid political persecution but also in the search for new and fertile farmlands.
The French occupation of Vietnam and larger Indochina lasted between 1887–1954 and during this time Catholic Missionaries formed relatively peaceful relationships with the mountain dwellers. Understandably, many H’Mong were convinced they were some kind of gods and they were easily converted to the new religion. Before that they had only practiced ancestor worship and various forms of shamanism that many catholic and non-catholic H’mong to this day still follow.
During the years of war in Vietnam, French and American forces recruited thousands of their new H’mong ‘friends’ in northern Laos and Vietnam to help fight for their cause against the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). Many bravely lost their lives to a cause they believed was right but even if they somehow survived the fighting, the Communist’s would eventually claim victory and anyone who had sided with the opposition was dealt with a heavy hand. If you happened to be from an ethnic minority group this hand would be exceptionally weighty, unable to be lifted still to this day.
Like the boatloads of Vietnamese that would soon flee the country, thousands of H’mong likewise dispersed, heading eastwards towards Laos, where the brutal Khmer Rouge would then force thousands more to flee across to Thailand. Many would also head abroad to the USA, France and Australia to completely restart their lives.
Before the war reached a more dire situation in the mid 60’s, many had already fled to the south of Vietnam and that’s where I actually took these photos. In early 2015 I travelled to Dak Lak Province for the first time where I studied a map and found a single road travelling beside a peaky mountain range, which always provide good backdrops.
Not only does this area have amazing scenery, it also has crystal clear waterways, lush farmland and a diverse and lively population of all kinds of life. It was as spectacular as I could have wanted and from dawn to after dusk I spent three days riding up and down the 40km stretch, meeting countless people from 4 different minority groups who live along this of road.
Hidden in a low-lying valley and down a rutted out dirt track, the H’mong Village near “Cu Jup” was definently a highlight for me. So much so I recently returned and had the chance to meet even more of the shy but joyful kids and their equally friendly and inquisitive parents who by using traditional housing and farming practices have replicated their former lifestyle in their northern homelands.
On my first visit I took the chance to befriend a man by the name of Olin. A devout catholic, his family migrated down here from Ha Giang in the early 1960’s as life was never the same for them after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in ’54.
Fluent in Vietnamese, H’mong and Chinese languages he’s recently returned from working in China, where he thought he’d be able to get better-paid work to support his family of six. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way, as it almost never does for poor Vietnamese who travel abroad for work but he’s now happy that he returned home to be with his loved ones.
Most people in this village are farm laborers for wealthy “Kinh” landowners who seemingly take advantage of their disconnection from the outside world and pay them a paltry 3000VND/hour (15 U.S. cents!). This is way below the minimum wage in Vietnam.
On a more positive note, Olin was happy when I recently returned to give him photos that I’d taken on my previous visit and he even tried to pay me for them! Of course I refused to take any payment and for the next few hours, with the company of his brother/next door neighbor, we joyfully drank the local ‘moonshine’ till our bladders were full and heads were spinning.
Olin was ecstatic to hear that I now live only a stone’s throw from the headquarters of a church group he is affiliated with. Next year they both plan to visit me in HCMC.