Time and time again, I always hear it from traveller 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.
I find myself attracted to areas where most of the people living there are from an ethnic minority group or “người dân tộc” in Vietnamese. Their smiles, colours and more humble and sustenance-based lifestyles are found in every far reaching corner of the 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 familiar and… fast.
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 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. Originating in the mountains along the southern Chinese border they once upon a time belonged to the “Miao” who are 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 to avoid political persecution in addition to the search for new and more 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. Many H’Mong were convinced that white-skinned people 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. Many catholic and non-catholic H’mong to this day still follow these traditions.
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 the cause. However, anyone who had sided with the opposition, after the Communist’s claimed victory, was dealt with by a heavy hand. If you happened to be from an ethnic minority group this hand would be exceptionally weighty and for many is still unable to be lifted to this day.
Like the boatloads of Vietnamese that would soon flee the country thousands of H’mong also dispersed. Many headed eastwards towards Laos where the brutal Khmer Rouge forced thousands more to continue 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 central mountains of Vietnam – that’s where I took these photos. In early 2015 I studied a map and found a single road travelling beside a peaky mountain range. Mountains always provide good backdrops and often high unexpected surprises. I stumbled across a few small villages made up of families of H’mong refugees of which most families arrived there after the French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Traditional housing and farming practices have been replicated from their former lifestyles in their northern homelands in the provinces of Ha Giang, Lao Cai and Son La.
On my first visit I befriended 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.
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 and he’s now happier that he returned home to be with his loved ones.
Most people in this village are farm labourers 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.