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Vietnam: Village People

Northern Vietnam has only truly opened up to tourism in the 90s, but the speed of development in this country means that even though small villages are tucked in remote mountain area accessible only on foot, it doesn’t mean they have to live without electricity or cable TV.

Women in the terraced rice fields

Those who come to Vietnam can experience a traditional way of life in some of these far flung villages. Homestays are so common these days that outhouse latrines have been replaced by flushing toilets to make visitors feel more ‘at home’. Yet, it isn’t difficult to find a home where you’d have to take a torchlight to do your nightly business outdoors if you prefer.

At other places, visitors sleep on the floor that’s literally right above where their cows and pigs (and chickens) are kept. You can even see them through the cracks in the floorboards. As the houses are mostly built on stilts and raised off the ground, the common practice is to house their livestock on the ground floor, while the family live upstairs. This is how the locals have lived for centuries, so you’ll just have to get used to the idea (and the smell).

Village home where livestock live under the house

Those who do get to visit these villages will be offered a window into their lives – drop in on any house, and you’ll be plied with tea (a standard custom) or some homemade rice wine with the village elder.

Many hill tribes – like the Black H’Mong, Red Dzao, Zai and Tai – call this area home, and if you’re into colourful tribal costumes and customs, this is a great place to be. Depending on how long you can spend on the ground, there are a number of interesting villages to spend the night in.

The closest village to Hanoi (at 135km), the White Tai village of Mai Chau is surrounded by a sea of verdant green rice fields as far as the eye can see. Tucked within the mountain range, it’s a picturesque location and plenty of tour buses come here for a homestay experience. But, take a short hike just beyond the village and you can have the fields all to yourself, and the villagers.

Mai Chau’s village

Because this village is used to the relatively high volume of tourists, expect flushing toilets and modern showers. But take a walk to the nearby fields, and you can still witness a traditional way of life: villagers still harvest by hand and plough the land with water buffaloes. At night, there’s even a song and dance performance by the locals specifically for tourists.

If you’re looking for a village that’s off the beaten track, the Tai village of Tu Le is a great place to spend the night. Located within a pretty valley, Tu Le is surrounded by terraced electric green rice fields that seem to form green stairways to the mountains. The area is criss-crossed with a network of trails used by the locals to get from the mountains to the market, and these trails are great for hiking and meeting the locals.

Terraced fields near Tu Le

Terraced fields near Tu Le

Around the village, you can see cute little black pigs with triangular wooden collars – designed to prevent them from running to places they’re not supposed to.

As this is a relatively isolated village, you’ll get to sleep on the floor next to the family and right above their livestock. As there are no walls for the kitchen/living/bedroom, bedtime can be tricky when other family members are watching TV, cooking or chatting at the same time. Plus, the toilet is about 50m away.

Sapa, near the Chinese border, is a former French hill resort built in 1922. Visitors are drawn here for its cool weather, as well as its rich tribal culture thanks to the area’s diversity of hill tribes.

A village in Sapa

While you can see plenty of hill tribe people at Sapa’s market, take a hike around the nearby valleys to see where they live. The hike is generally downhill and can get really muddy during rainy season (May-Sept).

Villages here are so used to foreign visitors that most children can speak a few languages – and indeed, they will pester you along your entire hike until you’ve bought something from them.

You can spend the night the Zai village of Ta Van – most have flushing toilets and modern showers, thanks to the influx of foreign influence here. Zai houses are large compared to the Tai’s, and are mostly double-storied.

At Sapa’s tribal market

If you’re interested in a village homestay, it’s more convenient to go with an organised group, or hire your own transport and cook.

Even if you can’t communicate with the locals, there’s always rice wine to be shared as everyone invites you to gather around the TV watch a Western programme dubbed in Vietnamese. Such is the pace of progress – and the way of modern life – in these mountain villages of Vietnam.

4 Responses to “Vietnam: Village People”

  1. Anita Mac says:

    Would love to visit Vietnam – although I imagine some cycling will be involved. Thanks for sharing.

  2. busque says:

    your website is like an encyclopaedia for me, thanks.

  3. Defri says:

    I love the way you put it!

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