People usually herd when they travel together...here I am with some newfound friends; I was very surprised to see many young women travelling alone.
Our first encounter with the tribes of Viet Nam happened during our visit to Ha Noi a year earlier, as I had a check mark next to the Museum of Ethnology. Had we known what was in store for us there, we would have planned for an entire day at the Museum, rather than a couple of hours. The collection they have put together is nothing short of amazing, and on the second floor, we began to learn about the tribes, their habitats, their origins, and their vibrant colored garbs. I think we decided at the moment, subconsciously, that a trip to the north had to be on the agenda at some point. You'd be amazed to see how many people they can load in this little bus
We'll stick to the people of Bac Ha and their little corner of the world for now. From Sa Pa, if you are going on a "guided" tour, which really means someone who knows how to get there is driving, and you have a mini-bus filled beyond capacity making its way. Not all minibuses are created equal; some are old and in dire need of new shocks, and as the road is mostly unpaved and quite rocky, prepare to be jolted for 100 miles or so. To help with orientation, here's a little map of Northwest Viet Nam; you can then see that from Sa Pa, you are moving northeast.
The day to go to Bac Ha should be Sunday, as this is when everyone gets all dolled up to shop and mingle and gossip etc..Your tour will start early, around 7:00 am or so, as it takes about 3 hours to arrive. The predominant tribe in the area is called the H'mong Flower Tribe, and they are instantly recognized by the head dress which consists of a headscarf tied in the back, with mostly pastel colors, but some with red as well. It can get more complicated with two scarves: one tied to the back, and the other, in a different pattern, tied under the chin. (no it's not that cold there). The scarves are usually woven in a crisscross pattern, and here I'm tempted to call it scotch plaid, but that's too somber. Have a look at the pictures which will save 1000 more words, at least.
these young women wear no headgear whatsoever; perhaps a new generation?
All buses have a specific drop off and pick up point which is smack center of the village. As you get out, you find yourself immersed in long ribbons of winding color in call directions. Everything is sold here, from jewelry, to wovens, to meat (pigs especially), to tobacco and humongous joss sticks, which I had to have. The scent is very Ha Noi, and every time I use one at home, what immediately comes to mind is the ride from Noi Bai airport to the city. Also quite interesting to watch were the men who were smoking tobacco (at first we didn't think it was tobacco!) through hollow bamboo reeds. Also, tobacco is sold loose at the market and I suppose it's easier to inhale through the reed than to have to roll it in paper. We must have gone back and forth in the food tobacco area, where a communal lunch seemed to have been taking place. They were all sitting on small plastic chairs and passing bowls around. Nearby the vendors' lunch area were kitchen utensils, pots and pans, home goods not geared to the tourists, but for the inhabitants of the area.