Her distinctive look – black tunic and trousers embroidered with red-and-white patterned panels, red scarf and headdress – marked her out as a member of the Dao ethnic minority, one of 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. The Viets are the biggest group, accounting for 86 per cent of the population and dominating mainstream culture. To varying extents, the remaining minorities lead marginalized lives, both culturally and geographically.
Most live in rural areas, growing rice, practicing slash-and-burn farming, keeping animals, making handicrafts, worshipping their ancestors and believing in spirits. Many still wear their distinctive, traditional dress – or at least the women do; men tend to go for the easy option and wear Western clothes these days – and this is part of what makes them especially intriguing and attractive to foreigners. Market days, when different groups come together in a throng of color and noise, are thrilling spectacles.
Hearing stories of commercialization and exploitation in Sapa, my partner and I had decided to hire a car, driver and guide and head instead to less-visited minority areas, culminating in the province of Ha Giang to the north-east of Sapa. Abutting the border with China, this province was the scene of heavy fighting with the Chinese in the Eighties; though it is now completely safe, tourism there remains undeveloped.