Living the High Life


Vietnam's fifty-or-so hill tribes have always been on the fringes of mainstream society. They were, exploited by the French, and found themselves in the frontline in the war against the USA. After Vietnam reunified in 1976, the tribes' traditional customs and languages were outlawed. However, since the doi moi liberalisation of the 1990s, minority groups are increasingly represented in government and cultural rights recognised. Growing numbers of tourists are now visiting the tribes.

Main photograph: ancestors of the Tai group arrived in Vietnam more than 2,000 years ago, settling in river valleys such as this one near Ban Mong in Son La Province. The tribes intensively cultivate wet rice using ploughs and complex irrigation systems

despite their cultural differences, the various hill tribes live side by side in harmony. Here, white Hmong (Hmong Peu) and Yao women visit the weekly market at Muong So

the Yao are known for their skills in carpentry, traditional medicine and blacksmithing. They have rich and unique literary tradition of poems and ritual texts, recorded using characters similar to Chinese

the headdresses of Hmong women vary greatly, though many involve a checked scarf. These girls show three styles adopted by the same tribe

the weekly trip to the market is an excuse for the hill tribes to show off their finery and is as much a social event as a commercial one. This woman of the Kiem Mien (Mountain Yao) sports the full regalia. As is typical among the Yao she has shaved hair and eyebrows. The Yao use a system of five colours for embroidery, inspired by the legend of Ban Ho, a powerful dog of five colours. After killing an enemy general, the dog was granted the hand of a princess in marriage, who gave birth to 12 children, now revered as ancestors of the 12 Yao clans

the Hmong Leng (Embroidered Hmong) are especially accomplished at handicrafts, and decorate their hemp and cotton fibre skirts with batik, embroidery, and applique techniques. Marriage by hay pu, or capture is still common among the Hmong. The man and woman arrange a place to meet, then the man captures the woman taking her to his house to be married. Divorce among the Hmong is rare

The Yao, who have been in Vietnam since the 13th century, cultivate wet rice in terraces where the terrain allows it, such as here in the shadow of Mount Fan Si Pan near Sa Pa. …

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