Bordering Laos and China, the Northern Highlands are a spectacularly beautiful part of Vietnam. It is the nation’s wild frontier-a landscape characterized by towering mountains, sheer limestone cliffs, and deep valleys with terraced rice paddies, clear mountain streams, picturesque waterfalls as well as bamboo groves. It is also the home to a great number of hill tribes, who the French simply dubbed Montagnards, which means “mountain people.”
About 13 percent of Vietnam’s population is made up of fifty-three different indigenous groups. Most of these people live in the Northern and Central Highlands. Although there are big differences between the various ethnic minorities, the term Montagnards are used to refer to them.
The Hmong people are probably the most mysterious. There is speculation that they originated from Tibet, Mongolia or Siberia. Wherever they might have originated from, they settled in China more than one thousand years ago and moved across the border into Vietnam as late as the mid-eighteenth century.
Spirits, both kind and cruel, are kept in check with regular animal sacrifices and rituals in the Hmong world. For example, a piglet has to die at the entrance of the family home every year so that the mountain spirits protect the other household animals. They are proud people of few words and no written language, they express their emotions into improvised song, often accompanied by a bamboo mouth organ.
Until 1945, Vietnamese governments neglected the highlands region as it was seen to be too difficult to administer, and the hill tribes were left alone to continue their traditional way of life. The Hmong eked out a living by planting rice or corn and by keeping pigs and chickens. Making handicrafts for sales to the growing numbers of tourists has become an important way to generate income for the family.
Although the ethnic minorities tend to isolate themselves, Vietnamese supply routes ran through their territory during the decades of war against the French and later the Americans. Consequently, they were drawn into these battles. The most famous battle fought in the Northern Highlands was undoubtedly the fifty-seven-day siege of Điện Biên Phủ-a small town close to the border with Laos. There, General Võ Nguyên Giáp inflicted a humiliating defeat on the thirteen thousand French colonial troops. Giáp, a former high-school history teacher, went on to become the Chief architect of Vietnam’s victory over the American forces. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong to disrupt supplies that were being carried along the legendary Hồ Chí Minh trail (also known in Vietnam as the “Trường Sơn trail”). After 1975, many Hmong people fled to settle in the United States and also to Tasmania-Australia’s most mountainous state.
Visiting mountain villages now is like stepping back in time. The houses are basically one-room timber dwellings with roofs that are thatched or made from wooden shingles. Bamboo fences protect the small vegetable gardens from the pigs and chickens roaming the dirt roads. Each family produces most of the food they need, and cooks it over open fireplaces.
Many villages are without electricity, but houses lucky enough to be near a mountain stream might have a Chinese-made water-powered mini generator that provides just enough electricity for a single light bulb. The only mechanical agricultural appliance that the hill tribes use is the wooden rice thrashers. The only sign of modern life might be a125 cc Minsk motorbike, still built in Belarus to a pre-World War II design and highly suitable for the rugged terrain of the highlands.