My ethnic travel adventures in the North of Vietnam unexpectedly introduced me to the Black Lolo hill tribe of Bao Lac. The Black Lolo (also know as the Lolo Den and Lolo Noir) reside high in the mountains surrounding the small town of Bao Lac in Cao Bang Province. The Black Lolo are identifiable by the black cultural clothes they wear from which their name derives. In August 2015 I motorbiked from Ha Giang to Bao Lac to research the cultural costume and textiles of some of the 54 ethnic minority groups that live in these rural areas. It was on this visit to the Lolo village that I began to question the ethics and responsibility of my research when visiting remote communities.
Preserving the beautiful cultural traditions of Lô Lô ethnicity.
The Flower Lolo are the elaborately decorated ethnic minority people of Meo Vac, Vietnam. Their kaleidoscopic costumes are meticulously embellished with approximately 4000 hand appliquéd triangles resembling tetris block formations. Five triangles can take up to two hours to sew, I know because in August 2015 I motorbiked from Hanoi to Meo Vac to learn for myself. Constructing a single costume takes about one year to complete, outfits are sewn by mothers for their daughters, only worn on best occasions and stored in a lockable chest. For that reason the Flower Lolo‘s dress is publically revered as one of Vietnam’s finest sartorial accomplishments.
Daughters Rising is a human rights, non-profit organization that supports, educates, employs and empowers ethnic Karen women taking refuge from Burma in Thailand. Their sister company RISE is the eagerly anticipated ethnic and ethical handbags collection combining Italian leather and tribal textiles, hand made by Karen artisans in their villages.
In October 2015 I arrived at the Daughters Rising residence in Mae Wang to humbly volunteer my fashion expertise to aid the development of their promising new project. My aspirations were to learn from the inside out about Karen culture and to participate in the launch of a collaborative ethical handbags collection with an ethnic minority group. This has been the most profound and insightful experience of my adventures around Asia so far, leading to a change in my perspective and purpose for traveling in the future. In order to understand the ugency for such a project I will explain a brief history of the shocking situation that has hundreds of thousands of Karen people in this position.
Disclaimer: Before I start explaining and sharing my experiences of the past week I want you to understand that I am in no way an expert about the political actions and human rights concerns that surround the situation in Burma. All of the information contained in this post I have educated myself about in the last week via personal discussions with team members at Daughters Rising, Karen refugees working at Chai Lai Orchid and surrounding villages and using the links and resources listed below. If you see anything incorrect please politely advise in the comments at the end of the post. Thank you.
200km away from the Daughter’s Rising residence is the border of Burma where approximately 140,000 ethnic minority Burmese refugees are living in makeshift villages. They fled their homes over 30 years ago when the Burmese authoritarian military Junta began state sponsored ethnic cleansing of minority people who did not consent to their vision for the future of Myanmar. Persecuted ethnicities include Shan, Mon, Karenni, Arkanese, Rohingya and Karen people who in 1948 when Burma became independent from the UK wanted the right to govern their own states. Initially the junta only attacked the armed minority defences and rebels but soon after they began repeated massacres of peaceful ethnic villages in rural areas, burning them to the ground and orchestrating heinous crimes against humanity.
Refugees have no ID card in the country they are occupying, under Thailand’s domestic law refugees are seen as visa overstayers and therefore criminals. It is also a criminal offence to shelter a Burmese refugee in your home. Refugee camps allow people to meagerly exist. Refugees are dependant on depleting international and outside aid as they are not allowed to work or leave the camp. After 30 years many residents have only known the confides of their camps and very little else about the outside world.
“It is so strict to live here. There is nothing to do. I am not allowed to go outside the camp. There is no job, no work. So much stress and depression. I feel that I am going to go crazy here.” (Burmese refugee, Nu Po camp, Tak province, January 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012e, p. 18)
Refugees are the easiest and most vulnerable targets to sex traffickers. Uneducated and desperate to support their families young girls are often lured away by the prospect of working in the city as a maid in a hotel or maybe behind a bar. They are tricked into believing they will gain an ID card, a place to live, minimum wages and new clothes. Grievously however once out of sight women are locked in room and beaten until they yield. They are told that if they try to escape and don’t prostitute themselves their family will be killed and their sisters will be joining them in the whore house.
Have you ever asked a monk to take off his robes? No? Just me then… The burning question that has been on all our minds (or just mine) has finally been answered. But asking a monk to get undressed and dressed again wasn’t as bad as it sounds. How does one find out how the Buddhist monks wear their robes? Simply by asking!
Shrouded in secrecy and sacrosanct, monks have always been an forsaken mystery to me. Wrapped from breast to toe in enough manipulated fabric to give Yohji Yamamoto a run for his money, I’ve long wondered what draping design permits the special silhouettes of the saffron sect.
As with many devoted religious groups, Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch a women, be touched by a women, too be alone with a women at any time, and even to accept offerings from a women (except in the Giving of Alms). Basically monks and women don’t mix. Such a opportunity was always going to be very few and far between. A fact I thought I would never learn. So when I glanced across a carpark and caught said monk dressing in his robes out in public, I thought there was no better time to leg it over and carpe diem!
I tore across the temple grounds with my palms in prayer position, a stupendous smile slapped across my face and translator in tow. The monk graciously stepped away from the car he was just about to occupy and walked towards us with eyebrows raised. My attentive assistant Oak from the Thailand Association of Travel Agents managed to convey that my request was purely in the aid of research. The monk took my business card and agree to share the sartorial secrets of the sacred. WATCH THE VIDEO BELOW!
Are you looking for the best fashion show in Asia? Do you love handcrafted artisan ensembles? Unknown to most is that Vietnam has a staggering 54 different ethnic minorities, many of whom’s cultural costumes are more creatively crafted and indigenously inventive than those so called couture designers in Paris.
Check out Haute Culture’s essential guide to the real originators of individuality and style in South East Asia.
“No. No you can not see”, was the answer I was not willing to accept when investigating the location of the elusive Lolo people. The Lolo people (also known as the Yi people in China) are a very special 1 in 54 ethnic minorities from Vietnam living in the tiny remote village of Lung Cu. Lolo people believe in folkloric stories, sharing tales of the past through dancing, festivals and playing music on sacred brass drums. They worship and celebrate legends, spirits and gods of nature. Lolo people have no distinguishable identifying features in the day time because they wear regular western clothes, but during very special occasions a few times a year the women wear the most elaborate, vibrant and intricate costumes.
“Put your money where you mouth is” holds a whole new meaning to the Black Dao and Hmong women living in the mountains of Ha Giang, North Vietnam. A sparkling smile catching the light across a corn field can symbolise a few meanings to the unsuspecting onlooker in the ethnic minority market towns of Meo Vac and Don Van.
Caked in gold, silver and holographic metallic’s, wearing neon pink, canary yellow and lime green, the girls flirt in full flare skirts coordinated with beads, sashes, aprons and head scarfs. It was like watching a group of women going out for a night on the town, only it was 7am…
AT – DONG – VAN – MARKET – IN – THE – MOUNTAINS – OF – VIETNAM.
Smiling ear to ear and ecstatically happy to see me, they heckled me over to join them waving a bottle of something alluring above their heads. Before I sat down my tea cup was filled with a black liquid and Chúc sức khoẻ was cheered in the air. The ladies were obviously in the prime of their life and enjoying each other’s girly company on a hot and hazy day. The reasonably pleasant tasting black liquor was some kind of home brew made from herbs and rice wine. It wasn’t their first, nor would it be our last.
A short 30km ride from Mai Chau nestled away from the mountains main road is the tiney tiny village of Pa Co. Small in size but heaving in habitué at the weekend, for the Sunday markets main trade is in textiles, costumes and haberdashery for the ethnic Red and Blue Hmong people. (Reading time 3 minutes) Continue Reading
Mai Chau is a seeming easy 150km cruise out of Hanoi. Only a 3-4 hour drive they say! Hmmm well, Im currently sat in my idyllic stilt house listening to White Thai women sing their folk songs in harmony with the crickets, but it didn’t start out that way. For those of you the don’t follow me on Facebook yet please click the link to read the funny story that matches the picture below of what actually happened on the first day of the rest of my life. (Reading time 4 mins)
A weekend adventure motor biking around the mountainous province of Ha Giang Vietnam. 1000 metres above sea level Ha Giang boarders the southern Yunnan province of China. At last count over 60% of Vietnams hill tribe minorities call Ha Giang home, making it a culturally diverse and naturally beautiful destination to explore. There I met with local men and women on the markets and at their homes whom took great pleasure and pride in adorning me with their costumes and customs. Reading time 13 mins or scroll down to the bottom for my travel tips and advice on Ha Giang.
“HA GIANG”, “HA GIANG” I heard the guy yelling in my direction. I woke up to realise that there was only myself, the driver and bag boy left on the coach. I got down from my bunk bed, gathered my belongings and stepped out onto a flood lit derelict construction site. Wicked!! I sarcastically thought to myself, time to jump into action and figure out what to do next. It’s 4:30am. I hear sounds of chattering over the wall ahead and see an exit leading out onto a road. Looking like a rabbit in the headlights, I sense the local men sat outside the station are laughing at my expense. I hear a guy wolf whistle which instantly puts me on tenterhooks, Vietnamese men don’t normally do that, I thought. Another “wit whooo” comes my way and I’m feeling really uneasy. I look left and right for my friend Esteban, “Wit whooooo…..DONNA!” I breathe a sigh of relief, it was him all along.
Ha Giang City is No Sapa
I spend my first day in Ha Giang City just chilling out with some friends who are living there teaching English. They were working all weekend and I was hesitant to travel up into the mountains on my own. For one I don’t think I would get that far and I felt a bit paranoid about getting lost or in an accident. As a solo female traveller and don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I read online and my friends confirm that there is a guy in town that offers motorbike tours, normally for 3 or 4 days. So I set off to convince Jonny Nam Tran to take a day out of his normal adventurous schedule to chaperone/babysit me for a day. As I wondered around I realize Ha Giang City is nothing like Sapa. In Sapa everyone is a “Del Boy“. You can’t go to the toilet without someone asking you if you want to do a homestay, go on a trek or buy a bracelet, bag or blanket. Elaborately dressed Hmong and Dao women with children strapped to their backs line the streets with handmade ethnic textiles, crafts and jewellery. Coaches, buses and motorbikes wizz through the busy streets as tourists sip on their lattes in the French cafes overlooking the chaos. It’s full on, but at least you know you’re in the right place. Ha Giang is not set up for tourism at all, I only saw a couple of very basic hotels, cafes and convenience stores. Getting around to see the sights would not to be that easy without Jonny. No one is trying to sell me anything, no one gives a crap that I am there, and from what I can tell there is nothing to do apart from make my plans to head for the hills.