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.
Ethnic Travel: Lolo People
There are 3 different Lolo ethnicities living in Vietnam; the Flower Lolo of Meo Vac, the Red Lolo of Lung Cu and the Black Lolo of Bao Lac. Bao Lac is situated in between Meo Vac and Tinh Tuc on the road out of Ha Giang towards Cao Bang province. It is considered to be the poorest province in Vietnam as there is little infrastructure, terrible roads (non existent in some places), limited electricity and seldom running water. Life looks laborious and limited for the inhabitants of this area.
Lolo ethnic minority people are descendants from Yunnan province, they migrated to Vietnam and Laos from China some 400 years ago. Today approximately 350, 000 Lolo people live in rural Vietnam where they earn their livelihood as farmers growing rice, corn, vegetables and breeding small livestock for their local communities. Unlike the Lolo of Lung Cu and the Flower Lolo of Meo Vac, the Black Lolo are still considered a hill tribe as they reside in wooden stilt houses along the mountians habitable edges. Like many hill tribes they follow a Animist style faith, worshiping the gods of the mountain and the forrest, the ghosts of their ancestors and the recently deceased, and they link their lives to the lunar cycle.
The women’s cultural costume consists of plain black baggy trousers, a black turban (often worn with a bamboo circular head dress to shade from the sun), and a meticulously appliqued and hand embroidered cropped jacket. Contrasting colours of pink, green and yellow textiles are applied to a panel in geometric patterns that bare resemblance to the Flower Lolo triangle detail and the symbolic motifs of White Hmong of Lung Tam. The sleeves are decorated with thick and thin striped fabric strips that stop just before the shoulder. The outfit is finished with silver jewellery which is said to be blessed by a shaman to drive away evil spirits, and a Vietnamese hill tribe (standard issue) tartan-esque scarf is worn around the waist and the over the head.
Lolo men have no special identifiable features on their clothes. Most men have adopted western style clothes on a day to day basis or wear Hmong mens indigo jacket, trousers and beret when going to town.
The back view of 3 different Black Lolo jackets reveals that there are subtle differences in each design down the center back panel.
Visiting the Village
Upon arrival to Na Van Village we were greeted by hoards of excited children who had waved us in as we drove the motorbike towards a small plateau outside the village hall. To go any further into the village would require walking along the local paths, something I did not feel comfortable about with out a invite or a guide. Shortly after the arrival we were welcomed by several women also keen to cure their curiosity about our visit.
Communication was difficult to begin with. Lolo people don’t speak Vietnamese and I had not been able to hire a translator in town. So to the delight of everyone I got out my phone and showed photos of me with different hill tribe women (Dao, Hmong, Lolo Lung Cu and Flower Lolo) somehow explaining that i was there to research their beautiful cultural costume and textiles.
Women and children crowd round my camera to see photos of different Vietnamese hill tribe people I have encountered on my journey.
After 30 or so minutes I was faced with awkward and naively unexpected situation. One of the women signaled hand gestures to her mouth asking if I had brought any food? I had not. As I looked around I was confronted with the obvious reality of my lack of thoughtlessness. After all what was I doing there? What was I offering in return for my research? All of a sudden I stepped out of my body and observed my actions from a distance.
This opened a rather critical and heated debate between my travel companion James and I.
- Did they expect charity because I was white?
- Did me offering food build a illusion of heroic white supremacy?
- Did foreign donations create a continuous cycle of dependency?
- Was I treating these people like a exhibition at a human zoo?
- Was I being a self centered and irresponsible researcher?
The nearest shop was a 20km round trip. I wondered how often they walked to town and back? After standing shoulder to shoulder, talking, laughing and photographing their costumes for half an hour, I didn’t feel that these people were hassling me for handouts. Looking the women in the eye as she signaled for food (a base physiological need) deeply moved me. This wasn’t about MY pity or THEIR expectations, for me this was about the commerce of compassion and kindness in exchange for investigating their culture.
I returned to the village early the following morning with a few bags of tea, sugar, noodles and fruit. No one got the fanfares out. I gave it to a women sat outside the village hall, showed her a picture from the previous day with the children and left after a few minutes.
There is not community initiative set up in this are to support the Black Lolo. They seldom saw tourists and didn’t sell souvenirs like the Dao or Hmong people in Sapa. I felt I did the right thing going back, and plan to be more conscious and considerate when visiting remote communities in the future. If you intend on following my footsteps, I urge you to do the same.
Have you done any ethnic travel in Vietnam and visited remote hill tribes? What would you do if the people you were visiting asked for your help? I plan to explore these questions and more in a upcoming article on responsible tourism and the ethics of visiting hill tribes in the near future. Your feedback, experiences and questions would be greatly appreciated in the comments below.
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How to get there
The Black Lolo village of Na Van is situated 10km along one mountain road from Bao Lac. The road is quite difficult to find (please see photos below for land marks) and is treacherous in places. 10km feels more like 20 as you hairpin slowly along a steep mountains edge. The views are spectacular, rivaling that of the Ma Pi Leng pass, overlooking clouds, valleys and rice terraces. This is a no through road, the final destination is the Black Lolo village, after that you will need to turn around to take the same road to back to Bao Lac town.
Where to stay
Bao Lac town has 3 or 4 guest houses, look for Kach San (meaning hotel) or Nha Nghi (guest house). It is normally $10 per night for a double room with bathroom. The people of Bao Lac follow the lunar calender, because of this for some reason no one would serve us food on the night we arrived. We had to buy noodles from a shop and use the hotel kitchen to cook.