“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.
There are 3 groups of LoLo ethnicities living in North Vietnam, the Flower LoLo of Meo Vac, the Lolo Noir of Bao Lac and the Red Lolo of Lung Cu. All 3 Lolo people follow similar cultural traditions and beliefs but have very different visual identities through the costumes that they wear. In this post I will focus on the Red Lolo of Lung Cu.
Looking for the Lolo
Despite the amazing sartorial efforts of the Lolo women this is not the reason tourists visit Lung Cu. Lung Cu is on the boarder line of China’s Yunnan province and home the what the Vietnamese claim to be the world’s largest flying flag. It is a meaningful destination for Vietnamese nationals as it is the most Northern town on the Vietnam map. The government have recently paved a new 22 km road from Dong Van to Lung Cu, so patriotic locals can post photos of selfies giving China the middle finger (not really, but due to the latest political tensions kids will be kids). The local Vietnamese and Chinese army patrol this area throughout the day and want to see both your passport and Ha Giang permit on demand (see footnotes).
At the entrance to the tower is a shop where you can buy your admission ticket. I actually never made it up the tower because I spied some traditional costumes out of the corner of my eye and I discovered the owner of the shop was Lolo minority. I indicated to the owner that I was interested in meeting more Lolo people in order to photograph and research their famous costumes. He offered to show me how to wear the costume and take me to visit his family in the nearby Lolo village for 150.000 vnd.
LoLo Costume Details
Visiting the Lolo Village
There were both positive and negative aspects of this experience which I hope to aid anyone else interested in Lolo people, costume and culture to avoid. Trying on the costume was really fun, especially seeing how the complicated headdress was worn (see the video below), but visiting his family on this occasion felt slightly intrusive. The shop owner was a seemingly nice guy but it was became obvious all to late that he was pimping his mother without permission just to make a quick buck. On arrival to the house his mother and father were not too pleased about the unannounced arrangement and looked pretty put out.
Now as a researcher at the time I didn’t know if this would be my only opportunity to see a authentic costume on a Lolo person. I have visited many families in the past that have mostly welcomed my interest and enthusiasm in the hard work and craftsmanship that goes into making their clothes. But it is important to remember to respect peoples space and that you are a guest in their home. Many hill tribe people live extremely private lives, cut off from people in neighboring towns and cities, never mind meeting a foreigner. The awkwardness eventually dispersed and I was able to take so photos and ask some questions without any animosity.
Costumes at Cafe Cu Bac
Instead of visiting the shop owners house, what you could do is ask for directions to Cafe Cu Bac. Owned by a Lolo family with investment from a Japanese couple, Cafe Cu Bac is lovely little farm house coffee shop located in the heart of the Lolo village. The cafes aim is to bring tourists to the village and raise money for local families. We found it after walking around the village for a few minutes but it is sign posted from the road, followed by some very discreet blue arrows painted on the side of a building. I suggest you use google translate before you go. Write clearly on a big piece of paper that you are looking for directions to the Lolo village and Cafe Cu Bac. Once we arrived we ordered lots of drinks and with the help from my translator, a lot of waiting, perseverance, and excessive smiling the owner happily agreed to show me her costume, and let me film and photograph her wearing it for the website.
Seeing this outfit come together was one of the happiest moments of my travels so far, this is because there was a very sobering time when I thought “I’ve just motorbiked 400km and I’m not going to see any of them”. All the websites, books and people kept saying “No. No you cannot see”. Yet I knew if these resources had all seen then so could I. The costume was far beyond my expectation, being so outlandishly complicated, colorful and out of context in such a remote part of the world.
The Red Lolo costume consists of trousers, skirt, leg warmers, wrap skirt, belts and tassels, collared shirt, very long sleeved top pleated into the cuff, 3 turban head scarfs and jewelry. All pieces of the costume are embellished with a wide range of textile techniques such as batik, appliqué, intricate embroidered motifs and patterns, tassels, ribbons and buttons. Take a minute to watch this rare video of the Lolo lady dressing in her traditional cultural costume.
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Looking at a paper map you will see that there is no road to leading to Lung Cu, and reading various travel websites will only confuse you by saying there is a road, but it is only accessible by locals. Luckily I can say to anyone out there reading this blog that YOU CAN see the Lolo people, and THERE IS a brand new road leading to Lung Cu.
Fortunately for me, I bumped into Johnny Nam Tram, the same motorbike tour leader that I had previously booked on a motorbike tour in Ha Giang back in March. Johnny was guiding two super cool english girls (one of which had actually interviewed Dave Grohl) who had booked a tour with him after reading about my adventure on Haute Culture Blog.
Map from Dong Van to Lung Cu
The Vietnamese army patrol this area throughout the day and want to see both your passport and Ha Giang permit (available for 220.00 vnd form the police station in Ha Giang city) on demand.
Where to Stay
Stay at one of the many hotels and guest houses in Dong Van. Going to Lung Cu is a day visit from Dong Van city. I didn’t see anywhere to stay in Lung Cu when I was there. Allow at least 1 hour traveling time in each direction.
- Redefining Borders and Identity: Ethnic Dress of the Lolo/Yi Across the Vietnam-China Border http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1910&context=tsaconf