“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.
Rhianna eat your heart out, Vietnamese women have been doing this for time love. It is reported that in the north, gold teeth are an orthodontic adornment acquired once a year during Tet holiday (new year) as sort of tribal talisman. A superstitious investment to symbolise prosperity and good luck for the forthcoming year, just like how the Black Hmong in Sapa believe a similar idea and make a brand new set of clothes each year. Originally once upon a time only married women would wear gold teeth (in the sentiment one would wear a wedding ring) therefore when she smiled you could see if she was available or not. Golden grillz today have been adopted more as a fashion trend by the younger hill tribe massive. The sparkling smiles are no longer made of real gold but out of a cheaper aloy metal that both protect teeth from decay and act as a seduction technique to the opposite sex. Nearly 50% of the women at Meo Vac market had a set of golden gnashes and now you know why.
Meo Vac market is only 20km from Dong Van via the Ma Pi Leng pass, and is inhabited by the ethnic families of the Black Dao, Red Dao, Hmong and the illusive Flower Lo Lo. Early in the day I saw one Black Dao women at the Dong Van market selling handmade incense and papers and I was immediately intrigued because I had never come across a photo of this sub division in my research. At Meo Vac a couple of the ladies kindly satisfied my curiosity. Closer inspection reveals the textiles identifiable features are panelled and appliquéd sleeves in principally primary colours on a black base, with satin embroidery stitch along the cuff. Simple geometric cross stitch patterns run down two central panels on the front of the mid length black jacket which is then tucked into black trousers and finished with a blue sash tied around the waist. Women also wore a silver chain bolo tie embossed with the symbol of the sun.
Meo Vac market was also a popular meeting point for Red Dao people. This community of the ethnic minority were dressed more smartly and simply than the pom pom tassel wearing Red Dao of Sapa. The Red Dao of Meo Vac wear a minimalist and modest ensemble consisting of a black, long sleeved, thigh length, collarless jacket, that wraps to the left. Trimmed on the edges in red fabric applique with glimmers of white, green and blue details and secured with a belt made from pieces of silver triangles. The head scarf is decorated with the same silver triangles as seen on the belt sewn along a fluorescent straight stitch embroidered panel, with the loose treads draping down the back. The most surprising element of styling I noticed was the clean crisp classic shirt collars worn underneath the jackets, ranging from neon yellow, baby pink and pale blue. The Red Dao of Meo Vac were the most happy people to have there photographs taken and always wanted to see their picture after the shot.
Ma Pi Leng Pass
Tribe tracking aside the journey from Dong Van to Meo Vac takes you along the 20km road named the Ma Pi Leng pass, which happens to be one of the most jaw dropping stretches of natural landscape in the world. The road hairpins down the mountains precipice overlooking the vast never ending skyline of mountain peaks. Kissing the clouds and looking down at the corn covered valley below, you feel like you are driving along the highway to heaven. It is as dangerous as it is both daunting and beautiful, for every split second you take your eyes off the road to bear witness to your phenomenal surroundings you are about 3 meters away from certain death. I have never felt so alive in my life, so I drove it 3 times.
The Ellusive Lo Lo
I went to Meo Vac with high hopes of seeing the Flower Lo Lo people in cultural costume. It turns out that those days never even existed. The Lo Lo people have their own village only 100 meters from the market but only wear their costume for very special occasions 2 of 3 times per year. I went back to Meo Vac days later and stayed in a LoLo run guest house for 3 nights to secure the deal. If you want to see the Flower LoLo in costume you will have to book a prearranged tour or do what I did and spend a few days in the village negotiating with the chief. Full story to follow shortly.
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How to get there
If you want a motorbike tour (highly recommend) contact Jonny Nam Tran from Ha Giang Rocky Plateau contact (+84) 978159123, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Read my blog post SEQUINS, MOTORBIKES AND MOUNTAINS: THE BEST OF HA GIANG IN A WEEKEND when I took a tour with Jonny.
Driving by yourself? Dong Van to Meo Vac Map
Where to stay
On this occasion we drove back along the Ma Pi Leng pass and stayed in Don Van, there are plenty of guest houses along the main road through the town for 200.000 vnd per night ($10)