The Tribal Groups of Vietnam

If you haven’t seen this stunning collection of many of the tribal groups in Vietnam, please click HERE to see them. They are beautiful.

French photographer, and Hoi An resident Rehanh, is making an effort to photograph all 54 tribal groups in Vietnam, many of them on the verge of extinction with only a few hundred people remaining. I wholeheartedly support this effort of highlighting the lives and cultures of these special people.

In my ten years living in Vietnam, I had the privilege of coming into contact and learning about various groups. As is stated in the photo essay, many young people leave their culture and assimilate into the “Kinh” or as we know them, the majority Vietnamese people. I taught in the Thai Nguyen Teacher’s Training University for several years and there were students from many of the far-flung provinces who were ethnically not Vietnamese, and would go out of their way to hide that fact. Not that they were ashamed, but so they could compete with everyone else without drawing racial distinction.

This reminds me of a conversation I had in the province of Hoa Binh with a high school girl from the ethnic group the Black Tai. (Yes, related to the Siamese, Thai, Laotian, etc…) I was staying in one of their long-houses over night as their guest, and we chatted in Vietnamese about her prospects of passing the university entrance exams coming up. Yes, she was planning to travel to Hanoi, a big commitment for her family, and try to pass the exams. It would most assuredly give her more opportunities in life. But in that rather sobering conversation I had with her, she told me she didn’t have a chance when competing head to head with the students in the capital city. The Black Tai students have an arduous walk daily just to get to school, trekking up into the mountains until they come across the closest village school. Of course, even if they make the long journey to get to school, their facilities are poor and their teachers poorly trained. The Hanoi students will have much better schools, and even better “tuition” centers in the evening which help them study for the test. Still, even in the face of daunting odds, this young girl was trying her best. I couldn’t help but be moved by her determination.

It’s sad to see the dying out of cultures. It feels like we will all miss a little bit of the human experience when some of these groups finally succumb to the whims of time. But at the same time, I can’t blame anyone of the younger members who decide that city life gives them a better chance at a better life.

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #1 northern Vietnam (Part II)

In Part I of my post about my favorite place in Asia Part I HERE, I took the time to talk about the Vietnamese people who, indeed, make northern Vietnam a special place. But I felt I needed another post to round things out and highlight some of the other special aspects about this incredible place. Here goes.


Northern Vietnam is home to some of the most scenic places anywhere. Let me highlight a few:

Mountainous regions 

Sapa – an idyllic mountainous region in the northern part near the Chinese border. Breathtaking vistas, gorgeous valleys, and the charming and gracious ethnic minorities, who dot the countryside. Truly an unforgettable spot.

Cao Bang – mountainous peaks, terraced rice paddies, and the spectacular Ban Gioc Waterfall which separates Cao Bang from China. Spectacular.

Hoa Binh – About six hours west of Hanoi stands the towering hills of Hoa Binh, leading into the tall foreboding mountains of Lai Chau. This is one of my favorite places – staying in a house-on-stilts in a Black Tai village. Once again, spectacular scenery.

Ha Giang – More gorgeous mountains and hair-pin turns, plus when in season, stop and pick some oranges and enjoy the picturesque provincial town.

Thai Nguyen – my old home – take a two hour motorbike ride north towards Lang Son and stop at Phuong Hoang Cave. A rigorous hour hike up the mountain will reward you with sweeping views and the massive cave, complete with cathedral like ceilings that open into the sky permitting sunshine into the cave.


Dien Bien Phu – The one spot in northern Vietnam which has yet eluded me. I shall do my best to get there someday because it was the site of one of the most important battles of the 20th century. The Viet Minh trapped the French garrison in the valley, and when the battle was over, so was French colonialism. Vietnam had their independence, the first time an Asian country defeated their European oppressor.

Hanoi – Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in the world. The Old Quarter is chaotic and charming. You can visit Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh rose to declare independence on September 2, 1945. You can see the historic Hoa Lo prison, home to many Vietnamese patriots during French Colonialism and for American pilots during the Vietnam War. Visit the Hanoi Opera House modeled after the Paris Opera House.

Tan Trao, Tuyen Quang – A fascinating out of the way place which was the Viet Minh HQ during the summer of 1945 – the very summer that OSS paratroopers came in to train the Viet Minh to fight against the Japanese. Plus, it has the most amazing Banyan Tree you’ll ever see – clearly an inspiration to me as it is the centerpiece of my 3rd novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree, set to release in July this year.

Other Places:

Ha Long Bay – most likely the most famous tourist site in northern Vietnam. A spectacular part of the Gulf of Tonkin with limestone islands dotted throughout the region. A must see!

Phat Diem – a Catholic town – believe it or not  – visited by then Vice President Richard Nixon back in the 1950s. The main catholic complex has some fascinating architecture with a hundred year old cathedral.

Perfume Pagoda – a gentle canoe ride and a rigorous walk to enjoy some amazing scenery.

Bich Dong and Hoa Lu – the site of the ancient Vietnamese capital and the site of “Ha Long Bay on Land” – truly a special place.

If you get the idea that there are endless places to go in northern Vietnam, then you would be right.

Hop on a motorbike and explore. I’ll leave with with a few photos.

(Oh my, I realize I haven’t even talked about the food. Future post!)

Northern Vietnam – my favorite place in Asia.

lake thai nguyen mai chau rice field thai nguyen rice sheaths teaThac Ban Giochanoi opera house

Recap of my favorite places in Asia:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, East Malaysia

4. Beijing, China

3. Siem Reap, Cambodia

2. Penang, Malaysia

1. northern Vietnam