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.

Snow in the Province of Ho Chi Minh’s Birth!

I saw this article yesterday and I was shocked: snow in Nghe An province in northern Vietnam. Nghe An is about 300 km south of Hanoi – and it has never even snowed in Hanoi!

I lived in and around Hanoi for many years, and we certainly had our cold periods each year – especially living in porous houses without heat. Trust me, it was cold!

See the snow!

I remember several Christmases we had when the temperature would dip to 10 C, and we would be huddled together with the biggest, thickest quilts you’ve ever seen. It felt like we were freezing, but of course, we were still 10 degrees away from freezing.

It’s not completely uncommon for Vietnam to get snow. The mountainous region of Sapa (where are my photos?) gets a dusting or so every couple of years. One year when we were still living in VN, the border town Lang Son got some snow up in the northeast region by China.

But Nghe An? What? That’s unheard of.

Nghe An is best known as the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, being born to meagre means back in 1890 – the same year my grandmother was born. (I don’t think they knew each other. Went to different school systems.)

I’m sure Ho Chi Minh (born Nguyen Tat Thanh) never saw snow until he moved to Boston by freighter. (Yes, he spent some time as a waiter in Boston at a hotel, strange as that may sound.)

It really makes me want to dust off my old photos and post away about all my Vietnam travels. What great times they were!

Just imagine all those great folks in Nghe An who are enjoying (or possibly not enjoying) the white stuff for the first time. A monumental day for sure.

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

I’ve had a lot of fun counting down my favorite Asian places. Once again, these are only places that I have actually visited. Many of you have offered up some other incredible destinations perhaps worthy of another list. I hope to get to them all some day. But on top of my list, and it will come as no great shock to anyone that knows me, can only be one place – the place I hold dear in my heart for many, many reasons – northern Vietnam.

I shall attempt in two blog posts to break down why northern Vietnam is my favorite. I realized that I couldn’t do it in one. There’s just too much information. So here goes.


This is where it begins for me. The Vietnamese people are precious and I have been blessed to know so many wonderful people. We lived in three different locations in northern Vietnam for a total of almost 10 years and in each place we had special friends and neighbors who always made us feel welcome. Let me outline a few of the types of friends and situations I am talking about.

Neighbors – A couple across the street from our house in Thai Nguyen had a small drink shop. I could pop over at any time just to chat. I remember one time in particular that I hate translated an English article about Vietnam into Vietnamese and I wanted someone to check my grammar. I walked right over and uncle and aunt drink neighbors were ever so happy to read my work, compliment me on my Vietnamese, and help me fix my mistakes.

Students – I taught hundreds of incredible students in my years in Vietnam. They made me feel too special, really, always complimenting me about something or other. Always wanting to do things together and, especially, always wanting to speak English. I do miss those incredible students who made my years so wonderful. I remember the times I would invite them to try pizza for the first time ever. Or we would invite them to experience a typical American Christmas. I had two students who took me by motorbike about 20 KM out of the city to find these scraggly old pine trees. They climbed to the top of one and cut me off the top, then they flagged down a bus and tied it to the roof, bringing it home to our house so we could have a real evergreen in our house. Truly special.

Strangers – Strangers were some of my favorite people of all time in Vietnam. Friendly doesn’t even begin to describe it. Once I got used to the ritual of tea, and I understood the language, there was no amount of time that I couldn’t waste. Countless times I would be invited by strangers, or sellers, or whomever, to just sit down and drink strong green tea with them. Not the whoosey kind of green tea you get in the west. This is the real stuff. Thick dark yellow that will burn a hole in your taste buds. Bitter as anything, and I miss it. I miss the random kindness of strangers.

Friends – I miss playing basketball with my friends there. I was so tall I felt like an NBA star. I miss the shoe shine boy in Hanoi who used to come around a couple times weekly and taught him how to play catch with a baseball and glove. I miss the talks and invites I would get to other peoples’ houses.

I love northern Vietnam for the people, and it that was all it had going for it it still would be enough. But I’m just scratching the surface here. I also love it for its places (the raw beauty is unparalleled – Sapa, Hoa Binh, Halong Bay, Cao Bang, Bich Dong, Hoa Lu, Huong Pagoda, Hanoi, Dien Bien Phu), its food (I miss bun cha!), and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I’ll touch on all of these in Part II.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took of the beautiful Vietnamese people.

A friend’s father saying some prayers.
altar prayer A bird catcher.bird catcher A friend on her wedding day.friend ngoc on wedding dayA friend who later became our landlord.
huong friend Friendly kids in the countryside happily pose for the strange countryside Working hard in the rice fields of Thai Nguyen. Tam Dao mountains in the distance.rice field workers thai nguyenSome of my students.


In Review:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, West Malaysia

4. Beijing, China

3. Siem Reap, Cambodia

2. Penang, Malaysia

1. northern Vietnam