Next stop Sa pa / by Neil Alexander

North Vietnamese children by Neil Alexander

After Ha Long Bay we blasted back to Hanoi, stopping on the way to shoot some farmers in their paddy fields, and jumped on the overnight sleeper to Lao Cai. The journey takes around 9 hours, but the train only covers around 200-250km, so as you can imagine it just trundles and bumps along at a rather lethargic pace, but it’s a lot quicker than using the roads and can provide a little rest if you manage to get a bunk. After transferring to Sa pa which is in the Sa pa district of Lao Cai province and dumping gear at the hotel, we headed for a walk down the valley to Cat Cat village and our first introduction to the Vietnamese H’Mong people.

There are 5 subgroups of H'Mong people, Black, White, Flower, Green and Blue. Since their migration into the area from China in the 19th century they have been generally excluded from mainstream Vietnamese society and represent the poorest of Viet communities living in the highest altitudes. They're typically noticeable by the brightly coloured costumes that mainly the women wear. They also tend to adorn themselves with many large silver necklaces, earrings and bracelets.

Chillis by Neil Alexander

The north of Vietnam has a real ruggedness and primitive infrastructure which offers a real contrast for those who want to discover the less well travelled areas of the country. The country is home to around 50 different ethnic groups, and the majority of the ethnic minorities live in the hilly regions of the Northwest of the country. Many of the groups in this region still favour their extraordinarily colourful traditional dress, whereas in the more central and southern areas of the country a more casual approach is now often adopted. They also tend to adhere to their inherited rural agricultural lifestyle, which combined with their appearance can make for some remarkable imagery. The paradox of this spectacular and unspoilt region is that the people and the infrastructure are becoming increasingly reliant on tourism for support, which ultimately will lead to a watering down of the uniqueness that gives this place it's draw.

More often than not upon arrival on the outskirts of the villages, you'll be presented with hand made wrist bands, and colourful bags, dresses and scarves. They clearly understand that these visitors to their lands have significant means available to them compared to their own meagre subsistence and their persistence in trying to sell you these beautiful trinkets can be quite draining.

H'mong woman by Neil Alexander

The source of these items is unclear as we did not see any signs of manufacturing on any kind of scale, although our guide reassured us that they were in fact made by locals in other villages. Usually it'll be the children who are sent out to great inquisitive tourists, and their comprehension of the English language is quite exceptional. When questioned as to the source of their learning, they reply that they've learnt everything they know from tourists which is quite a feat considering their age, vocabulary and lack of any formal schooling. Often in these situations, and especially when you're there to try and capture the imagery of the people and their environs it's all too easy to begin to take pity on these folk and feel that you are obliged to buy whatever is presented to you. Especially when you're lugging around a DSLR or two, which would cost more than these people would see in their entire lifetime. I did on a few occasions buy trinkets for gifts, but in these situations I often feel that I can do more capturing good captivating imagery that can be used to assist them on a longer term basis by raising awareness and providing others with a reason to go see for themselves. After a 4km stroll and lunch with accompanying delightful local music and dance, we slowly returned to Sapa taking the opportunity to shoot whatever presented itself on the way.

The next day we visited the Can Cau market, which is a place that very few tourists go, mainly because the road is so awful even by Vietnamese standards. Saturday (the day on which we went) is the main day for the market. The people come from far and wide and most seem to make a full day out of it. Enjoying the nightlife and social aspect as much as the basic trading of goods and wares. However the sights, sounds and smells were in such rich abundance that photographic opportunities abounded. The diversity of the ethnic groups provided a real visual delight.

Next stop Saigon...