Learning creates will to return to Ha Giang
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In some ways I wished I hadn’t gone to the museum in Thai Nguyen city on the way back from Ha Giang Province.

A Hmong woman weaving cloth in Ha Giang Province - Photo: Michael Smith

I had wanted to learn about the people I had met in the Northwest but when I left the museum I felt like I’d squandered an amazing opportunity. I wished I’d stayed longer on Dong Van Plateau to discover more about the minority groups there. All I could do was promise to myself that I would return to Vietnam’s Northwest.

The Museum of the Cultures of Vietnam’s Ethnic Groups has displays of all the ethnic groups in Vietnam. A couple of days before I had spent a Sunday at the Meo Vac market and two days photographing the 100km loop of road that takes in Dong Van Plateau, so as I wandered around the museum I focused on the photos, artifacts and information that related to the people from that area in Vietnam’s far north.

The displays, particularly the photographs, piqued my interest in Ha Giang. Photos of the ethnic minority women from the Nung, Giay, Pa Then, Lo Lo, H’mong, Co Lao, La Chi, Dao and Pu Peo tribes that live there have been taken over the last 25 years. They show a colorful mix of cultures but I’d just glanced over it at the market. The museum photos also point out that the unique cultures of these tribes are being diluted.

On the Sunday, surrounded by unfamiliar mountain languages, I had been reticent to use my limited Vietnamese, so all I could deduce about the people was through observation. On top of that I felt self conscious because I was the only person at the market wearing blue denim jeans and a jacket and I stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only did I feel like an imposter from another country, I felt like an imposter from another time.

The men were wearing caps, indigo dyed tunics and loose trousers. The women were wearing colorful vests, skirts and headwraps. A lot of the common clothing items such as skirts seemed to be factory-made but still a good number were made the traditional way. Elaborate jewelry, chest pieces and gold veneered teeth were everywhere, particularly so on the older women.

Regardless of the many mass produced clothing items, nobody was wearing Western style dress, which meant that I had finally made it to the frontier. Hooray! But some kind of cultural sensitivity was needed, so I had put a cool/dull edge on my curiosity.

Later at the museum I dropped my pretence of cool. My face six inches away from the photos, I studied the amazing people and hill tribe customs of Ha Giang. The images and documents showed me there was much, much more to explore in Ha Giang than just market day. I yearned to return but also knew, despite the promises to come back, that the world is a big place with many distractions and there was a strong likelihood that the brief time I had spent in Ha Giang would be my last.

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