Vietnam has become a hotspot for international travelers who are seeking stunning landscapes, bustling cities that never sleep and charming colorful towns. But there’s another thing that’s become popular: visiting the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. Deep in the highlands, you can find over 50 distinct ethnic groups with numerous different subgroups. Each group has its own customs, beliefs, languages and cultural dress. But despite the fact that Vietnam’s tourism industry has rapidly increased and grown in the past year, and the country has now been ranked as a middle income economy, the ethnic minorities are often excluded from this affluence. The ethnic groups in Vietnam makes up just about 13% of the country’s population and it’s said that nearly 60% of those live in poverty. They also face discrimination from the rest of the population.
But what does that have to do with you, you might be thinking. If you want to be a responsible traveler, there are many things you can do. As a traveler, you have the power to decide where you’ll be spending your money for example. You’re also responsible for the way you behave and act. Visitors who has the chance to visit a village should try to make a meaningful connection rather than just take a photo and leave. The chances of it becoming a so-called “human zoo” makes ethnic minority tourism quite unethical. Although there’s many things that can go wrong with ethnic tourism, there’s equally as many things that can go right. There are different projects in Vietnam that focuses specifically on empowering the ethnic minority groups in Vietnam by allowing them to participate in the tourism projects. In Sapa for instance, there are women from ethnic groups who serves as tour guides and runs their own company. By choosing to go on a hike with them, you support both their business and the local community. That’s why it’s so important to choose wisely when you travel because every choice you make can either make a good impact or a bad one. There are a few ways you can encounter with the ethnic minorities without exploiting them.
Hike with the Hmong
As previously mentioned, there are now a few businesses that are run by the ethnic minorities. The Hmong are amongst them. In the far north, such as Sapa and Ha Giang, you can find the Hmong people who lives there. Since they are very familiar with the land, they make for excellent tour guides. Not only can they lead you through difficult pasts, they will also proudly talk to you about their culture, way of living and even show you their homes by the mountains. If you’re an avid hiker, do make sure to visit Mu Cang Chai and Ha Giang for breathtaking trails where you trek through villages and valleys.
Book a homestay
Skip the big chain hotels and the foreign owned hostels – go locally! A homestay is an excellent opportunity for you to both get up close with the ethnic groups in Vietnam and also live in a traditional Vietnamese home. By choosing a local homestay, you will contribute to the local economy and provide jobs. There are nowadays many homestays you can choose from and it’s a great way for you to give back to the community while traveling.
Experience traditional Yao medicine
The Yao are one of the first ethnic groups to settle in the northern mountain provinces of Ha Giang, Lao Cai and Yen Bai. Their agriculture developed over centuries and Yao medicine draws from the secrets of the land. The Yao people harvest many medicinal herbs that are used not only for treating illnesses and ailments, but also for therapeutic massages and herbal baths. So after your trekking or hiking, you can hop in to a herbal bath and soothe your muscles. It’s a must try when you’re in this region.
Be curious about their culture
The local people are friendly and warm towards foreigners so don’t be afraid to strike a conversation with them. Show that you’re interested in their culture and that you’re not just there to snap a photo and leave. This is one of the most respectful things you can do as a traveler, to engage with the locals and show them that you came to this region because you’re intrigued by what they have to offer. There’s been too many times where tourists just assume they can take a photo of everyone they see without even having asked them or striked up a conversation with them. How would you feel if there were hundreds of people every day taking photos of you? So if you’re going to be visiting the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, remember to always be respectful.
Before leaving to Vietnam, remember that you must apply for a Vietnam visa in order to enter the country. There are three options and they are: Visa on Arrival, E-Visa or the Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate. If you’re living nearby the Vietnamese Embassy, you can apply for a visa with them. But if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your home, you can just apply for a visa online. The Visa on Arrival and E-Visa are two excellent choices. You just need to fill out an online application form and follow the rest of the instructions. A few days later, the visa will arrive to your email. Do note that there are pros and cons with all the visa options. To ensure that you choose the one that fits you best, read thoroughly about each of them before deciding.