Bent double, holiday makers are helping to weed the mountain fields of wild rice. Chi Thi Vinh can’t hold back her laughter.
"Your movements are all wrong!" She teases pleasantly.
Even when labouring, this young Black Lolo wears her traditional dress of deep dark indigo, after which the tribe is named. Yellow, pink and green stripes brighten the sleeves; a pruning knife is strapped to her back. The only sign of modernity is her flashy plastic blue boots.
As the hours pass, the apprentice farmers are getting more efficient. Then as the sun begins to set around 5pm, they make their way back along the hillside path, surrounded by terraced paddy fields. It’s a scene from a picture postcard. Along the path, we exchange smiles with the Black Lolos but it’s difficult to engage in conversation. They speak neither Vietnamese nor Chinese (the Black Lolos fled China in the 18th century), having a dialect of their own. As one of the smallest of the 54 minority groups found in Vietnam, this Tibeto-Burman ethnic group have settled in the mountains overlooking the district of Bao Lac in the Cao Bang Province, near the Chinese border. Today they number nearly 2,000 and 300 of them live in the village of Khuoi Khon which used to be surrounded by a tiger-inhabited jungle.
Between hikes: Weaving or a Nem workshop
Tourists stay in the house of the Communist Party secretary, where toilets and showers have been built. We sleep on a mat in the main room. On a shrine, amidst family photos and artefacts related to animism (the belief in a soul or spirit that animates living beings and the natural elements), stands the portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnam’s Socialist Republic. Not far from here is the winding colonial road 4 where, in October 1950, the French army suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh.
Lights out at 8pm. Then at 4am we’re awoken by a strange alarm: the staccato of the hostess Li Thi Boun’s knife chopping grass for the pigs, directly below the stilt raised house. The total immersion tourists are still sleepy as they set out on the hike, followed by a weaving or nem-making workshop.
"Making a dress requires a whole month of work,"
says the beautiful Tuyen, recently elected "Miss Ethnic Minority" in Hanoi, the capital of the Socialist Republic, situated a day's drive away from Khon Khuoi.
After a week’s stay, in spite of the huge cultural difference, a close bond is created with the Black Lolos. As a symbol of sustainable tourism, part of the holiday price is donated to the “Tends la main (Reach Out)” charity, founded by the famous French Rugby player Frederic Michalak. Already this has been able to finance a children’s nursery.
Nomade Adventure offers a fourteen day stay in Vietnam, five of which are spent with the Black Lolos.