The manic energy of construction in the north-west Vietnamese town of Sa Pa is a stark indicator that this is a culture in transition – and it’s happening fast. The town is in an area that today is home to minority tribes – the Black H’mong, Red Dao and Tay, among others.
Setting off on a multi-day trek into the bush we see the first rice paddies are overlooked juxtaposed by a soon-to-open 500-room hotel. Once the terraces start proper, however, they form a textural ripple that runs down hillsides, the lesser slopes of a mountainous landscape that stretches far away west to the Himalayas.
Far from the untouched wilderness of New Zealand’s South Island, the backcountry of Vietnam leads one through village to village in the Lào Cai province. Trails pass women working the fields, men breaking rocks and smiley-faced children rolling a scooter tyre along the track. The only time the small wooden huts, yellow-painted government buildings and endless industry of hand-to-mouth agriculture are not in view is when the valleys are shrouded in dense mist.
Nature’s cloak, which settles often in a landscape where the mean monthly humidity hovers around 80%, hides many anomalies: a place where village homes still have dirt floors and an open fire to cook over yet many boast a television; an area that relies on the tourist dollar, yet plastic bags and first-world detritus litters the countryside; a country where entrepreneurialism is everywhere yet communism still has an insistent daily presence.