The history of the northwest is a separate saga from that of lowland Vietnam. The Vietnamese traditionally steered clear of the mountains, as the unforgiving terrain was not seen as suitable for large-scale rice production. For many centuries the area remained inhabited by small groups of minority people who were later joined in the 19th century by new migrants from Yunnan, China and Tibet. For much of the 19th century this was the badlands, a sort of buffer zone between China and Vietnam where bandits roamed. During Ho Chi Minh’s leadership of the north, the Vietnamese experimented with limited autonomy in ‘special zones’, but these were abolished after reunification.
Life for the minorities has been hard, as their most profitable crop is opium, which doesn’t go down well with the Vietnamese authorities. Educational and economic opportunities have been more limited, and creeping Vietnamisation of towns and villages is only likely to make things worse. Ironically, it is tourism in centres like Sapa and Bac Ha that is finally bringing an independent income to the minority people.