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Experience authentic Vietnam: Hill tribes and homestays

A fascinating country nestled at the edge of southeast Asia, Vietnam is an incredible melting pot - there aren't many places home to both thrilling ... Read more
Experience authentic Vietnam: Hill tribes and homestays

A fascinating country nestled at the edge of southeast Asia, Vietnam is an incredible melting pot - there aren't many places home to both thrilling megacities and vast swathes of rural countryside where remote hill tribes still thrive. Last year Vanessa from the KE office had the chance to experience it for herself - have a read of her account to find out why she thought it was just so special, and find out more about the many hill tribes and homestays to encounter on your next journey to southeast Asia. 



Vanessa in Vietnam & Laos

In December 2017, our intrepid KE expert, Vanessa Douglas, travelled to Vietnam and joined our Mountains to the Mekong trip, a walking journey which starts in Halong Bay and ends in Luang Prabang in Laos. Highlights include a unique 3 day journey down Laos’ Nam Ou river on foot and by longboat and also staying with remote hill tribes in Vietnam and Laos. Here Vanessa explains why homestays are such a special experience.

Spending the night in a wooden stilted house amongst some of the most humble people I have ever met was an absolute highlight of my experience with the hill tribes. 

Each tribe has its own clothing, accommodation style, culture and tradition with different festivals and rituals. There is so much to understand, to experience, to reflect upon. The Hmong and the Thai are two of the most densely populated ethnic groups and the two which our group came across the most. Staying with our Thai families my group and I were rewarded with a truly unique experience. We received a delightfully warm welcome to share their home and endless rounds of rice wine to toast at any opportunity.

Not to forget the countless smiles and hugs that they gave us all with abundance. The Thai villagers are mainly located in lands near a water source as their primary source of living is the cultivation of rice. We therefore stayed in traditional accommodation, wooden stilted houses which have two floors; the ground reserved for roaming animals as well as protection from flooding and the second as sleeping space. Perhaps to the relief of travellers, the arrangements have been amended to make a stay as comfortable as possible (although still basic). You cannot fault the hospitality; small changes have been made to the ground floor with a separate lounging area, dining table and chairs, charging facilities and even Wi-Fi throughout!

The Hmong people, on the other hand, live a more basic existence, most likely based on the fact that their settlements are on lands higher in the hills and it’s more remote. It’s an extraordinary culture and one that is lesser seen. We met a mother with child freshly dying an item of material to make her own clothes and on another occasion, we were invited into a gentleman’s home. In his eighties, he was keen to show us around his small, dark, tortoise-shaped house, full of flags for a good harvest.

Another time, we stopped to sit with some ladies enjoying their daily catch up while sewing amazingly colourful skirts! When was the last time you were invited by a host of strangers into their home? This was an amazing trip and I will always be humbled by the sheer kindness and friendliness of the people of the hill tribe villages. 

Find out more about Mountains to the Mekong



A mini-guide to the hill tribes of North Vietnam 

In rural Vietnam, each beautiful region is defined by the hill tribes that live there. As well as our Mountains to Mekong adventure, you'll explore the heartlands and meet different tribes by trekking in remote North Vietnam on our Secret Trails of the Tribal Heartland adventure, or by exploring Vietnam from North to South. Here's a mini-guide to introduce you to the wonderful people you'll encounter.


Tay villages are usually found at lower elevations and in the valleys. They are the largest and oldest of the ethnic groups and have generally adopted Vietnamese beliefs, such as Buddhism and Taoism. The Tay usually wear more modest clothing than the other hill tribes.


The villages of the Dao (or Dzou) people are found in mountain foothills and they usually build their houses on the ground, rather than on stilts. The Dao practise ancestor worship and traditionally dress in black, decorated with red stripes or bands of intricate weaving. In some areas, the Dao women shave their eyebrows and the hair above their foreheads, wrapping their long hair in a large red or black turban.


The Nung people are only found in the far northeast of Vietnam, living in small villages. Spiritually the Nung are most similar to the Tay, though most Nung villages still have a resident Shaman. The Nung are renowned for their handicrafts, which are generally made from bamboo and rattan.


Originating in southern China, the Lo Lo are a Tibetan-Burmese people of the Yi group. After being displaced from China in the 18th century, many of the Lo Lo clans chose to immigrate to Vietnam. The Lo Lo are one of the smallest ethnic groups, numbering under 2000. They generally wear black clothing, intricately appliqued with yellow, pink and green ribbons sewn into strips or geometric patterns.


The Hmong people migrated to Vietnam from China in the 19th century. The tribe is divided into many smaller subgroups: black, white, red, green and flower, each with their own subtly different dress. Hmong villages are usually found at higher altitudes, often clinging magically to the side of mountains. Traditionally White Hmong women, pictured above, would wear white skirts, but most now opt for the black trousers worn under a black apron, with black shirts and lots of silver jewellery.



Our top trips for experiencing homestays in the rest of southeast Asia




Explore the Mekong Delta from friendly riverside homestays on this cross-border adventure through the heartlands of southeast Asia. This action-packed two week adventure takes you through vibrant cities, lush deltas and dense tropical forests on a journey to discover not only incredible landscapes but the culture and history of a fascinating part of the world. 

>> Saigon to Bangkok - Mekong Explorer




Cycle through hidden trails in the jungle and swim in the clear waters beneath O’Malu Waterfall, while staying two nights in a local community project homestay in Chi Phat, home of the Khmer tribe. Known as Cambodia’s Wild West, for a long period, this village was closed to the outside world.

>> Backroads of Cambodia Bike




The Karen people’s agricultural way of life has changed little for centuries. Stay in Baan Mae Jok village where you will enjoy a welcome ceremony and learn how to walk in the jungle and spot wildlife. The next day travel down the river by bamboo raft between local villages.

>> Thailand Bamboo and Buddhas Family Adventure

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