CAT CAT, Vietnam -- Northern Vietnam's minority Hmong tribe here in
Cat Cat village is escaping poverty and isolation by cleverly
marketing their lush mountains and waterfalls, rustic village
lifestyle, vivid traditional weaving and other tourist-friendly
   Their tribal tourism venture near the rugged mountainous border
with China is one of the newest and most successful attempts in
Vietnam to profit from a nationwide tourism boom.
   Cat Cat village's name is said to be a mispronunciation of a former
French colonial description of the location's "cascade" waterfalls.

   After languishing for generations in a steep valley, Cat Cat is now
busily decorating its meandering dirt footpaths to become a sort of
rustic, bamboo-and-wood, ramshackle strip mall for tourists.
   Vietnam's capitalist-minded Communist Party government is boosting
Cat Cat and other tribes' tourism strategies, partly to integrate
ethnic minorities into mainstream society and also benefit from
projects which lure tourists to neglected areas.
   "The ethnic minorities have a unique cultural heritage, and
therefore can sell their handicrafts to earn an income and it's ideal
to sell directly to tourists," said Richard Owens, an ecological
anthropologist who worked for several years with tribes in northern
   "The Vietnamese government encourages [tribes'] market activities
and cultural traditions that are aligned with the Communist Party.
   "These include songs, dancing and traditional religious practices
that are internal," Owens, an American, said in an interview.
   "The rural economy needs to expand as the population grows."
   Selling traditional fabric, clothes, carvings, implements and other
locally used items to tourists also keeps creative skills and
heritages alive.
   "If they can commercialize their handicrafts they can continue to
persist," Owens said.
   "I suppose in the process it will have to mutate the trade craft a
little bit. It might go so far as to become meaningless tokens of
their culture. I think this is always the case."
   Even if the result becomes an ersatz, simplified version of ancient
designs, it still enables tribes to make money instead of remaining
   The Hmong (pronounced "mong") are especially dynamic in their
effort to transform Cat Cat into an attraction for tourists who can
visit on an easy daytrip from nearby popular Sapa town.
   On the road approaching the village, a government-run checkpoint
instructs vehicle passengers to disembark and pay a "Discovering Cat
Cat" entrance fee of 50,000 dong (about $2.30).
   This includes a colorful map revealing the village's narrow "stony
path and stairs" which meander for a few miles up and down the valley
in a spaghetti of directions.
   The routes curve past wooden homes, recently built cafes, makeshift
souvenir stalls, a boutique hotel and other facilities amid forests,
rivers, small waterfalls, and walkable suspension bridges.
   The map and signs posted along the way invite people to see a
"shaman's house," "mud wall house," "linen weaving area," "old
village," "Hmong traditional house," and "Hmong Cat Cat essential oil
workshop" plus scheduled performing arts and the local primary school.
   Many tourists, especially Chinese, enthusiastically rent male and
female ethnic Hmong clothing plus a pink parasol for the day, so their
selfie photos will make them appear as if they are a member of the
black-clad tribe.
   The entrance ticket suggests this as fun and displays a picture of
two female tourists in tribal gear shooting a flash-photo while
standing on a waterfall's rock.
   The ticket also requests visitors in the "Cat Cat tourist area, a
paradise to travel and explore," to "please respect our local customs.
Please no money or candy for children."
   At one wooden shop, an English-speaking Hmong woman, Ms. Lee, sells
dark blue cloth illustrated with white designs printed from
hand-carved wood blocks.
   "We make this cloth from hemp and dye it blue," Ms. Lee said.
   She displayed the process by taking a very long stalk of dried,
locally grown hemp and, using her fingernails, splitting it into
several thin vertical strands.
   "We weave these together," she said, standing next to a metal
barrel filled with dark blue liquid dye.
   Inside her nearby wooden home, she pointed at various artifacts
including a rectangular piece of paper which had nine chicken feathers
pasted to it.
   "We Hmong make one of these every year to give good luck to our dead family."
   Further along the trail, other stalls also sold indigo-dyed cloth
next to souvenirs brought in from Sapa.
   New clusters of stalls were being hammered together from wood and
corrugated metal sheets.
   Coca-Cola, grilled chicken, corn on the cob, coconut juice and
similar treats nourished visitors next to waterfalls and other scenic
   Cat Cat is a couple of miles from Sapa, a modernizing mountain town
offering twice-weekly outdoor night markets dominated by women of the
Hmong and Dao (pronounced "zow") tribes.
   They are distinguished by their predominately black or red attire
and, to differentiate them from sub-tribes, are often referred to as
Black Hmong and Red Dao, also known as Red Zao.
   Hmong and Dao women and children bring their brightly patterned
textiles to Sapa from surrounding mountain villages and sell directly
to tourists.
   On a recent night, up to 10,000 Vietnamese and foreign visitors
swarmed the tiny temporary market, rummaging among items laid on the
street and sidewalk while fiercely bargaining.
   The women also display commercialized, non-traditional goods
illustrated with tribal designs including backpacks, handbags, pillows
and toy animals.
   Many of the market's women wear headbands equipped with battery
powered miner-style lights on their foreheads, so they can show people
their products in the darkness, or sew while they wait for customers.
   Most of the world's 12 million Hmong live in China, where they
originated, and also dwell in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar
   Others have migrated to France, the United States, Canada,
Australia, French Guiana, Argentina, New Zealand and Germany,
according to Minh Phuong Luong's report in the Hmong Studies Journal
which is supported by the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul,
   Vietnam's one million Hmong are the fifth largest group among 53 minorities.
   "In comparison with other minority groups in Vietnam, the Hmong
have been assessed to
be the most economically vulnerable with the highest poverty rate, and
the lowest
educational achievements," according to 2011 statistics, Ms. Minh wrote.
   Starting about 300 years ago, "when the Hmong immigrated into
Vietnam, the low-land and advantaged regions were already occupied by
other ethnic groups. Hence, the Hmong had to settle in the rugged
uplands, where transport and development were extremely limited.
   "The Hmong often located their villages in dispersed areas
stretching along mountains or river terrains or in forest edges," she
   Most of Vietnam's Hmong live in the mountainous north which also
shelters the country's scattered pockets of Dao.