Photography

The tribes of Vietnam in pictures

By: Graeme Green - Posted on: November 16, 2018 | Culture & Life

Vietnam-based French photographer Réhahn is on a quest to capture the cultures of the country’s 54 tribes with his camera lens

In 2011, the French photographer who goes by the mononym Réhahn embarked on a project to shoot members of all 54 of Vietnam’s tribes. He’s currently up to 49 tribes, with plans to secure permits and photograph three or four more this year and the rest in 2019. He calls this project the Precious Heritage Collection, which goes hand-in-hand with the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum he opened in 2017 in his adopted home, the central Vietnamese city of Hoi An.

“Living in Vietnam gave me this great opportunity to start a long-term project. Because I live here, I can go almost everywhere to research these people,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. “I can stay a week with them and interview the chief of the village, chatting for hours, learning about their story, their culture, their traditions and textiles. The more you spend time with people, the more you’re able to capture their real personality in a photo.”

Réhahn’s current project has taken him across the country, entering villages, locating the chief (often with a translator) and gradually getting to know local people – from the O Du, the smallest ethnic group in Vietnam, to the La Hu, who were once renowned for their fierce hunting skills. The La Hu also have no written language, as Réhahn explained: “According to the legend, a group of scholars wrote down the La Hu’s ancient language on rice cakes… but the language disappeared when the scholars became hungry and ate them.”

Réhahn says he and his subjects often “become like a family”, and that he makes a point of giving back: “As long as photographers are doing business with their photos, either sales of prints, for magazines or for photo tours, giving something back should be done automatically.”

Réhahn met the Black Ha Nhi people in 2014, and came across them again while travelling in the Lai Chau and Lao Cai provinces in July 2017. Their cotton indigo garb is some of the most sophisticated of the northern region, and the one shown here takes up to six months to make, including the stunning large braids made of human hair
Lang Yen is a six-year-old member of the Bahnar ethnic group in Kon Tum, the capital city of Kon Tum province in the Northern Highlands. The city is remarkable for its spectacular communal houses, called Rong Houses, that are built at the centre of each village, with a roof that reaches 20 metres in height. The women are known for their extraordinary weaving skills, and are taught on traditional looms starting at age 13 or 14
Hmong woman Hang Thi Dinh, 92, talked and moved with the enthusiasm, vitality and humour of a young girl in Sa Xeng village. The Hmong have strongly embedded traditions, with sewing skills passed down through generations. The traditional Hmong dress is made from hemp that is dyed indigo before undergoing hours of custom embroidery
An elder from the Ede ethnic group in the Central Highlands city of Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak province, wears traditional Ede dress. The male garments of most ethnic groups in Vietnam are very simple, but the Ede version is filled with subtle details. This bright red design was traditionally worn by those with high social ranking
Ly Ca Su, 91, is a member of the La Hu ethnic group in northern Vietnam. The La Hu were once known as skilled tiger hunters, and their name translates as ‘powerful as a tiger’. They have no written language
Xin Thi Huong, wife of the village chief of the Pa Then ethnic group in northern Vietnam, offered to pose in her full traditional dress. It is a laborious process for Pa Then women to get dressed in these elaborate outfits
Réhahn met A Dip, 76, of the To Dra ethnic group, last year in the mountains 50km from Kon Tum. The To Dra are thought to be a subgroup of the Xo Dang ethnic group, but the To Dra say their traditions and dialect differentiate them. A Dip is the only artisan in his village who still makes bamboo baskets and the last who plays the traditional instruments of his people
An Phuoc is a seven-year-old girl from the Cham community in the village of Ninh Thuan who is now known as the ‘girl with the cat eyes’. Her paternal great-grandfather was French, which could explain her unusually blue eyes. The Cham are known for their pottery and silk weaving
Brothers Chu Van Nhanh, 83, and Chu Van Thin, 76, are members of the Kinh ethnic group, which resides in both urban and rural areas. The Chu brothers live in the small city of Ninh Binh in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam

Réhahn’s books include Vietnam: Mosaic of Contrasts (volumes 1 and 2) and The Collection, featuring 10 years of his photography. For more on his art, the Precious Heritage project, his museums or for prints of his work, visit rehahnphotographer.com. See more of his work and learn about his projects on Facebook and Instagram.

Graeme Green is a journalist, photographer and travel writer who has covered stories around the globe. See more of his work at graeme-green.com and Instagram.

This article was published in the November 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.