Located near Ba Vi National Park, around 50km from Hanoi, the Vietnam National Village for Ethnic Culture and Tourism (VNV) is a world away from the daily grind of city life. Combining replicas of ethnic minority villages, a Khmer wat and ancient Cham temples, there is more than enough to see in this medley of monuments to make it worth a day trip.
The route to VNV is simple, and takes less than 90 minutes by motorbike with little traffic. The main highway to get there is a well-maintained stretch of tarmac, flanked by thick vegetation on both sides. This means you can spend more time appreciating the countryside, and less time scanning the road itself for potholes or homicidal bus drivers.
Arriving at VNV feels strange, as vast, vacant six-lane roads connect the highway to the VNV complex, where empty parking lots stretch out as far as the eye can see. We approach a large stop sign, where I expect the security guards to tell us to go home. Instead, we are directed to the left and onwards into the ethnic villages area.
Is There Anybody There?
Currently, 49 of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities are represented by small individual village reconstructions, spread across four zones.
As we enter zone one, the ghost town atmosphere thickens.
“Wow, the Hmong tribe! Their clothes have the most beautiful designs,” says my companion, before her enthusiasm is extinguished by the padlock on the Hmong house.
Several tribes and several padlocks later, and still without a single other visitor or staff member in sight, we come across signs of life.
In the Dao village, we find an open house, complete with rainbow bunting and national flag, flapping in the wind. After a Dao woman shows us how to cut wood for medicine, or tea, or neither, my companion tries to copy the technique.
“Khong, khong, khong,” says the Dao woman, taking the wood and knife to demonstrate again.
Giving up, we move on to another house, where we are invited in for tea. A Hanoian student, studying culture at university, joins our group and plays a song on his sao, a type of flute.
The Dao village elder then begins a song dedicated to Uncle Ho, played on a dan tinh, a stringed instrument, while his friends sing softly and jingle bells.
After leaving the ethnic village area, we come across a convincing replica of a golden Khmer wat. The illusion disintegrates as we get closer, and find lashings of gold paint and plastic, but it’s still impressive and good selfie material.
On the other side of the same area, an imposing replica Cham temple looms over the surrounding vegetation. It’s a taste of something otherwise inaccessible to those without the time nor money to travel south.
In 2015 alone, Halong Bay welcomed around 2.5 million tourists. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, VNV has welcomed around 300,000 tourists over the last six years.
At the time of writing, the VNV Facebook page has six likes, while their TripAdvisor entry has five reviews in total. This unfinished, ambitious project deserves more love than it now gets.
From Hanoi city centre, follow Tran Duy Hung southwest out of the city and continue along CT08.
Around 13km after passing Hoa Lac, the entrance to VNV will be on the right hand side of the road; a huge billboard in Vietnamese and English on a roundabout — you can’t miss it.
Photos by Julie Vola