Sapa is picture-book Vietnam, with an ancient history. Here’s what you should know about the fascinating ethnic minorities of Sapa for your next trip!
Sapa Vietnam is a mountainous North-Western region. The rolling mist gives way to a tumbling landscape of rice-terraces and plunging valleys. They are punctuated by the technicolor garments of ancient human settlements; some dating back thousands of years. Revenue increased thanks to a recent influx of tourism and investment has regenerated parts of the town. It has also threatened the age-old traditions and customs of the land’s native people. They are forced to adapt to the pressures of the modern world. Here’s what you should know, and look out for, about the fascinating ethnic minorities of Sapa!
How Diverse is Vietnam?
Surprisingly for such a small country, Vietnam is home to a total of 54 ethnic groups. The most dominant by far are the Kinh people, who account for roughly 86% of the population. Due to its vast, mountainous surroundings, and proximity to China, Sapa is the only place in Vietnam whose dominant ethnic minority is not Kinh. The majority of citizens in Sapa are Hmong and Dao, who account for over 70% of Sapa’s population. The last four groups only comprise more or less than 1% of the town’s population – that’s pretty small. We distinguish these fascinating groups by their colorful, and often intricately designed clothing which identifies one group from another. Nowadays, it is common for minorities to sell their woven fabrics in many markets around Sapa. Locals export and sell those materials for a fortune abroad. So, make sure you pick yourself up the real deal!
The Resilient Hmong
We can find Hmong, as the largest ethnic group in Sapa, all over the town. But particularly in Cat Cat village, where we identify them by their distinctive indigo-dyed hemp clothing, often embroidered with decorative geometric patterns. It was during the tumultuous 18th century that the Hmong began to migrate from China to Southeast Asia due to political oppression from the Qing Dynasty. They fled across the region to as far as Myanmar, yet have managed to keep hold of many of their traditional beliefs and practices.
Black Hmong, in particular, are renowned for their beautiful fabrics and clothing. They sell them at the many markets which Sapa is famed for, particularly the enormous Bac Ha market. Market lovers be warned – January in Cat Cat village sees the annual Gau Tao festival, where revelers come together when the farming is quiet and ask for happiness and longevity. This is a spectacular tradition to watch. Lucky visitors may be dragged along to join in ritual archery, horse racing and various dances, much to their collective amusement.
The Ancient Dao
The Dao’s scarlet turbans set them apart from Sapa’s other minorities. These can differ between Dao subgroups to include silver coins or even frivolous yellow pompoms. The Dao also originated in Southwestern China, where they were known as the Man or Yao people. The Dao also had a terrible time with the Qing dynasty, migrating across Southeast Asia as early as the 12th century. Their culture, especially their writing system and religion, have been strongly influenced by their Chinese heritage. The modern Dao have adapted to their surroundings, cultivating paddy-fields, and breeding livestock. Check out the Tet Nhay Festival, held annually on 1st and 2nd of January in the village of Ta Phin. You may be able to pick up a pair of well-known hand-made brocade shoes.
The Innovative Tay
In Vietnam, the Tay’s are the second largest minority group after the dominant Viet, despite representing less than 2% of the total population of Vietnam. Their approximately 1.7 million residents mainly inhabit the southern Sapa region, particularly Ban Ho, Nam Sai, and Thanh Pu villages. The traditional dress of the Tay people is much simpler than that of other minorities, comprising of hand-woven indigo material with no or minimal patterning. Their houses, however, are much less simplistic. Built to protect the community from the wild animals prowling the region, Tay houses are built on stilts two meters from the ground. Tay people often open their homes to visitors as homestays. They are very hospitable.
The Mysterious Xa Pho
The Xa Pho people are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Vietnam. Estimates put their arrival to Sapa Vietnam at around 200 to 300 years ago. However, whereas the Hmong and Dao arrived from China, the Xa Pho came from the southern islands of Asia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. The Xa Pho reside far away from the rest of the settlements in My Son Village. They’re subsistence farmers, making a living planting dry plants such as corn, potatoes, and cassava, as well as breeding cattle. Their national dress is comprised of dark indigo cloth jackets and skirts, adorned with embroidery and panels of reddish seeds manipulated into the shape of stars. Their biggest festival is the village-cleaning festival. They usually celebrate it around the Lunar New Year.
Sapa Vietnam Travel Tips
As the old saying goes, ‘when in Sapa, do as the Sapa’ns do’. This means dressing modestly, removing shoes when necessary (particularly before entering homes) and asking permission to take photos. Basic gestures such as these show respect to the locals and don’t go unnoticed.
To have the ultimate experience in Sapa, arrange a homestay in Sapa Vietnam with a local family, where you will relax, eat, and sleep amongst them to get a true flavor of their lifestyle. Many locals wait at Sapa bus station to offer their homes to weary guests. They offer the chance to assist in preparing and cooking the meals, as well as cultivating the land. However, having a backup plan is recommended. For a great homestay experience, check out The Little Hmong House; a well-renowned homestay that has all of the modern conveniences of a hotel, including Western and Vietnamese breakfast options and Wi-Fi, but staffed by Hmong locals and housed in a traditional wooden house! Who says tradition has to be uncomfortable?