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Natives of the North

The hill tribes in Vietnam’s Sapa highlands

Posted on 7/26/2016 12:47:00 PM in Traveler Insights

Climbing from the valley floor into the mountains, terraced rice paddies are a “photographer’s paradise” in Sapa.

Inside Scoop readers may remember Howard A.’s previous stories about his Inside Vietnam adventure—weasel coffee, anyone ?—and here he returns to share insight about his optional pre-trip extension to visit the hill tribes of Northern Vietnam. This article originally appeared in Howard’s local paper. If you’ve written about your trips and would like to be reprinted in The Inside Scoop, we’re all ears at [email protected]

By Howard A., 18-time traveler & 10-time Vacation Ambassador from Ashland, MA

My wife and I recently spent a month in Vietnam and were impressed by the robust economy we witnessed in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Da Nang and Nha Trang. The economy is now growing at a rate of 7% annually! If there is such a thing as 100% employment, it has to be here. Although there is poverty in the countryside, economically this Southeast Asian tiger nation is awakening. With 92 million industrious people, and now the world’s 33rd-largest economy, Vietnam is the world’s #2 producer of both coffee and rice; a formidable presence in agricultural products; and rapidly expanding in the areas of textiles, fishing, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and shoe manufacture. For the “high-touch-off-the-charts-experience” however, I recommend a visit to the “frontier” areas where you can meet and interact with Vietnam’s tribal ethnic minorities in their villages and homes.

Be Prepared

If you are beginning your trip in Hanoi, I strongly recommend a visit to the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology. Here you can familiarize yourself with the history, locations, traditions, and cultures, of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities, giving you a context for what lies ahead. Although the hill tribes are scattered throughout this 1,000-mile-long country, our tour took us to Sapa in the remote northwest mountains, near the China border. At 4,920 feet above sea level, it is a strikingly beautiful area with shimmering green sculptured rice terraces and a small vibrant town center. Because of altitude and tropical climate, both fog and mist roll in and out, giving Sapa an ethereal feel.

Get There and Go with the Flow

The best way to reach Sapa from Hanoi is by taking the overnight train to Lao Cai (8 hours), and then taking a 50-minute bus ride from there to Sapa. An “overnighter” on the old train and the ride on the local bus are unique experiences unto themselves.

You will see many different tribal sects upon your arrival in Sapa. We were fortunate enough to meet a young Flower Hmong woman in ceremonial dress at our hotel. She was a local guide, spoke excellent English, and was absolutely beautiful in her formal costume with its intense colors and beaded headdress.

Accommodations are limited in Sapa, and do not expect high end hotels. You are in a very remote and undeveloped area. Lodging and dining choices are moderate, but adequate. If you need that “extra-dry-decaf-double-cappuccino-with-skim-milk-and-brown-sugar”, return immediately to Lao Cai. You got on the wrong train. Spend half a day walking around the town and people watching. This will be your first exposure to the colorfully dressed tribal people whose villages you will be visiting. Due to its remoteness there are no crowds here and very few tourists. Women from many different tribes dressed in native attire mingle with travelers as they go about their daily business, carrying both babies and hand-woven baskets on their backs. They are very friendly and will want to sell you the textile bags and embroidered purses that they made. These are beautiful and inexpensive, and a one-dollar item will represent hours of handicraft. Their approach is not overly aggressive, but can be assertive. If you indicate that you are not interested, they will not hound you, so relax and enjoy the interaction.

We were there in the winter season (November/December) when neither planting nor harvest is underway. Selling goods is their winter job, and, relatively speaking, a vacation for them. From spring until late fall they will be working from sunrise to sunset in the rice fields.

First Things First

A “must do” during your first day here is the outdoor Sapa Central Market. This is where locals shop, and it is here you will see the amazing variety of fresh ingredients and spices that make Vietnamese food so delicious. Don’t be startled if you see dog carcasses hanging in the butcher’s area. Dog meat is a common delicacy in Southeast Asia. Forget the stories about finding dog in your dinner as a substitute for chicken or beef. Dog meat is the most expensive animal protein in Vietnam, and at twice the cost of the highest grade beef, it would never be substituted for either.

There is also a large evening market on the main square in Sapa with perhaps 75 stalls, selling local products, clothing, jewelry, and handicrafts. It is here that you may find that unique souvenir or gift to bring home. On the evening we were there, the fog and mist rolled in and out and blended with the sounds of the local musicians and colorfully dressed people of several tribes, creating a truly unique atmosphere. Relax and enjoy. You are totally safe here and will find the Vietnamese people friendly and welcoming.

Your Village Visits

The hill tribe villages are on the outskirts of town amongst the rolling hills that define this region. This is a hiker’s and photographer’s paradise, providing panoramic views of brilliantly colored farm fields and meticulously terraced rice paddies. Getting there on your own is impractical, and you can’t just “drop in.” Villagers are busy with home, family, and their daily work activities. Your O.A.T. Trip Experience Leader has “connections” and can arrange tours that include home visits and discussions with the families, village elders, and tribal leaders. You can visit a school and meet with the teacher and children. There are eight different indigenous tribes living in this region. Several half-day tours allow you to visit the villages of different tribes. This is not “tourist” stuff. Being a long way from any major city, difficult to reach, only those interested in a unique experience are willing to travel here.

The Various Tribes and Some Basic Information

Although the men generally do not dress tribally, women do. Because of Sapa’s secluded location, dress here is not yet westernized. Each tribe wears its own unique clothing as well as distinctive headdresses, blouses, slacks, and jewelry. Large and sometimes intricate hoop earrings, silver necklaces, and gold-capped front teeth are popular. The Red Hmong women shave the front portion of their heads and their eyebrows, and wear beaded hair extensions. The Black Hmong wear black or striped headdresses and adorn their hair with silver jewelry. Red Dzao like gold-capped front teeth. If you observe carefully, you will soon be able to make the distinctions.

Almost all clothing is handmade from hemp, dyed using locally grown plants and herbs, and embroidered with decorations. Most of the more demanding physical work is done by men. Women are responsible for almost every facet of agriculture including planting, maintenance, and harvesting. Additional responsibilities include the making of clothing, and managing the home and children. Young children and seniors help with the lighter work in the home. Like everywhere else in Vietnam, everybody works. Four generations living under a single roof is common, and “family and community” is the focus of daily life. Marriage rituals vary from group to group, but the Astrologer is a key factor and always involved to assure that the horoscopes are properly aligned. This is common in many Southeast Asian countries whose religious origins are tied to Confucianism and Taoism from China, as well as a strong tradition of Buddhism.

Your “National Geographic” Experience

We visited the villages of the Black Hmong (Lao Cai Village), the Giay (Ta Van Village) and Red Dzao and Red Hmong (Ta Phin Village). You will not find laptops, smartphones, or flat screen TVs here. Phrases such as “Google”, “Facebook”, “Lady Gaga”, and “selfie” elicit puzzled looks. They do have electricity and bottled propane gas, but due to cost, much of the cooking is done over an open fire. Cute, free-roaming potbelly pigs come and go as they please.

Word of your arrival will spread quickly throughout the village, and soon you will have many new colorfully dressed lady friends both young and old. Some carry tribally dressed babies on their backs. They will escort you and display their handmade textile crafts. They are friendly and not aggressive, and are very much a part of the experience. Children arrive along the way and join the troop. You will enter the tin-roofed home of a local family and have the opportunity to meet the members and discuss any aspect of their work, family, religion, medicine, or culture that you wish. Your new chaperons will wait patiently outside.

You will see handmade farm and carpentry tools and kitchen utensils made from previously used items. Nothing here is wasted. Additionally, these tribal groups are well respected for their knowledge of traditional medicines. As a result of their geographic isolation, traditional medicines play a key role in protecting the health of the community. They are able to successfully treat illness with plant and herbal remedies that have been passed down from one generation to the next.

With as many as a dozen new friends to buy from, the choice is difficult. Instead of favoring any one woman, at the end of the visit each member of our group made a $10 contribution and asked our guide to have it split equally among the “sales ladies.” A contribution as small as this goes a long way in a place where rice sells for a few cents a pound. Giving the money in this equitable and respectful manner will help these people significantly—and bring impossible to forget smiles from impossible to forget faces.

You can experience all of this first hand when you join the optional Hill Tribes of Northern Vietnam extension of Inside Vietnam. Get a glimpse of what awaits on this extension in our video:

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