One of the main charms of Sapa is its diversity of ethnic groups. The villages form a rich tapestry of cultures, stitched into the patchwork of mountains and rice fields. From the intricate embroidery of the Hmong women to the red turbans of the Dao and colourful headscarves of the Giay, these cultures bring colour and life to the beautiful landscapes of Sapa. We want to take you into the heart of these cultures, meeting and even staying with local families for an authentic experience of life in Sapa.
The H'mong are the largest ethnic group in Sapa, making up just over half of the population. They originally came from China but have lived in Sapa for the past 300 years. Their economy and livelihood come mainly from the cultivation of crops and raising livestock. They have mastered farming in the difficult, mountainous environment by cultivating maize, wheat and barley in terraced fields.
The Hmong are also known for their traditional clothing which varies between the different subcultures. The colourful and distinctive embroidery is hand woven by the women using traditional techniques. The colour and style of the turbans worn by the women also vary within the different subcultures. The black Hmong are known for their indigo-dyed hemp clothing whereas the Flower Hmong have a more colourful and extravagantly decorated style. It is amazing to see the time and skill that goes into creating each piece of the outfit.
Within the culture, it is important to show respect to the family and the ancestors through worship and traditional rituals. There is a patriarchal hierarchy within the family, and once married, the wife belongs to the husband's family.
Hai pu or wife robbing is a traditional practice within the Hmong culture. Young men and women tend to meet each other at social events, such as the market or at the bigger festivals. When a young man chooses a girl to be his wife, there is ceremonial kidnapping. The girl is taken to his house where she will stay for three days while they persuade her to get married. After the three days, she is free to choose to either marry the boy or return to her family.
Marriage is a remarkably close relationship within the Hmong culture. Couples spend the majority of their time together and complete the task of daily life as part of a team.
Much of the Hmong belief system is based on the worship of ancestors and different spirits, such as the house spirit or the midwife spirit. This practice is part of everyday life and forms the basis for many of the colourful festivals throughout the year.
The Dao ethnic group originated from China and migrated to the mountainous regions of northern Vietnam. The different subcultures of the Dao vary greatly in their customs and way of living. The White Pant Dao tend to live in the valleys and specialise in the cultivation of wetland, whereas, the Red Dao live higher in the mountains and farm on the rocky lands. Most people in the Dao ethnic group also raise livestock including chickens, pigs, goats, cattle and horses. Farming cotton is another popular job amongst the Dao. The cotton is hand weaved, dyed using indigo and then embroidered to make the traditional outfits.
The villages of the Dao ethnic groups tend to be small and the type of house depends both on the type of land and the type of cultivation. The Dao build both houses which sit on the ground and stilt houses. Some houses are even designed to sit half on the ground and half on stilts.
Each subculture of the Dao has a slightly different traditional attire, particularly distinctive is how each group wears their turban. The colourful hand embroidery of the clothing, which is common to most of the different subcultures, is a fascinating work of art. The embroidery features traditional motifs, and it can take hours just to complete a small piece.
The Dao have a strong belief system which is strongly influenced by Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. The Dao worship their ancestors and those who are seen to develop the community. There are many customs and religions within the Dao culture which are thought to directly influence people's lives. From the success of crops to a lasting marriage to the health of a newborn baby, many different aspects of life have traditional rituals that must be carried out to ensure a good outcome.
The Tay ethnic group are the second largest after the Vietnamese (Kinh). The Tay are thought to have arrived in Vietnam around the year 500 BC and settled mainly in the north of Vietnam. As a result of the large numbers and integration with the Vietnamese ethnic group, many Tay people do not choose to wear their traditional clothing, dressing instead in the more Western style worn by most Vietnamese people. Some of the more remote villages, however, still wear the traditional outfits of indigo-dyed cotton. The Tay outfit does not feature many decorations and instead has a simple beauty to it. The villages are usually made up of wooden stilt houses, which are built according to a traditional design. The Tay also have their own religion which comes with many different rituals and customs which must be adhered to in order to live a long and happy life. The Tays are mainly involved with the agricultural industry, in particular the cultivation of rice, but they also raise livestock and fish in lakes and rivers. You can discover all of this and more in the Tay villages of Sapa where you can meet the local people and share in a cultural exchange. There are two beautiful Tay villages in Sapa, Ho Village, which is 15km from Sapa Town and Ho Village, which is about 18 km from Sapa Town.
There are roughly 40,000 Giay in Vietnam, living mostly in the mountainous northern region. The villages usually have many houses either built on stilts or on flat land. Each house has three rooms, with the middle one housing the family altar which plays a central role within the family. The belief system of the Giay relies on the worship of both the ancestors and different spirits who are thought to have control over different aspects of life. The traditional clothing is usually characterised by a colourful shirt and head scarf for the women and a turban for the men.
The Xa Pho are one of the smaller ethnic groups of Vietnam with a population of around 4000 people. Most of the Xa Pho in Sapa live in Nam Sai Village, which is a particularly remote area. This means that the people of Nam Sai are relatively cut off from the rest of the world and still live a very traditional lifestyle. They mostly make their living from agriculture and handicrafts although there is little money to be made. Although the life may seem hard, the Xa Pho people are warm and kind and take joy in life's simple pleasures such as dancing to traditional drum music. The Xa Pho also have a strong sense of community, with resources often being shared throughout the village.