The Sapa Tribes:
By Nicoletta Baeva
For today’s Tribal Tourism series, we are taking you to Vietnam 🇻🇳. With over 50 ethnic groups residing within its territory, Vietnam is a country of great cultural and linguistic diversity. Ethnic minorities in Vietnam are mostly hill tribes inhabiting mountainous regions with high altitudes. Particularly, the Sapa area, located in the province of Lao Cai, in the northwestern part of the country (close to the border with China), is a center of Vietnamese tribal culture. According to worldtravelconnector.com, meeting Vietnamese tribes in Sapa is one of the most interesting things to do in Vietnam. There are four main ethnic groups residing in Sapa: the Hmong (52%), Red Dao (25%), Tay (5%) and Giay (2%) . Besides that, residents include minor percentages of the Muong tribe, the Tay tribe, the Hoa tribe, and the Xa Pho. Interestingly enough, besides its own unique culture, and historical background, each hill tribe in Sapa has its distinctive language. This was confirmed by a friend of mine, who, during her visit to Sapa (with the aim to gather information for her thesis research), shared that she could not understand the locals as a native Vietnamese speaker. According to her, the Tay could speak well Thai, the Hmong and Muong could speak well Cambodian and many could speak Chinese (Javier B., 9th Dec 2020, personal communication). It is said that the hill tribes settled in Sapa due to the fact that the Vietnamese from the lowlands (better known as the Kinh) did not colonise the highest valleys.
A bit more about the main tribes in Sapa:
H’MONG tribe: With origins from China, the H’mong people came to Vietnam 300 years ago. Unfortunately, due to their literacy being low, there isn’t much written history of Hmong people in Vietnam. Thereof, Hmong tradition and stories are passed down through rituals and legends. Vietnam’s Hmong society is patriarchal, meaning that each Hmong village has a chief head of the village who takes care of all arising issues.
Tay tribe: Having come to Sapa about 500 BC, the Tay people are the largest ethnic minority in Vietnam making 2% of the Vietnamese population and according to worldtravelconnector.com they are the most integrated ethnic minority in modern Vietnamese and Kinh culture. Astrology is an important part of their belief system. So much so, that they consult astrology when it comes to marriages and constructing new houses.
Red Dao tribe: This tribe is the second-largest ethnic minority in Sapa district and one of the most distinctive Vietnam tribes. They are also called ‘Jungle People‘. Their unique belief system includes elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. When choosing a place for a house, they dig a hole and fill it with rice. The rice represents family members and all their possessions. Another interesting fact about the red Dao is their distinctive clothing: a distinctive red triangular shaped turban, decorated with silver coins and red tassels. The square piece on their clothing meant to symbolize that they are children of God.
Giay tribe: Their customs are influenced by Chinese culture. However, they also speak the Thai language. The Giay people are well known for their five-colored steamed sticky rice symbolizing the five elements of Nature: earth, water, fire, wood, and metal.
Nowadays, Sapa welcomes a wide range of visitors, attracted by the hill tribes, scenic rice paddies and mesmerising forests. According to responsibletravel.com , one can listen to folk music in local homes, witness traditional Tay and Dao dance, stroll around village markets and help local families with gardening and taking care of domestic animals.
Considering its small size, there are quite some accommodation options in Sapa. The majority of accommodation caters to locals and backpackers. Hotel prices in Sapa are considerably cheaper as compared to large cities, thus a comfortable guest house should be within the budget of most visitors.
Sapa is also a great place to opt for a homestay, as there are many options to do so. This type of accommodation is perfect for experiencing the local way of life. The hosts are usually curious to learn about you and share their stories over a delicious home cooked meal. Nowadays, There are many Tour Operators that offer all inclusive homestays in Sapa. One thing to consider is that Tour agencies have been known to take excessive profits from the local people. Booking through an NGO might be a better option. There are quite some NGOs in Sapa, offering treks and homestays that support the community. Organisations like Sapa Sisters, Ethos – Spirit of Community and Sapa O’Chau offer experiences that provide fair salary and opportunities to locals. They also work on other community development initiatives in the region, therefore your money goes directly to the local people. You can read more about trekking & homestays in Sapa here.