I visited Northern Vietnam during Tet, lunar new year, which was in February this year.
My favorite place was Sapa, a town nestled in the mountains 30 miles from the border with China. We took an overnight train ride from Hanoi to get there, followed by probably an hour bus ride. The area around Sapa is breath-taking.
Terraced rice fields have been cut into all the hillsides, farmed by the hill tribes in the region, including Hmong and Dao. The Hmong were trained and used as soldiers by the US during the Vietnam War (or the American War as all our Vietnamese tour guides called it). After the Vietnam War, thousands of Hmong refugees came to the United States, to places like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison WI, LaCrosse WI, and cities in California. There are estimated to be 300,000 Hmong now living in the US.
These tribes were once nomadic, but the Vietnamese government has confined them to plots of land, where they now construct houses. Because of the climate, rice can only be planted and harvested once a year. In Southern Vietnam, they can have three harvests. Indigenous families still living in the hills around Sapa survive by sustenance farming and selling handicrafts to tourists, often a bit too…enthusiastically, let’s say. But it’s for their survival and the survival of their children. Our guide, who comes from the Red Dao tribe and still lives in her hill village, said reproductive education is basically non-existent, so, without knowing how to prevent pregnancy, families can grow too large to support.The Vietnamese government has built schools for the hill tribes and expects children to go, but farming and other more survival-based activities can often take priority over education.
Sadly, the villages we went to almost felt like a zoo maybe? Or a museum? Like it the tribes were on display for tourist reasons. Though it perhaps wasn’t as bad as the Long Neck tribes on display in Thailand–which is a completely different, terrible story.
Here’s an example of what seemed to me to be a typical house from a hill tribe village:
The terraced rice paddies and tribal villages:
For this post, I’ve focused on portraits of the women who hike miles in and out of Sapa every day to sell the things they made to tourists. On our hike to their village, we were followed by a group of women who were very nice and would help you (unnecessarily) on rocky parts of the path, ask you questions using the English they’ve picked up from other tourists, and give you little animals or flowers they’ve made from blades of grass. When you get to their village, they become…pushy, let’s say…in trying to get you to buy their crafts for really quite cheap prices (like $1). It can get tricky because if you buy from one, then the others also want you to buy, too, especially if they come from different families. What makes it even harder is that you know it’s about feeding their families and likely an outcome of having their traditional ways of life changed by modern influence and tourism.
Women wearing black outfits are Black Hmong; different Hmong groups have different colors: black, blue, green, white, flower. (I cannot guarantee I have all the colors of the Hmong tribes correct). Woman wearing red scarves on their heads are Red Dao.
A Black Hmong woman who dyes textiles using indigo. She uses beeswax on the fabric before dying to create patterns on the cloth, then embroiders the fabric. I bought a bag from her. It took her three weeks to make. Cost: $25.
A young family hiking to Sapa with their baby.
Our Red Dao guide, who was AMAZING. Such a nice woman and provided insight into the culture of the Hmong and Dao peoples and the history/politics affecting their lives. Also, tourists heading into Cat Cat Village, a Hmong village tourist town.
It takes years for a family to save enough money to buy a motorbike.
Our guide showing us the indigo plant, used to dye textiles
Red Dao and Hmong women hoping to sell their crafts to tourists in Sapa. They hiked miles from their hill villages to get there.
Hmong women following us from Sapa as we hike with our guide toward some of the hill tribe villages.
Though I will say things seemed better for these people than what I saw in Cambodia, which will be another series of posts.
If you would like to learn more about the Hmong history and people, here’s a great resource.