With the introduction of our newest Sapa journeys in Vietnam’s northern mountains, ‘Portraits of Sapa’ explores this magical town through the stories of its people. Home to dozens of Vietnam’s most colourful ethnic minorities, sleepy hillside towns and vibrant valley markets, the rustic allure of Sapa is still alive and well in the local communities that make it unique.
Even in the famously rustic town of Sapa, the tiny mountain village of Lao Chai looks like something out of a different era. While tourists in the city centre carry mobile phones and browse the internet on their tablets, this quiet mountain community just a stone’s throw away relies on candlelight and manual labour to survive. The homes here are built of hallow bamboo or wood and boasting little more than a packed dirt floor and a small, firewood stove.
But what Lao Chai might lack in creature comforts it more than makes up for in diversity and cultural vibrance. Lao Chai is one of the few remaining strongholds of Sapa’s traditional ethnic communities. Workers in the rice fields still don traditional clothing, local H’mong women still wrap their long hair in silver pins and the sound of ethnic language still rings louder than Vietnamese or English. In Lao Chai, the two most prominent ethnic groups live harmoniously despite different dialects and cultural customs. The metaphorical glue that holds this diverse community together is the fertile valley and agriculture that sustains them all.
Only 2% of Sapa’s population come from the Giay ethnic group, and so it can be tough to discover much about this fascinating community that emigrated to Vietnam from China only two centuries ago. A majority of Vietnam’s Giay group live in more northern provinces in the country where stilted houses (the traditional-style home) is common even now. In the sunny and fertile Lao Chai village, though, Giay homes have adapted to be closer to be only one story, usually with a simple interior in a dirt floor.
Distinct from the H’mong communities they live alongside, the Giay wear relatively simple clothing that boasts splashy, vibrant colours but less ornamentation than H’mong textiles. Thanks to their geographic roots, a whole host of Giay cultural elements feel distinctly Chinese, with the group’s clothing and cuisine borrowing flavours from Vietnam’s northern cousin. In Lao Chai, the Giay sustain their livelihoods and health in much the same way as the H’mong – by raising lifestock and tending to endless rice terraces and mountain fields.
The Black H’mong
Making up a significant part of Sapa’s ethnic minority population, the H’mong community in Lao Chai is one of many scattered throughout the town’s verdant valleys. The Black H’mong are a distinct community within the larger H’mong ethnic group – so named after the deep indigo dye used in nearly all of their traditional clothing. Green, blue and purple is highlighted with splashes of red – and the Black H’mong’s uniquely vivid textiles have become a favourite element in souvenir shops and markets throughout all of Vietnam.
Black H’mong communities remain deeply traditional, with men and women often getting married as young as their mid-teens. It’s not unusual to meet a local H’mong villager of 25 that already has a handful of children – made even more astounding by the fact that many H’mong communities have few traditional forms of income. Instead, most families live off of the land and rely very little on income from selling textiles in local markets. Only when buying livestock or home goods will Black H’mong families need money – most (if not all) of their food comes from their crops and animals.
Explore a traditional Giay home, stay with a Black H’mong family and discover the quiet charm of Lao Chai Village on a brand new Muong Hoa Valley of the H’mong trekking and homestay experience.