With the introduction of our newest Sapa journeys in Vietnam’s famous mountain outpost, ‘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.
Among Sapa’s valleys and mountain villages live 8 distinct ethnic minority groups, usually in fairly homogeneous communities made up of a particular ethnic group. The locals in these communities work their land, tend to their families and gather with friends all within a stone’s throw of their homes – migration is usually only to a neighboring community or, for children, to the nearby school.
Crops become food, livestock become working animals or meat, and textiles and handicrafts become clothing and household goods – villages are often self-reliant and speak distinct ethnic languages different from so many other locals living in the Sapa countryside.
Only on certain occasions will ethnic minority locals mingle with the other communities in Sapa – mostly because a rendezvous with another community can sometimes mean hours of walking along demanding mountain trails and remote roads. The pilgrimage to mountain markets, though, is a necessity at times.
While so many villages rely almost entirely on their own crop yields and livestock, the needs of their communities are sometimes met only with goods from areas further afield. Sapa’s famous mountain markets emerged from this local demand – and have since become one of the area’s most colourful and vibrant cultural experiences.
A Migrating Marketplace
Villages in the mountainous Sapa region are often separated by miles of treacherous terrain, sloping valleys and steep mountains. While one community may have no difficulty reaching a certain marketplace, others would have to travel for hours just to reach these areas.
With so many communities scattered across such a great distance, Sapa’s market culture has adapted to meet the area’s particular geographical demands. Rather than having a central, single marketplace where all communities gather, the markets migrate on a daily basis – with a new market emerging in a certain area for each new weekday.
Some markets are small, and nestled into small mountain outposts that can only be reached by tiny trails. Others gather in bigger towns and are more centrally located, with thousands of ethnic minority locals gathering to trade goods and stories. The largest (and most famous) emerges each Sunday in the town of Bac Ha.
The otherwise sleepy area rustles to a different level of liveliness every weekend, where more than half of Sapa’s ethnic minority communities in 10 nearby villages gather to sell textiles, rare mountain pepper, vegetables and even water buffalo. Most will skip between their ethnic mother tongue and Vietnamese – the common language among most of the locals here.
The People of the Market
Even in the hustle and bustle of the market, the distinction between the ethnic communities is clear in Bac Ha. Ethnic tribes here wear distinctive clothing and speak different dialects. The result is a dizzying and beautiful kaleidoscope of cultures, each with it’s very own colours, hues and shapes that set them apart.
The Flower H’mong people are easy to recognize. Just like the name suggests, Flower H’mong locals wear dazzlingly colourful clothing that’s adorned with vibrant beads and stitching. Since Flower H’mong textiles are so brightly decorated, they are also a favourite among visitors on the hunt for souvenirs.
Just like Black H’mong locals, the Flower H’mong hand-stitch a large portion of the textiles sold in the market. These textiles sometimes take days or weeks to complete, so their higher pricetags match the effort that goes into each piece.
The Black H’mong are close relatives of the Flower H’mong, but have their own distinct clothing and customs. The Black H’mong are most easily recognised by the iconic black and blue hues of their clothes, made by soaking cotton for nearly a month in dye made from indigo leaves.
These leaves create a deep blue and even black colour cloth, which local women will adorn with bright cross-stitching and red strips of cloth.
The Giay are descendant from ethnic communities that migrated from China only two centuries ago, and still borrow much of their culture from Vietnam’s northern cousin. The Giay wear vibrant, bright colours like the Flower H’mong, but usually in large blocks of hues rather than an intricate mix.
The Giay are a relatively small percentage of the ethnic minority locals that live in Sapa, but have some of the most distinct and fascinating history and culture. In some villages like Lao Chai, the Giay ethnic group lives alongside the H’mong.
The Tay is believed to be the oldest ethnic minority in Vietnam, and their long history in the country means that the Tay people are often indistinguishable from ethnic Vietnamese locals. Like the Black H’mong, the Tay dye their traditional clothing with indigo leaves, but rarely add additional decorative elements like stitching.
The Tay do, though, use bright elements of silver in their traditional dress – and you’ll likely find plenty of this beautiful silver being sold throughout Bac Ha Market.
Pronounced “zao”, the Dao people in Sapa wear some of the region’s most colourful traditional dress. Embroidery on indigo-dyed cotton is common in Dao clothing, but the embroidery features distinctive star patterns and women wear bright red or black head scarves. Sometimes, these decorative “turbans” are adorned with bells or silver.