Referred to as the “Tonkinese Alps” Sa Pa is located near the boarder of China and is known as one of the hidden jewels of North Vietnam. It is the kind of place you see in those addictive brain twinkie internet viral posts, “30 places to see before you die!!” But this is justifiable for two very good reasons. The first being the gobsmackingly beautiful scenery; lush green rice paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see. They overlap in surreal tier formations, covering the mountainous peaks that reach high towards the sky. Secondly, you get the rare opportunity to meet the culturally rich hill tribe population; the Black Hmong and Red Dao people have a strong visual presence in the area. Wearing and sewing their much admired handicrafts, they live in nearby family villages and can be seen everywhere from selling in Sapa Square to collecting fire wood in the forests. I went to Sa Pa on two separate occasions in the Spring of 2014. I spent one the night at a Red Dao homestay enjoying their cheery and welcoming hospitality, and the rest of my time learning all I could about the textiles, jewellery and costume that makes them so famously recognisable. Reading time 12 mins or scroll to the bottom of the post for my travel tips and advice on Sapa and homestays.
“Where you staaay?” “Where you staaay?” “What’ss your naaame?” “You buy from meee?”, “What’ss your naaame?” “Why you noo buy from meee???”
This is the intense greeting you can expect to receive as you step off the mini bus and onto Sapa’s P Chau May road, the main thoroughfare in town. Hmong women line the streets waiting to bombard the next delivery of unsuspecting wealthy tourists. Being touted before you even step onto solid ground can be very overwhelming and often give you the wrong impression about a place, but bare with it. My tactic for dealing with this anywhere is always; smile, don’t make direct eye contact, collect my bag and head to the nearest café with Wi-Fi (which there are plenty of in Sapa). After you dodge the crowds and check into a hotel you can take some time to potter around and make plans for the next few days. Over 3 nights and 4 days my friends and I normally decide to shop, spa, hike and hire a motorbike.
Sapa town is the first place I have ever been that brought my interest in cultural costume to life. From any point in the town you can look out in all directions and see a moving montage of red, black and green uniforms. It’s a bit like being in a real life Where’s Waldo picture. Images of people wearing glorious, vivid, and elaborate costumes are no longer fictional faces flat behind a screen, they are now stood in front of me shoving their wears under my nose for closer inspection. These people are extremely saavy at selling their souvenirs and I am extremely happy to go along with it.
It quickly becomes apparent that many of the hill tribe people have an adequate command of multiple languages; French and English are widely spoken. Surprisingly Vietnamese is only spoke by local business owners, and the minority people themselves have their own language with different tribal dialects to communicate in. Unlike most visitors who are there to buy a bed spread, bag and the compulsory traveller bracelet, I knew straight away I wanted to experience wearing a whole outfit and in the process spend more time talking to the women who made them. So with that in mind I skipped the retail shops and headed straight for the street stalls and market.
Sapa market is full on
With a cornucopia of options and low prices, stallholder’s competitive emotions can range from exotically charming to desperately forceful. It’s hard to know where to look when every direction you turn comes with the Sapa mantra “you, buy from meeee?? iiiiii giiive yooou dissscount!!” I finally settle down to talk to a couple of Red Dao women making jackets and bags on their foot peddled sewing machines. They try and sell me another bag. I politely decline and I explain that I am more interested in what they are wearing instead of selling. Intrigued by my request, one of the ladies pulls out 2 big bags from under the table filled with the traditional clothes they sell to each other. With a embroidered jacket in one hand and tassles in the other she smiles and say’s “you tryyy??” Cha-Ching! There’s a unanimous feeling we both hit the jack pot.
1 hour later I am dressed head to toe. The women are impressed by my dedication to replicate their look as authentically as possible. I bought the entire costume for just under 2 million dong. This included leg wraps, trousers, apron, jacket, shawl, sash, neckpiece, headscarf and a multi layered headdress. All with a mixture of hand embroidery, tassels, beads and aluminum embellishments.
There are many different Red Dao minorities in Vietnam, most of the women in Sapa are from the surrounding villages of Ta Phin. They wear huge majestic head dressers that are made from piles of red rectangular fabric. They fold the fabric diagonally into triangle over the back of the head (a bit like a turban), and then secure it tightly with a ribbon. The wearer then stands up and the layers of fabric are pulled back over the ribbon to reveal the face. From behind, the headdress shows all the inverted triangle layers cascading down the back. The edges are trimmed with a white boarder and decorated with silver coins, tassels and beads. Tribes from different villages vary their headdresses with different embroidery, pompoms and bells. “Why are some women’s head dresses bigger than others”, I asked . The women on the market laughed out loud and replied “it shows how many husbands they’ve had”. I don’t know if they were joking but I also found out that when a girl receives her first headdress around the age of 13 this signifies she is ready for courtship. So I’ll get confirmation of that on my next visit.
Another important visual attribute to the Red Dao appearance is the removal of eyebrows and hairlines from the face by plucking. This is recognised as a sign of beauty in their culture.
Despite the variations in head dressers the Red Dao can be predominately identified by their clothes. Traditionally the garments are made from a black cloth and always feature red, white and yellow embroidered boarders of flowers, stars, and stick men and women (this represents mother and farther). The designs are based on cosmology and a pantheist belief system that nature is the totality of everything.
Trekking to Ta Phin
Ta Phin is the most famous Red Dao village for textiles, the women in this village always have a needle and thread in hand and never seem to stop sewing. New community projects in the area mean that they now successfully sell their traditional hand woven brocade and embroidered designs all over Vietnam and beyond.
Located within walking distance from Sapa, Ta Phin is about a 15-kilometre with some easy hiking. It takes us a leisurely 5 hrs absorbing the atmosphere, breaking for lunch and chatting with the locals. Our guide tells us many interesting facts along the way; which streams provide fresh drinking water, how to make a woven love heart decoration from grass. Why eating spiders is the preferred method of suicide amongst hill tribe people. That the women grow hemp for clothes but men grow weed for getting high, and my personal favourite, how girls get kidnapped by boys to force them into marriage! You know, all the juicy stuff your don’t read in the tourist leaflet.
The views were incredible, the sun was at zenith and along the way we are joined/harassed by a group of Red Dao women trying to sell their souvenirs. I notice that all the women are wearing a special set of earrings. There’re circular hoops made from thick silver with a decorative arrow pointing in the centre toward the centre of the ear lobe. “That’s so pretty” I said. Before I knew it all three women had taken their earrings out and were trying to sell them to me. One lady must have ground me down for about 2 kilometres before I finally handed over £30 for 1 silver earring. It that was covered in dirt, wouldn’t even fit through my ear piercing and I couldn’t be sure it was real silver. But I can’t grumble, the risk paid off. I have since had it cleaned, my ear stretched and now I wear it nearly every day. It’s one of my most distinctive and admired pieces.
I can only describe my homestay experience as a complete pleasure, it is honestly one of my favourite moments living in Vietnam. The little farm was nestled at the top of a hill in a small cluster of homes. It was a big open plan wooden barn with lots of plants, trees, chickens and piglets. The whole family were there to welcome us. The mother, daughter and sister all spoke basic English and offered us and drink and snack on arrival. There was an adorable little boy who instantly made friends with my holographic leggings, and the women set straight about helping me stretch my ear with a needle and thread to accommodate my new earring.
There were many highlights but my favourite memories were having a homemade fresh herb bath and looking through the family photo album over a huge dinner and lots of “lucky water”.
Red Dao herbal baths are famous for their relaxing and medicinal properties and although often imitated around Vietnam they are never duplicated like the ones you get in Sapa. You sit in big wooden barrels filled with hot red tea made from a freshly cooked concoction of leaves collected from the forest. My friend describes it at having the ability to soothe away any aches, pains and worries in about 5 seconds flat. Maybe the hot herby steam gets you a high, Im not sure. But it’s awesome. You come out feeling squeaky clean and like a new person inside and out.
After sitting in the garden watching the sunset behind the hills and feeling truly blissed out, we were called to dinner. The tables were joined together in the centre of the room and we sat down to a home grown feast. A delicious selection of chicken, vegetables, pork, potatoes and rice, all washed down over the course of the evening with home made rice wine aka “lucky water”. Everyone got involved and as the wine flowed so did the conversation. It goes dark at around 5:30pm in the mountains and what felt like the early hours of the morning actually turned out to be only 10pm. We went to bed that evening full of fresh air, yummy food and merry memories.
How to get to Sapa
1. There is no train station in Sapa, I have only ever taken the overnight sleeper train which departs from Hanoi train station at 8:30pm and arrives in Lao Cai City at 5am in the morning. Tickets cost around $50 one way , tickets must be booked in advance the train is always sold out. You can purchase tickets from the station or a local travel agent in the old quarter. There is normally around 50 touts waiting for your at the Lao Cai exit trying to sell bus tickets to Sapa for around 50.000 – 100.000 vnd. From my experience if you include waiting time and drops offs this will add another 2 hours hours onto your journey.
2. As of August 2014 a new super speedy highway has opened up a direct route from Hanoi to Sapa. Apparently this only takes 4 hours by car and 6 hours by coach. Sapa Express offers this for service for a mear $17.50
Where to stay
I honestly cant remember where we stayed in Sapa town. There are guest houses and hotels everywhere for around 300.000 vnd £9 or $15 more or less.
Our homestay came recommended from someone we met in a cafe. We actually booked at the tourist information center at the top of Sapa Square. We booked a 2 day hike with 1 night homestay for around 1.000.000 vnd (including all food and drinking water) and stayed with a family through the Ta Phin Community Project.
What to expect from a home stay
1. Electricity is usually only on for a few hours per day, if at all.
2. Basic accommodation, expect an open plan dorm style room in a barn or out house. Mattress is often on the floor.
3. Bugs, you are normally in the countryside so take mosquito repellant.
4. Bathrooms are very basic, squat toilets and cold water troughs with buckets for bathing. Take your own toilet roll.
5. You eat dinner with the family.
6. Being woke up at 6am by cockerels/pigs/kids.
Is a Sapa Homestay for you? Travelfish
Homestays and trekking in Sapa Worldly Nomads
Ta Phin Community Project Ta Phin Sapa
Red Dao Costumes Global Wanderings
Things to Know about Sapa Grrrltraveler
Red Dao Craft in Ta Phin Craftlink