Shopping and Sleep Overs: Homestays with the Red Dao in Sapa, Vietnam

Rice paddy fields, Ta Phin, Sapa, North Vietnam

Rice paddy fields, Ta Phin, Sapa, North Vietnam

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. Continue reading

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