Located in the Sa Pa region, the village of Lao Chai is a popular and picturesque rest spot for tourists trekking onwards to the village of Tavan.
Vietnam – Long Read

Colorful costumes and picturesque rice farms

Photo by Sergi Reboredo

Vietnam – Long Read Colorful costumes and picturesque rice farms

Hello Vietnam, where the town of Sa Pa in the north is home to many different groups of the Hmong people. Their colorful costumes and picturesque rice farms have made them a visitor attraction, but can they preserve their way of life in the face of so many tourists?

Pim Verweij
Pim Verweij

Sa Pa, high in the northern mountains of Vietnam, is full of visitors. International travelers, mostly young, in a rainbow of hi-tech clothing walk the main streets and browse the shops and market stalls. Among them are the colorful handcrafted costumes of the people whose home they are here to see, the Hmong. In the central market hall, I see diligent locals behind hand-cranked sewing machines working on their handicrafts, every now and then holding up goods to potential customers as they pass by. It is as if time has stood still here for many years.

Around me, tourists are taking close-up photos of the local people. Most of them just continue doing their work, seeming not too bothered by the constant pointing of lenses. Only a few approach the tourists, holding out handicraft purses, bracelets and pillowcases for them to look at and hopefully buy.

“Hello sir, what you want to buy?” I turn around and look into the wrinkled eyes of an old Hmong lady showing off her handicraft. “What is your name? Where do you come from?” I’m surprised that she can speak English. Later I learn from Shu, founder of one of the few locally-owned travel organizations in town, that despite their illiteracy, most can communicate fairly well with tourists. “The Hmong are farmers and most never had a fair chance to go to school. Even though they are very willing to learn, most young people only attend primary school in their village.”

Shu’s travel organization, Sapa O’Chau (which means “thank you” in the Hmong language), now includes a secondary school, run by international volunteers. “Now my people have the opportunity to learn how to both read and write in English. Most people you meet in the street can only speak it.”

The Hmong in the market wear primarily black or dark blue outfits. “The women here bring their finest clothes when coming to the market, which for them is an important meeting place,” says Pang, a young Hmong tour guide. She tells me that the women make their own clothes from woven hemp fabric, colored with indigo. Additionally, the sleeves and belt are embellished with embroidery. Pointing at her own outfit, Pang says: “It can take up to two months before the embroidery of one costume is finished. Every family has its own traditional style.”

Their clothes are made by machines

She belongs to the so-called Black Hmong, the most dominant group in Sa Pa. In neighboring villages there is another group called the Flower Hmong. “In contrast, they wear more colorful dresses and headwear similar to the Miao ethnic groups across the nearby border with China. But their clothes are made by machines, not by hand like ours.” says Pang. The Hmong are part of the Miao, with a shared history going back thousands of years that sets them apart from the majority of Vietnamese. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, those differences saw the Hmong suffer years of discrimination and other problems as Vietnam reshaped itself.

Among the women in black in the market, I see some with shaved foreheads, wearing prominent red headscarves, as well as glittering silver necklaces and ornamental coverings of old silver French pennies and little silver bells. These are women from the Red Dao tribe. “The value of their costume, passed down from mother to daughter, can run into many thousands of dollars,” says Ms Thao, from Community Based Tourism (CBT) Vietnam.

It is remarkable that they walk around in such valuable clothes, given that poverty is still a major problem among Vietnam’s ethnic groups. Less conspicuous is a woman of the Ha Nhi, moving through the market like a dark shadow in her black clothes, complemented by blue accents. “While the Hmong and Red Dao live in villages near Sa Pa, the Ha Nhi come from the more remote areas around both sides of the border with China,” says Ms Thao.

I continue exploring the town with Pang. As we walk across the central square, I see a small white church looming out of the mist. Patches of fog are pushed up from the valley below. The damp-darkened tower of this gothic Catholic church seems shrouded in mysteries of the past. Pang tells me it was built by the French in the 1930s. Ethnic groups have inhabited the area around Sa Pa for centuries but the town itself was established in 1909 by the French colonial administration.


Initially, it was a health resort for the French elite exhausted by a long stay in Vietnam. The bracing climate of the hill town was beneficial in treating all kinds of disorders. Much of it was destroyed during battles against the French in the 1940s but it was rebuilt and has gradually transformed into a tourist town after Vietnam opened its borders to foreigners in the 1990s. It reminds me of a ski resort in the Alps, and many hotels have wooden balconies with wonderful mountain views. The clean fresh air and the incoming wisps of fog interspersed with bright sunlight make it unlike any other place in Vietnam, where heat and humidity are the norm.

While Sa Pa can no longer be considered a small hill station, with the church one of the few remnants of those former times, I do find some other memories of the past. Some crumbling French colonial villas still stand among the three- and four-story concrete hotels and guesthouses. As we continue our walk, we also pass a long stretch of local sellers offering all kinds of merchandise: dried herbs and mushrooms, homemade honey, flowers, and birds in small bamboo cages. These products are not meant for tourists, and I see only local people buying them.

This market area flows seamlessly into the main street, with its restaurants, street food, hotels, noisy bars, massage salons and mountain equipment shops, but there seems to be an invisible dividing line. Here, business goes on as if nothing has changed, while the rest of the town has transformed into the bustling tourist destination it is today.

Four seasons in one day

To enjoy an overview of the town, I make my way up to the Ham Rong Mountain, a 20-minute walk from town. After a challenging climb, passing a stone formation called Sa Pa Heaven Gate, I reach the viewpoint on top. I’m amazed by the views of the Muong Hoa Valley, with its bright green rice terraces. Suddenly, heavy clouds pour over the skyline to hide the view, while the temperature drops by 15 degrees.

Eddy, a local entrepreneur who has been living in Sa Pa for many years, is standing nearby. He tells me that Sa Pa can have four seasons in one day: “Cool spring in the morning, sunny summer in the middle of the day, cloudy autumn in the afternoon and cold winter at night. In the coldest days in winter, you may even see some snowflakes falling, which is very rare in Vietnam.”

I decide to descend, leaving the cold behind me. Eddy points out the many construction sites on the hills around Sa Pa. “Until two years ago, we had only modest hotels,” he says. “But now they are building a new five-star hotel. And up there, there will be a cable car direct from Sa Pa to the peak of Phan Xi Phan (Fansipan, the highest mountain in South East Asia at 3,143 meters and the last major peak of the Himalayan chain before it reaches the sea). This all comes together with the new highway from Hanoi, which was opened only two months ago.”

The cable car will cut the trip to the top of the mountain from a two-day hike to a 20-minute ride, and the cost includes threats to the area’s delicate ecological balance. Deforestation is already threatening the environment here and more attractions will bring more visitors and even more problems.

The ideal getaway for lovers

Travel agencies in Vietnam now promote Sa Pa as the “ideal getaway for lovers, married couples or families”, aiming at domestic rather than Western tourists. Sa Pa’s economy is flourishing, but I begin to wonder if the town can cope with the fast-rising influx. At weekends, when many Vietnamese visit, it easily becomes overcrowded, with all the problems that entails. I encountered one of them this morning when I tried to take a shower, but found there was no water. “This happens every weekend when all the Sa Pa hotels are full of visitors from Hanoi,” says the hotel manager, apologizing. “We have the same problem with electricity here.” In the evenings, the power cuts in and out. Then there is the constant noise and dust from the convoys of trucks that pass my hotel every day on their way to the construction site for the new five-star hotel.

After a few days in Sa Pa, I notice most Vietnamese visitors spend their time shopping and dining in town, while Westerners prefer taking a local guide to hike down to the villages of the lower Muong Hoa Valley. I decide to follow in their footsteps, so the next morning finds me slithering and stumbling on small muddy tracks amid the steep rice paddies. Pang tells me I’m doing reasonably well, but when I see the Hmong skipping down the muddy path, carrying heavily loaded baskets, I am not so sure. Fortunately, she allows me to stop for a photo every now and then and the panoramic views are a chance to rest as well as a reward for my battle against nature. As far as the eye can see, there are fresh green rice paddies, sometimes hidden in the mist. A local farmer plows his paddy with a water buffalo, mothers carrying babies on their back stoop to plant rice, and children run around and play in the mud.

I realize that the vast majority of these villagers still depend on farming rather than tourism. “Most of us still farm, because we do not earn much money from tourism,” says Pang. “The money earned in tourism mainly ends up in the pockets of companies owned by people from big cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Tourists come here to see our land and villages, but in the evening they prefer to stay in a nice hotel and eat in a pizza restaurant in Sa Pa.”

To try to spread the wealth more fairly, villagers are being encouraged to offer homestays. Ms Thao has been helping to train hosts for several years now so that visitors can experience their way of life. “There are three ways for local villagers to benefit from tourism,” she says. “Selling handicraft souvenirs, guiding tourists to the villages or running a homestay. Spending a night in the village is a good opportunity to experience the daily life of the local people and they can earn a few dollars in return.”

Where will you stay tonight?

At dusk, after a brisk walk of six hours in a very varied landscape, we arrive in Ta Phin. This remote village, lying in a peaceful valley, is home to the Red Dao and I recognize the red headscarves I saw in Sa Pa market. A group of women sit close together on tiny wooden stools, busy chatting and working on embroideries. Some wear poor-fitting, secondhand reading glasses. When I come closer, they look up. “Where are you from? Where will you stay tonight?” they ask. Pang tells them we are on our way to the May Lai homestay up the hill. She points at the wooden house up the hill, partly hidden by trees. The women nod, smile and continue working, while obviously discussing this latest strange arrival.

Mrs Ly May Lai is waiting on the doorstep when we arrive. “Welcome to my family home,” she says. “You must be hungry after your long walk. We will prepare dinner for you.” As I enter, my eyes fill with tears from a thick layer of smoke hanging inside the house. It doesn’t seem to bother the rest of the family: her husband and parents-in-law, her sister and her two little sons. They laugh when they see my tears. May Lai settles down at the fire and stirs a huge pan into which two men could easily fit. I can smell a sweet mixture of herbs with mint, pine, eucalyptus and much more. I wonder what it is, perhaps some traditional medicine? For a split second, I worry that they have plans to boil me in it, because May Lai points at me and then to the pan. “You go in later,” she says.

After a while, she and her husband carry the pan into a small space behind the kitchen and pour the water into a big wooden tub. After closing a small curtain, they invite me to step in. Now I understand what they were preparing for me: a traditional herbal bath. Later, she explains that these baths are a distinctive part of Red Dao culture. “We have used them for many generations. Tourists enjoy it, especially in the winter when it is cold here. It is an experience they’ll never forget.”

My efforts make the family laugh

That night, I eat dinner with the family in the kitchen around a large wooden table. I count four different vegetable dishes and others with chicken and pork. I have a small bowl of rice and two wooden chopsticks but my efforts to eat with them make the family laugh. Even the children do a better job. Then her husband offers a toast to thank me for visiting their home. The homebrewed rice wine is strong and I am soon tipsy after such a long day of walking.

My bed for the night is in a large room at the side of the house, where several beds are covered with colorful blankets and mosquito nets. The family sleeps in another two small rooms behind the kitchen. Outside, there is a small Western-style toilet and a shower, recently installed for guests.

Spending time with a local family is a worthwhile experience, learning about their culture while contributing to the family’s welfare by paying for a place to sleep, a meal and maybe some beer. Helping to alleviate poverty among the ethnic groups in Vietnam in this way seems like a good idea and, to an extent, it works well. “Villagers now have more opportunities to take their share of the tourist dollar,” says Ms Thao. “But at the same time, we also see that they have to cope with a fast changing environment where investors from outside come to set up businesses, such as shops, bars or tourist accommodation.” Such outsiders can quickly change the ambiance of a place, something I saw in other villages we passed along the way.

Experiencing the daily life of the locals, I not only learned about their culture, but perhaps even more about my own. My hectic life at home is not the only way to live. The question is how these villagers can develop tourism at their own pace. It’s a universal problem, and I truly hope that these amazing people can find a way to preserve their peaceful way of life.

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