About Sapa

I’d say the best times of the year to visit Sapa are in the spring and fall. Summers tend to be rainy and muddy, while winter temperatures can drop to the freezing mark (Sapa ushered in 2000 with snow!). Weather really does make a difference here, because the spectacular scenery is all but blotted out when there is cloud cover and rain. But its really up to you and what you are looking for. It tends to be less crowded during the winter time and more time for you to bond with locals. During the busy months I’d suggest to get out into the countryside, where you just may still catch a glimpse into hill-tribe life of a couple of centuries ago

The Queen of the Mountains, Sapa sits regally overlooking a beautiful valley, lofty mountains towering over the town on all sides. Welcome to the destination in northwest Vietnam, gateway to another world of mysterious minority cultures and luscious landscapes. The spectacular scenery that surrounds Sapa includes cascading rice terraces that spill down the mountains like a patchwork quilt. The four springs clouded town, the prototype of many paintings has won international awards. Beyond the terraced fields is the golden harvest; on the left, Ban Ho as a mirror of the sun, dark red in the noon.

Located in Vietnam’s remote North West Mountains, Sapa is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also its rich cultural diversity. Its lush, deep river valleys, in the shadows of Vietnam’s tallest peak Mount Fansipan, are home to Blue H’mong and Red Dao communities, who continue to maintain their strong traditions and warmly welcome visitors to their homes.

Despite its commercialization during the last seven years, Sapa is still a must-see on any northern Vietnam itinerary. On a clear day you will treated to views of steeply terraced rice fields, towering verdant ridgelines, primitive mud-thatched villages, raging rivers and astounding waterfalls.

History: The Tay are the earliest known minority in Vietnam, who are thought to have arrived from inland South East Asia about 500 BC. They settled in valleys in the north west part of Sapa.

Language: Tay language belongs to the Tay – Thai language group. Their alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet devised in 1960, similar to the Viet alphabet.

Costume: The traditional dress is made from indigo dyed cotton. It is usually plain, with little embroidery or other decoration. The women wear a simple shirt with silver buttons down the front teamed with black trousers. Both sexes wear colorful head scarves. Nowadays the Tay are often seen wearing Viet and western clothes.

Social organization: The Tay social system used to resemble a feudal society. One man in each village owned the land, forest and rivers. He ruled over the people living on that land. This regime appeared very early and ended in 19th century.

Tay now live in villages of mixed ethnic groups, enter into mixed marriages and leave their traditional settlements to work in other areas. They have adopted other elements of Kinh culture and of the Tai speaking people, are considered the most integrated into main stream Vietnamese culture.

While pregnant and even after giving birth, the mother and father have to avoid many different things in order for both mother and child to be healthy, for the child to grow up quickly and strongly and to avoid evil spirits. When the new born is three days old, there is a ritual in honor of the midwife. One month after the birth, there is a celebration and party to name the baby.

Marriage: Young Tay men and women are free to love, but the decision to become husband and wife rests with their parents. The boy’s parents need to know the potential bride’s fortune so they can compare it to their son’s. To do this, they consult an astrologer who judges how well matched they are. If the signs look favorable, the marriage can take place.

After the wedding, the wife stays with her parents until she is pregnant. She will only go to live at her husband’s house in the late stages of pregnancy.

The funeral rituals are quite similar to Vietnamese. The funeral brings deceased’s spirit to the world of the after life. Three years later, there is a ritual to bring the spirit to the ancestors and to end the mourning period. There is an annual day in honor of the deceased.

Beliefs: The Tay worship ancestors, the house spirit, kitchen spirit and the midwife.

Housing: The Tay live in houses built on stilts originally designed to protect them from wild animals. Nowadays, they use the first floor for storage and cooking. When building a new house, the owner has to choose the right place very carefully. Many factors are considered, including his age and horoscope. On the day that he and his family move to the new house, the head of the family must start a fire and keep it burning all night.

Food: The Tay used to eat sticky rice most of the time, but now eat regular rice. For festival occasions, they make many kinds of cakes such as square rice cake (banh trung – symbol of the earth), round rice cake (banh day – symbol of the sky) for the New Year Festival and pounded young sticky rice that is roasted (com) for the Mid Autumn Festival.

Production activities: The Tay use traditional wet rice cultivation. The rice is grown on the hills with very little water, which is well utilised using irrigation methods like digging canals and laying water pipes. They produce high quantities of food by practicing such intensive cultivation methods.

History: The Black H’mong immigrated from China approximately 300 years ago.

Language: The spoken language belongs to the H’mong – Dao language family. The H’mong writing was romanized in 1961 but is not widely used today.

Costume: The Black H’mong women are famous for making cloth from hemp and dying it a deep indigo blue. They wear long blouses decorated with batik flowers over short trousers, and wrap long scarves around their legs. They wrap their long hair around their head and wear a blue turban. The men wear long jackets with shirts and a long waist coat embroidered at the collar, and a small hat. Today some H’mong wear Viet or western clothes.

Social organization:
H’mong women are respected in their community as being equal with H’mong men. Husbands and wives are very affectionate and do many of their tasks together like going to the market, working on the field and visiting relatives. In this way, they help each other to develop a strong community life.

For the Black H’mong it is important that a girl knows how to embroider and work well in the field. These skills are more important than her beauty. Boys and girls are allowed to get to know each other before they get married. They go to the love market where they eat and sing songs together. After this time, the boy can propose marriage and if the girl agrees, she goes to live in his house. She is put in a small room and visited by the boy’s mother and sisters who give her food to persuade her to accept the marriage.

The boy must give the bride’s family silver coins, pigs, chicken and rice wine for the wedding ceremony. The bride has some time to decide if she accepts the marriage – even after living with her husband for a few days, she can choose to break their agreement. If the boy doesn’t have a dowry to give to the girl’s family, he lives in her house until he is able to marry her.

When there is a death in the family, the deceased’s children fire a gun to let everyone in the area know. People in the village come to deceased’s house with anything they have – chicken, rice, a small pig or rice wine – to help the family. Everybody sings and eats until the deceased is wrapped in a mat and carried to a grave by one group, while a coffin, which has been kept in a cave somewhere near the grave, is carried by another. Both groups have to run very fast to meet at the grave to make the deceased forget the way home. If the deceased’s family is not able to supervise the funeral rituals, they can wait for a few years before organizing a special one called ma kho. They invite people in the village to a place by the grave for the funeral for a celebration, at which they sing and dance.

Many places are reserved for worshipping in a H’mong house – there’s a place for ancestors, for the house spirit, for the kitchen spirit, even the door spirit. There are different rituals which forbid people to walk into the H’mong house or their villages. For example, a green tree branch on the front door indicates that entrance is forbidden.

Artistic activities: The Black H’mong are very good at making agricultural tools, wooden furniture, musical instruments and jewelry. They are also famous for their handicraft and embroidery. They generally only make such items to meet their own needs, but other minorities in the area buy their produce because of its high quality. Since the advent of tourism in Sa Pa, many H’mong women make decorated cloth to sell on the town’s main streets.

Festivals: Like the other minorities, the Black H’mong have lots of different festivals during the year. They ensure that there is always time for community activities, which play an important role in their life. One of the most important festivals is the New Year, which they celebrate for an entire month. It happens about one month earlier than Vietnamese Tet. During this time, boys play flutes and girls play an instrument made from two leaves. They all spend time together playing traditional games.

The Blue H’mong minority
The Blue H’mong share the same origin as the Black H’mong. Most of their rites and rituals are the same – only their clothes are different. The Blue H’mong women wear long skirts over long trousers, with a blue bib worn over the top.

History: The origin of the Red Dao is uncertain. It has been surmised that they arrived not long before the H’mong during the 18th Century.

Language: The Red Dao spoken language belongs to the H’mong – Dao language family. Their writing is based on Chinese characters adjusted to accommodate their own spelling.

Costume: Red Dao women usually wear a long blouse over trousers. Their clothes are colorfully embroidered with designs that appear on both sides of the material. The men typically wear a short shirt with long trousers, and a head-scarf. Both men and women have a square piece of fabric on the back of their shirts which represents that they are children of God. They wear similar hairstyles – long on top, with the rest smoothly shaved. Many women shave their eyebrows as well. Women also wear a distinctive red triangular shaped turban decorated with silver coins and red tassles.

Social organization: The Red Dao men play a dominant role in the family, community and the economy. They also play a major role in ceremonies such as marriages, funerals, and building new houses.

The Dao people have many different family names. Each lineage has its own system of different middle names to distinguish people of different generations.

Birth: The Red Dao women usually give birth in their bedroom with help of their mother and sisters. The new born is given a bath with hot water. The family hangs green tree branches or banana flowers in front of the door to prevent evil spirits from bringing harm and wickedness to the baby. When the baby is three days old, they celebrate a ritual in honor of the mother.

Marriage: Parents select partners for their sons. When a boy is fourteen or fifteen years old, his father takes him to have a look at a girl he thinks is fit and healthy and can help with the housework. The couple chosen to be married then have to consult a diviner who judges their compatibility based in a ritual using a chicken leg, and their horoscopes.

The girl’s value is shown by how many silver coins, chickens, pigs and jars of rice wine the boy’s family have to give her family.

During the marriage ceremony, it is customary to stretch a piece of string in front of the procession. The groom carries the bride on his back, and she must step over a blessed pair of scissors to cross the threshold into his house.

When a family has no son, the parents can buy a groom who will live happily with his bride’s family. However, if a boy is so poor that his family can’t afford a dowry, he has to live in his bride’s house – which causes him great shame.

When there is a death in the family, the deceased’s children have to invite a man called thay tao to supervise the rituals and find the right piece of land for a grave. The deceased is wrapped in a mat, placed in a coffin inside their house and carried to a grave built of stones. In the past, if the deceased was over 12 years old the body was cremated.

The funeral rituals celebrated ensure that the deceased rests in peace. The ceremony, which lasts for three days, usually coincides with initiation rites for Red Dao boys. The first day liberates the spirit of the deceased, the second day is a time to worship the deceased in the home, and the third day is the boy’s initiation rite.

The boy has to sit on a throne at the highest place in the village until he falls into hammocks hanging below him. This represents him falling down from the sky to be born on earth, another symbol of the Dao belief that they are the direct descendents of God.

Housing: The Dao ritual to select land for a new house is very important At night, the household digs a bowl sized hole and fill it with rice grains that represent people, cows, buffalos, money and property. The family will know where to build the house based on the dreams that follow during the night. In the morning, the family inspects the hole to see if the rice remains – if not, the house will be built elsewhere.

Beliefs: Dao religion has elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. They worship the ancestors of the family together with the legendary holy man Ban Vuong, who is considered the earliest ancestor of the Dao people.

History: The Giay immigrated from China 200 years ago. They are strongly influenced by Chinese culture.

Language: The Giay people speak a language of Tay – Thai group. They don’t have their own writing.

Costume: Like the Tay minority, the Giay women dress in simple clothes. They wear a five panel blouse split at the sides and buttoned on the right with dark indigo trousers. The blouses are different colors depending on the age – old women usually wear the darker shades. Women wrap their hair around their head and fix it in place with red threads. Giay, like other minorities, have adopted elements of Viet and Western clothing.

Social organisation: Before the Revolution of August, 1945, the Giay society was divided into different classes. The upper class was composed of administration officials who owned the land. They paid soldiers and housekeepers to take care of weddings and funerals. Farmers working on their land had to pay taxes as well as doing the hard labour.

Birth: Pregnant women have to avoid many things – wood is not burned from the top to the bottom to avoid difficulties when giving birth, and they are not allowed to attend funerals or visit a place for worshiping for fear of losing their spirit.

When it is time to give birth the pregnant woman makes offerings to the Mother spirit. When the baby is one month old, they make offerings to the ancestors. At the same time they give the child a name and establish his or her horoscope, which will be used later when it is time to choose a partner for the marriage, and the right time to be put in a coffin when he or she dies.

Marriage: The procedure for marriage is based strongly on Chinese traditions. A go-between is very important as they help propose the marriage to a potential bride.  Once this has happened, the groom’s family gives the bride a necklace and a bracelet to show their intentions – a kind of engagement.  For the wedding, the groom’s family must offer the bride’s family food and money, and give close relatives a chicken, a duck and a silver coin.  Once married, the bride is carried to her new house on the groom’s back, as if she walks her spirit will find its way back to her parents.

Funeral: Giay people believe that if a funeral is well organised, the dead will go happily to heaven with their ancestors. If not, the dead will be forced to live in hell or become animals.  In a rich family, the funeral can last from five to seven days with extra rituals such as running along the river to lead the spirit on a procession. The children must mourn their parent’s death for one year.

Beliefs: The Giay altar is located in the middle of the house. There are three incense bowls set from the left to the right to worship the Kitchen God, Heaven and Earth, and the family ancestor. If the master of the house is a son-in-law who wants to worship his real parents, he must set up a fourth incense bowl to the far left. If a family has no altar for the Mother spirit, they set a fifth incense bowl to the right. Some families set up a small alter beside the big one to worship their parents-in-law.

History: The Xa Pho came to Vietnam about 200 – 300 years ago. Some believe that their clothes indicate they immigrated from the southern islands of Asia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Language: Their language belongs to Tibeto – Burmese language group. Other minorities say that Xa Pho people can speak most of the other languages in the area, but it is “difficult to hear their language which sounds like birds singing”.

Costume: The Xa Pho’s clothes are very different from other minorities.  Women wear a short shirt with a long skirt made from indigo-dyed hemp fabric. They use a bright red thread to embroider decorations all over their clothes.

Social organization: The Xa Pho community is particularly strong and neighbors play an important role in their villages.  If a family has no food, they can visit their neighbors for every meal.  If both families have no food, they will go to another family together.  When no one in the village has any food, they all go to find fruit and vegetables in the forest.  When a family kills a chicken or a pig, everyone in the village can come to have some without an invitation.

They are semi-nomadic; they do grow dry rice, but most of the time they live on what nature has to offer. While other minorities may live together in villages, these timid people live in isolation. There is only one tribe who live in Sapa, and they have a very low living standard compared with other minorities in the same valley.

Birth: After a women gives birth, strangers are prevented from coming into the house. The family either hang a hat on a pillar in front of their house, or use a blackened pilllar with leafy branches attached called dum dum to warn people away. A name-giving ceremony is carried out 12 days later. Each person has two names – one is used in a normal situation, and other when worshiping the ancestors and being worshipped after death.

Marriage: Young Xa Pho have the right to have sexual relationships before marriage. The Xa Pho has a very low population, so the man wants to make sure his partner can have children. The marriage will be organised after the young couple know the woman is pregnant. The future bride starts making her wedding dress while her groom prepares pigs, chicken and other food for the wedding.

Funerals: The deceased is placed in the middle of the house, with the head in the direction of the household altar. Water used to wash the deceased’s face is left to evaporate.  There must be a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks and a barbecued or roasted chicken next to the alter.  The deceased’s children put straw around the wooden coffin, as they used to use straw as mattresses.  The coffin is buried in a grave or a tomb.  Lots of people must attend the funeral to ensure that the spirit of the dead doesn’t stay at the tomb or cemetery.

Housing: The Xa Pho live in houses built half on stilts and half on the ground. Furniture is very simple and made of bamboo or rattan.

Artistic activities: The Xa Pho dance for many occasions – marriage, funerals, births, even when they have run out of food.   Their dancing style is very different to other minorities.  Accompanied by a drum beat, they join hands and dance in a circle around a fire.

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