Monday, July 3, 2017

Beyond Sapa: the Ethnic Mélange

                                    by Jim Goodman

Giáy and Hmông en route to Tam Đường Đất market
       Several aspects of Sapa contribute to making it the most popular travel destination in Vietnam’s northern mountains.   At around 1600 meters altitude, it enjoys refreshingly cooler temperatures than the hot plains.  Phansipan, the country’s highest mountain, is visible from the town on clear days.  As a proper hill station resort, Sapa has attractive parks, lively markets, hotels of all kinds and restaurants offering a wide range of food.  Visitors can make day excursions to several different waterfalls or to villages in the picturesque valley below Phansipan.
       Sapa’s other principal attraction is the presence of ethnic minorities in town, mainly Black Hmông and Red Dao (pronounced zao).  Although there are Giáy and Xa Phô villages in the southeastern part of the valley, these people rarely visit Sapa.  Most of the district’s villages are Black Hmông and Red Dao, so these minorities are likely the only ones travelers will see during their short visit, unless they join the caravan of mini-buses to Bc Hà, in the eastern part of Lào Cai province, for the Sunday market day.
       For some travelers, the superb mountain scenery is just a bonus, for the prime draw of the far north is its ethnic variety.  All along the border live a great variety of ethnic minorities.  Short journeys over the passes west and north of Sapa offer opportunities to meet other branches of the Dao and Hmông, as well as Lừ, Giáy and Hà Nhì.
mountains west of Trạm Tôn Pass
Lừ village near Bình Lư
       From the junction just north of Sapa, National Highway 4D turns northwest for 13 km to Quý Hồ, where a road turns north to Mường Hun and the main road continues southwest, passing the Silver Waterfall on the right.  Close to the road, this waterfall tumbles a hundred meters and has a pathway halfway up to a pavilion for a close observation of the cascades.   
       The main road continues its ascent a few more kilometers to the Trạm Tôn Pass, at 1900 meters the highest in the country.  This is also the provincial boundary and the road now winds down the mountain into Lai Châu province.  The peaks of the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range are more picturesque on the descent.  Compared to the rather blunt peaks of Phansipan and its neighbors, those on the western side of the pass feature steeper sides and sharply pointed summits.
Lai Châu 1999, when it was still called Tam Đường
          At the foot of the mountain the road comes to Bình Lư village, where a turn south leads to a Lừ village, one of several ethnic minorities in eastern Lai Châu different from those anywhere around Sapa.  The Lừ are a Tai-Kedai group who migrated down from southern China in the 9th century, originally settling around Điệm Biện Phủ until forced out by the Thái and moving east a few centuries later.  In China they are classified as part of the Dai nationality and are the major Dai community in Xishuangbanns, Yunnan, and Buddhist.  But the Lừ in Yunnan became Buddhist long after Vietnam’s Lừ migrated out of China.
       The Lừ in Vietnam, like the country’s Thái, are animist, yet they garnered a separate classification as a minority.  They live similarly, in stilted wooden houses near rivers or streams, venerate ancestors and agricultural deities and are basically rice farmers.  But the women dress very differently, and much more elaborately, than the Thái.
Dao Làn TIên girl
Lừ woman in Tam Đường Đất
       The basic outfit comprises a tubular skirt, long-sleeved jacket and headscarf, all made of hand-woven black cotton.  The skirt features a wide strip of inlaid geometric designs around the hips.  For special occasions or market trips they will wear one with large rectangles of brocaded silk, in bright colors, attached vertically in the front and back.  The hip-length jacket is slightly flared above the waist, with a thin strip of red, white and blue embroidery around it, connected to another embroidered strip from the right side of the waist up to the collar.  Rows of small silver buttons run alongside this strip and down the front center of the jacket.  The headscarf is wrapped twice around the head, with thin white vertical stripes on the front.
       For jewelry they wear silver neck rings with silver chains hanging from the ends in front, similar to those worn by Dao and Hmông.  The ear ornaments, unique to the Lừ, consist of silver plugs with three or four small bead and pompom pendants.  In the past, the women also blackened the teeth, but this custom is now dying out.
White Hmông girl with typical jewelry
Flowery Hmông women in Tam Đường Đất market
       From Bình Lư Highway 4D goes west to Lai Châu city, the provincial capital.  Until 2005, it was called Tam Đường and Lai Châu was another city, further west, now called Mường Lay.  The city lies in abroad valley, surrounded by mountains, with tea gardens sprawling across the lower slopes.  Small limestone hills, devoid of buildings, pop up within the city limits and the suburbs.  Various minority people may wander into town any day of the week, but Lai Châu doesn’t stage a regular market day.  Instead, Thursdays and Sundays, the venue is Tam Đường Đất, ten kilometers east.
       Market day begins early at Tam Đường Đất and starts winding down by noon. It is, however, the best opportunity to appreciate the ethnic variety of this part of the province.  Most of those in attendance are women wearing their traditional clothing.  Lừ women will be there, dressed in their finest ensembles.  Women of the Giáy, another Tai-Kedai minority from the valleys and lower mountains slopes, will wear their pastel-colored, side-fastened jackets, with a band of contrasting color around the collar and along the lapel, over plain black trousers.
market day in Tam Đường Đất
       The surrounding hills are home to different branches of the Hmông and Dao.  Most of the Hmông belong to a local sub-group of the Flowery Hmông, whose women generally wear the signature Hmông knee-length, bulky, pleated indigo skirt, decorated with batik patterns and strips of appliqué along the lower third.  Over this they don a plain black velvet jacket with colored bands around the shoulders and tie a wide red sash around the waist.  A smaller number of women from the White Hmông sub-group will substitute a pair of plain black trousers for the traditional skirt.  Heavy silver neck rings and pendants are the preferred ornaments, while around their heads they tie simple scarves of checked or patterned cotton.
       Members of up to four branches of the Dao could turn up for market day here.  The most numerous are the Dao Làn Tiển, the women dressed in long black jackets, the edges trimmed in red or blue, and pantaloons loose above the knees and tight below them.  A skein of pink woolen thread hangs from the collar down the front of the jacket.  Younger females wear a round black cap, decorated with silver discs and colored pompoms.  The older women tie their hair in a chignon inside a silver crown wrapped in horsehair, but hidden from view by a tall black hat. The usual heavy silver ornaments complete the outfit.
       Dao Tuyền women also wear black jackets and pantaloons, but can be distinguished easily by the white apron in front and by their billed caps.  This Dao branch is more common further west.  The other two Dao groups likely to show up in Tam Đường Đất are the Red Dao and Sewing Dao (Dao Khâu). The Red Dao look similar to those around Sapa, recognizable by their tall red turbans.  The Sewing Dao are so named because of their embroidery skills.  Women cover nearly the entire surface of their trousers with embroidered patterns and sewing these onto the cloth, which can take a few months to complete, becomes their prime activity when not engaged in agricultural or domestic work.  The result combines certain motifs required by tradition with those created by the person making them, so that no two pairs are exactly alike.
Giáy girls leaving Tam Đường Đấ
Red Dao ornamented turban
       The Red Dao sub-group in eastern Lai Châu extends into Bát Xát district in Lào Cai province, north of Sapa, another homeland of several ethnic minorities, and are the most prominent group at the Sunday market day in Mường Hum.  To get there from Sapa, travelers take the main road northwest to Quý Hồ and turn north at the junction.  This road gradually winds down the mountains past Black Hmông and Red Dao villages to the valley of the Pĩ Hỏ River and the town of Mường Hum, appended to an old Giáy village.
       The market day in Mường Hum falls on the same day as the much better advertised and promoted one in Bắc Hà.  Consequently, nearly all the tour groups flock to Bắc Hà on Sunday.  The scene there is certainly colorful, but the experience is somewhat marred by the great numbers of Hmông and Dao women trying to peddle handicrafts to the foreigners. 
Red Dao women in Mường Hum
Red Hmông hairdo
       In contrast, market day in Mường Hum, equally colorful, attracts far fewer foreigners and has much more of an authentic atmosphere.  In recent years it has become better known among a more discerning set of travelers, yet still scarcely two dozen foreigners turn up on any given Sunday.  Other than friendly greetings and smiles, the minorities in the market generally ignore them and none of them bother the visitors to buy something.
       For the ethnic minority women managing stalls and layouts of handicraft products, the potential customers are of their own and other minorities.  The baskets and bamboo items they sell to people who will use them, not keep then as souvenirs.  The batik cloth the Hmông sell as skirt material goes to other Hmông women who don’t have time to do the work themselves.  And the colored thread the Hà Nhì hawk finds customers among all the ethnic minority women, as they are all embroiderers.
       The Red Dao of Bát Xát district live in the same way and share the same customs as the Red Dao sub-group around Sapa.  The women wear the same kind of long-tailed coat and embroidered trousers and the same silver jewelry.  But the coat and trousers feature less embroidery, mostly in white, rather than the yellow favored around Sapa.  The headgear is very different, too, being a tall tubular turban wrapped in bright red cloth or patterned cloth dominated by the red color.  Some women decorate the turban with silver chains and pendants.
Red Hmông woman in Mường Hum
Hà Nhỉ woman, Mường Hum
They are the only kind of Dao here, but up to five branches of Hmông might turn up on market day:  Black, White, Flowery, Red and Green.  The Black Hmông are the same as those around Sapa and come from the hills south of Mường Hum.  Their women wear a black jacket with bands of color around the upper sleeves and along the lapel, knee-length pants, plain black leggings and big hoop earrings.  The White Hmông sub-group here dress like their counterparts in eastern Lai Châu province, in black trousers and jacket, with a wide red sash around the waist, but nothing actually white.  White Hmông in western Lai Châu wear bulky white pleated skirts, but don’t venture this far east.
       The Flowery Hmông here are the same sub-group as in Tam Đường Đất and the Red Hmông women don similar outfits, featuring the pleated, heavy, batik-patterned, indigo-colored skirt.  The Red Hmông drape a hem-length, black apron, bordered in bright blue, over the front of the skirt, but what distinguishes them from other Hmông is the hairstyle.  Women retain the hair that comes off when brushing and then attach it to the living hair, lengthening the strands, and then tie red woolen thread to the ends and wrap everything around into a huge bouffant.
       The most dazzling apparel in the market is that of the Green Hmông women, so named because green dominates the jackets, skirts and leggings (though it could also be blue or a shade of blue-green).  The younger generation keeps their long hair uncovered, while the older women wrap it in a decorated turban or headdress.  The jackets and skirts are machine-made printed cotton and are also on sale in the market, but subsequently festooned with loads of glittering, spangled ornamentation.
Green Hmông woman
Green Hmông girl
       Besides the more sedately dressed local Giáy, the market also attracts Hà Nhì, who wear black, side-fastened jackets with broad blue bands around the collar, lapel, sleeves, cuffs and hems.  A Tibeto-Burman group linguistically, they are a spillover from the Chinese side of the border, the dominant Hà Nhì group in Jinping County, Yunnan.  A Hà Nhì village lies on the hill just north of Mường Hum, but most of those in the market come from further north and west and usually arrive the night before market day.
       Following excursions to Tam Đường Đất and Mường Hum, a traveler might find the return to Sapa, with only two minorities in the streets, almost anti-climactic.  But now endowed with a greater awareness of the variety of attractions in the area, new ambitions arise.  Beyond Sapa there is much to explore, to wonder at, appreciate and enjoy.

White Hmông shopping in Tam Đường Đất
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Bình Lư, Tam Đường Đất and Mường Hum are part of Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through the northern mountains.  See

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