Sapa luc hotel

Looking into the breakfast room at the hotel

The Sapa Express train from Hanoi arrives in Lao Cai at 6:30 am. It’s still dark. There are vans in the parking lot and a lot of talking about who belongs in which van. Then uphill around hairpin curves for about an hour to Sapa. Sapa has been inhabited for many centuries but was “discovered” by the French only in the early 1900s. The French built a train to Lao Cai and a road to Sapa and it became the hill country resort for Europeans, especially the French military, for that part of Indochina.

We have an early check-in at the Sapa Luxury Hotel where there is a scalding hot water shower (adjustable) and an electric bed sheet to keep us warm under thick padded quilts for a nap. Then breakfast and our first expedition with the tour guide, Tuan. Somehow we bought a package from the Charming Hotel II in Hanoi and everything — everything! – is included. Even people to meet us at the train or van and to walk us from the hotel to the restaurant where our meal has already been booked and ordered.

Unusually cold weather

Last week it snowed; people came from all over in their cars, to see the snow, and were surprised to find out that it was also so cold that they could only stay a short while. Water buffalos died. We saw a young water buffalo, dead, tied onto the back of a motorbike. Stands of bamboo broke under the snow.

Frozn bamboo_1

The wilted brown leaves are cardamom, frozen. This was on the way to one of the waterfalls.  (below)

If you have time, take a look at this article, which explains why the this is important as well as a lot of other things:

Land | Free Full-Text | “Nothing Is Like It Was Before”: The Dynamics between Land-Use and Land-Cover, and Livelihood Strategies in the Northern Vietnam Borderlands | HTML

Frozen Cardamom

When we arrived that morning the snow was gone but there was cold fog, so thick that I couldn’t really see the roof of the hotel across the street. The fog actually gathers dampness into your clothing. None of the hotels are insulated to deal with this kind of weather. They use plug-in electric heaters, one in each room, but people also wear stuffed North Face-type jackets indoors and out and layers of pants one on top of another. Then, just for good measure, everyone leaves doors wide open which makes sense if you’re wearing your outdoors clothes inside.

Some restaurants where we ate warmed customers by placing a low charcoal burning fire pot next to each table.

This town feels like Gabi’s descriptions of Nepal. Streets are narrow and steep, tourists are everywhere, the shop fronts are either restaurants or selling handicrafts, which means indigo-dyed and embroidered cloth. The heavy fog blankets the ends of streets. Apparently there is a fabulous view of mountains, terraced rice fields and plunging waterfalls but we can’t see it. Go on Google and look up Sapa rice terraces for some ravishingly beautiful landscape photos. The tourists are mostly Europeans, at least near our hotel, which is in a quiet street. The Vietnamese, we are told, like a street with more clubs and karaoke bars.

It is, of course, just a few days before Tet. That means that many of the hotel and restaurant staff have gone  home to their family hometowns, but also that people are coming into the markets to buy food, new outfits, treats and flowers for Tet.

So what about the ethnic minorities?

Here, they are the Black Hmong, the Red Dao, and between 3 and 6 others, depending. Here is my summary, through American eyes: People (foreigners, tourists, including Vietnamese) come here for the cool weather, gorgeous steep mountain landscape of rice terraces, but most of all, to see the ethnic minority people. The ethnic minority people, wearing their traditional costumes and selling their handicrafts, are the tourist attraction. In the last 10-15 years, tourism here has boomed,and new hotels are going up all the time (including one huge government-owned 5 star hotel). But they depend on the presence of the local people in the streets and on the production of handicrafts. The tourism industry and the perpetuation of minority culture are interdependent. For this to work over time, under pressure of the changing economy, the arrangement has to be good for both parties. How much of this can I see with my own eyes?

Foreigners, trekkers and tour guides buy a ticket (about 30,000 D) to enter the area where the villages are. It’s like going into a park in the US.

Our hotel receptionist, who has been working at the hotel for 10 years, says that he is worried that the increasing crowds of tourists will bit by bit destroy the local people’s culture, until there will be only a sort of captive minority performance here, no real villages where real people live.

You have to admit that the handicrafts that they make, which are mostly woven cloth, indigo dye, and embroidery, are simply gorgeous and highly desirable. They make great gifts and are easy to pack. Indigo scarves were selling for 200 dong or $9. I bought a big embroidered tablecloth (see below) for 900 dong or $45. But the price that is right for the market does not equate with the hours of labor required to do the work. No one earns minimum wage making these handicrafts.

Our guide told us that many of these goods come across the border from China where they are made in factories; you can tell by the small stitches. Lao Cai, where we got off the train, is right next to the border. From there, no passengers into China, only freight, but you can walk right up to the border. Some Belgians we shared a cabin with on the train told us they went to the border to look, and saw a city of high-rise apartments right on the other side and many well-dressed Chinese crossing the border to shop in Lao Cai market.

On our second day, Tuan, our guide took us to the Sapa ethnographic museum which is where a handicraft club meets. This may be a link to that club:   The goods in the museum shop showed signs of having had some trained design work: beautiful wall hangings, clothing, things that were not available on the street. Prices were still low, though. Upstairs there was a museum of photographs of early French resort development, and meeting rooms as if for classes.

But what about minority people in other areas, far from Sapa? Places where no tourists with money arrive by the vanload and get trekked down into the villages? For example, the province to the southwest of Lao Cai, Lai Chau, is supposed to be the poorest and most sparsely populated in Viet Nam. Immediately after 1954 it was an autonomous area. In 1975 it became a province, but then Dien Bien (including Dien Bien Phu) was carved out of it in 2004. It is the home of ethnic minorities who speak four different language groups. Its economy is increasingly industrial: bricks, liquor, cement, and rare earths to be exported to Japan. Twenty percent of its roads are paved. How about these people?

On the other hand

In the villages near Sapa, the Hmong and Red Dao people (the ones I could identify) are very handsome and look healthy. The children especially look healthy, wrapped up in what could be snowsuits and carried in slings on the backs of women who are out selling. Boys play rambunctiously up and down the stone staircases and go “Boo!” at tourists; girls stay near their mothers. The women especially wear the traditional black clothing layered with embroidered belts, tunics, sleeves, vests. Men wear the black knee-length trousers and a black cap. See how I fall into the ethnic doll description?

The minority villages have electricity (although very low-watt, not enough to read by), fresh water that comes in pipes and has been put through a purification process (although one must still boil it), concrete paths wide enough for trekkers and motorbikes, and schools. We saw three or four schools. We saw a little boy running to school carrying a textbook with the title, “Eureka!” These are all provided by “the government.” The government brings the cement and rocks and earth to make the concrete paths (like the ones in the Mekong). The local people build them. If these paths were just mud, life would be much harder.

This is one of the schools, vaguely visible in the fog to the right. Primary school in the villages is free. Everything is taught in Vietnamese. If you want to send your child out of the village, it costs money, although not a lot. In the rear to the left is one of the women who “followed” us, carrying her baby on her back the whole way.

School, gir with baby

We saw three villages, Y Linh Ho, Lao Chai, and Cat Cat. Maybe we also were in Ta Van, but if we were, it ran together with Lao Chai. The first village was reached by a 6 K “trek” first down an asphalt road and then down a rocky path (rocks actually set in the earth). We were surrounded by fog so that I couldn’t see out over the steep slopes or down into the valley, but now and then I got a glimpse of the tiers of terraces that seemed to climb every slope. Cat Cat village was reached by an endless staircase.

Our guide, who was a young (actually, 37 years old) guy with good hiking boots who had been working in Sapa for 15 years, said that we would be approached by women trying to sell embroidered goods and that if we talked to them, they would follow us. I didn’t know what that meant. It meant that they actually did follow us the whole 6 K all the way into the villages, talking all the time in limited English. “Following tourists” is a way of working. It’s also a way to practice English. Those are the three women at the beginning of the previous post. He also advised us not to buy from children. He said, and so did others, that children will run out of school to sell to tourists because then they can get money, but they don’t go back to school. Signs also warned us against selling to children. But children surrounded us, trying to sell us embroidered ribbon bracelets for 5,000 or 10,000 dong.

Flower buffalo

This water buffalo, wearing a flowered blanket because of the cold, belongs to the father-in-law of the woman who followed us with the baby on her back. She also let us look into her house, which is in the photo below. The inside of the house was too dark to take a picture. There were three rooms on the ground floor, not really separate from each other. The room to the right of the entrance had an open firepit, beside which a man was sitting. The second floor, really an attic, is for storage.  The floor of the house appears to be concrete, like the terrace on which the water buffalo is standing.

Hmong house

The weaver’s house

We came to a house where an older woman was weaving. This was on the third day, when we went to Cat Cat village, about 2.5K downhill from Sapa, via long muddy stone staircases. She is weaving hemp fabric, from thread made out of the stems of hemp.

grandmother weaving

I looked at the blue dyed embroidered fabric and chose the one I liked best, for 900 thousand dong or about $45.  The older woman told me that it had been made by her son’s wife, who was inside the house, doing embroidery at that moment. I went in and took a picture of her. You can see the blue indigo on her fingers.

Girl embroidering

The house has an open charcoal firepit, like most of the houses, and a concrete floor. The choice is between working outdoors, where there is more light, or indoors near the fire. She is using a tiny headlamp to do the embroidery that is in her hands.

Holding cloth_1

She came outside and let me take her photo. Her name is something like Dzo.

Folding cloth_1

She is 27 years old.

Weaver and d in law_1

I think the mother in law was glad that the young woman made a good sale.

The market in Sapa

Tuan took us to the official market in the town of Sapa. People from the villages climb the paths and roads up to it with baskets on their shoulders to buy food, especially meat and vegetables, although there are many vegetable gardens among the houses in the villages.Vans bring fruit up from the South, through Lao Cai, to this market. This is a glimpse of the outside market. This stuff is grown locally.

Veggies local

Dog is one of the meats sold by butchers. This dog looks as if he or she was once very much like all the other little dogs that you see wandering around. Maybe dogs are no different from pigs and chickens: running around loose, eating whatever they can find, multiplying until their time comes. All the butchers are women, incidentally.


The inside market, the official market, is nearly empty.The government builds the market and owns it. You pay to rent a stall here. Tuan said that most of the goods on sale here are from China. Maybe the market is empty because of Tet.

Official market

And outside, a row of men on motorbikes stand next to trees that people will buy for Tet. These are supposed to be peach trees. The men go up into the mountains to cut them; you buy one and set it in a big jar and see if it blooms. Some of the trees already have blossoms; those are good luck. A fully-flowering, moss-laden old tree can bring thousands of dong.

Peach trees for Tet

How about self-organizing?

For this, on the question of how much self-organizing goes on among the ethnic minorities, I have only what people tell us. Of course, they have to be people who speak English and they have to be people who are willing to talk with us about things outside of regular tourist talk. The stories that we have heard are scattered and do not make it look as if the ethnic minorities have much opportunity to take their lives into their own hands. We do hear a lot about “the government” as if it is a force of nature, not to be spoken to or with.

First, about the land. All the land in Viet Nam is owned by the government. What you get is a “red book” that says that you have the right to use and live on some land. But the government can come in and take the land for a project and pay whatever it has to pay, either a lot or a little. You can also sell your right from the “red book.” As we walked to the second village (which might have been Ta Van) we began to see much nicer houses, houses made of wood and concrete with real floors. These were Vietnamese houses; villagers had sold their land to Vietnamese who were moving in to build vacation homes here.

Hmong people have tried to move into an area in the Central Highlands, we were told. They bought land from the Bahnari people, who (we were also told) were rich, although we didn’t find out why. But when the Hmong tried to move en masse, they were prevented because everyone has to have a “family book” in which your family is registered in a certain place. This is how you get your children into a school or how you can register your address so that you can get a good price on rent or utilities. The Hmong who stayed in the Bahnari area have had to find alternate ways to get their children into school.

In the 1980’s, money from Hmong communities in the US was sent to Viet Nam to encourage the Hmong to unite and secede from Viet Nam. This apparently resulted in some police action. How this correlates with the period when Lai Chau was an autonomous area or when Dien Bien became its own province, I do not know.

When we ask what the life opportunities are for the ethnic minorities (sample question: “What would happen if a Hmong girl decided she wanted to be an attorney?) the first answer we are given is in terms of “education.” Some minority languages are in the same family as Vietnamese (like Hmong) and others are completely different. If your language is somewhat similar to Vietnamese, you have an advantage. Otherwise, it is hard. Students who start learning Vietnamese for the first time in primary school are well behind Vietnamese students by the time they are in high school. The disadvantage accumulates. We are told that minority people speak with distinctive accents and often never become really fluent in Vietnamese, which makes it hard for them to attend university. The barriers are not just geographic, they are linguistic.

They are also cultural.  The Vietnamese who talk to us emphasize that if there is a choice between getting money by “selling,” the minority people, children and adults, will sell. “They only think about today, not about tomorrow,” we are told. We have heard this from many people. The girls might go to high school, but they get married and have children and then it’s all over, they stay home from then on.

The tourism trap

An example of old ways of doing irrigation, a display for tourists:


And another one: these water wheels are pounding rice. These also are built for tourists to see:

Water wheels

I would like to go to one of the towns in Lai Chau to see if, in an area where there is not much tourism, ethnic minority people have found other ways to become part of the larger world. Are there young ethnic minority people who aspire to being a “global person,” like the students at RMIT that our colleague spoke of, or like the students in our Labor Relations or the Business Administration programs? Can they imagine it?

If a village has a school and the students are not tempted out of it by the appeal of “following” tourists and trekkers, do ethnic minority people become serious students and study and ultimately go to university? Are there government programs that encourage this and build a ladder that makes this possible? Something like a serious affirmative action program? What goes on in the secondary schools in the cities — anything like this?

Or does the tourist industry depend so much on the girls selling beautiful embroidery that no one has intervened in this mutual dependency, the dependency of tourism on the presence of the “local people” who produce lovely goods, and the dependency of the handicrafts villages on tourism?



Found the following on google, by searching for “ethnic minority languages Viet Nam.” It was published in a Korean journal the title of which I can’t read. But it should be accessible by the author:

The language policy of minority languages in Vietnam.  Ly Toan Thang, Institute of Linguistics,Hanoi-Vietnam



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

3 thoughts on “Sapa

  1. I loved watching the Hmong teenagers at the market run by the flower Hmong, in indigenous, indigo clothing, talking, checking each other out, and flirting like teenagers everywhere….

  2. Yes, Mexico, too. Although in Oaxaca the people camped in the Zocalo had been run off their land by armed gangsters with ties to the government. Funny (or not funny),while we were in Sapa I was wearing an overblouse – for warmth, because it fit on top of everything else — embroidered by one of those women. I didn’t even make the connection. I bought it one night in the Zocalo. There were about 50 people, men women and kids running around, sleeping up next to the Government building, with signs posted about them trying to raise money to get to Mexico City to press their case. Also newspaper articles about murders of indigenous people over land. Thanks to the war on drugs which does not appear to have arrived in Viet Nam.

  3. Northern Thailand too is becoming an ethnic museum. Apparently you have to go almost up to the Golden Triangle border region to find communities just living their lives. This was an opium growing region, a crop the government has tried to supplant promoting other high-value crops and marketing through the so-called Royal Project. Handicrafts and tourism are other ways to bring money into the community, though at an inevitable cost. Helena raises excellent questions and is quite observant.

    A mundane simile, but my experiences in Mexico show me how hard it is to break out of “tourist prison,” where your experience and choices are restricted by the dollar sign on your back. Helena’s comments are all the more welcome.

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