Sa Pa: H’mong Tribeswomen, Lush Mountains & Rice Paddies
Sa Pa was, without a doubt, the most picturesque region I had the pleasure of visiting in Vietnam. Prior to my trip, when I thought of Vietnam this was the exact image that came to mind: ombre layers of rice paddies surrounded by endless mountains and dotted with thatched-roof houses. And that’s exactly what Sa Pa delivered so generously.
For a whole day we walked along the valleys through villages consisting of only a few rudimentary houses. We were greeted by giggling children and far-away hellos could be heard coming from elders working hard in the fields. Along the way there were a few stalls selling local wares aimed at tourists but for the most part it was all about taking in the scenery made up of lush mountains, deep-gorge valleys and ubiquitous rice paddies as far as the eye could see.
Sa Pa is home to a diversity of tribes with the majority belonging to one of the many H’mong tribes – an ethnic minority originally from China that also lives in the northern regions of Laos and Thailand. Women from the Black H’mong tribe can be seen wearing their traditional black accoutrement adorned with colorful stitching and decorated with chain link jewelry.
Many H’mong women roam the streets from dawn to dusk carrying their heavy load of handmade products to sell to tourists (there’s also a market in the town square). They can be very, very persistent but keep in mind they’re only trying to survive on the little earnings they make by selling their wares (some of which are quite nice).
After talking for a few hours with two H’mong women, we learned that most came from the same village a few kilometers outside of Sa Pa. They wake up before the sun and walk about 3 hours along the mountainous roads to reach Sa Pa where they hope to make a few bucks. Most speak very good English (unlike most Vietnamese) which they learned by dealing with tourists. Some also offer home-stays which, regrettably, we didn’t have time to experience as we were leaving the next day.
Zee, the most animated and opinionated of the two, earnestly and proudly proclaimed that the H’mong don’t consider themselves to be Vietnamese. In fact, they can’t relate to them at all. They speak different languages (the H’mong also speak Vietnamese though), have different traditions and beliefs and don’t eat the same foods (namely, dog – the H’mong find this very disgusting). Although we didn’t buy anything from Zee she was so appreciative of us taking the time to talk to her that she gave us each a ribbon bracelet – a small gesture that meant a lot.
I heard some travelers say how annoying they find the H’mong women (and children) to be but if you take the time to engage in an actual conversation with them, you’ll find some to be quite amusing and friendly. And you might end up buying a trinket or two as a souvenir of your encounter with the lovely H’mong women of Sa Pa!
My two sense: Please don’t give money to the children. This only encourages them to stay out of school and to continue this practice which really has no positive effect on the community. This, of course, applies to any country you visit. Ok – I’m done!
I found the small town of Sa Pa itself to be very charming albeit very touristic – many Vietnamese also go there on holiday. But the pretty lake was a perfect place to contemplate the surroundings and to re-energize. The market nestled in the alleyways of the town center was a fun place to wander around. It was lively with locals haggling over their weekly purchases of fruits, vegetables and fly-infested meat. Gotta love local markets!
After our introduction to Vietnam in the delightful capital city of Hanoi, Sa Pa lived up to my expectations and I was looking forward to discovering more of what this fascinating country had to offer.
Have you been to Sa Pa? Comments are welcome below!