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There is a scene fairly early in Star Wars Episode IV in which Obi Wan Kenobi uses the Jedi mind trick: “These aren't the droids you're looking for”. (I would say "I have already paid for these drinks.") This is not relevant, but it's a great scene.

Shortly afterwards, Luke and Obi Wan are in the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine. The bar denizens display a wide diversity of morphologies, even more so in the digitally remastered version.

Walking through the streets of Sapa is a bit like that. Many people come from surrounding villages to sell in the markets and to sell to tourists. Although they wear jeans and T-shirts in their villages, they dress up to go to market, so there is more outlandish gear than a Star Trek convention. Most of the people you see in Sapa are women; the men are working on the land or driving xe om (motorcycle taxis).


There are officially 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. The Viet, or Kinh, make up 86% of the population. They are most concentrated in the deltas, coasts and midland regions. Their language is part of the Austroasiatic family.

But in Sapa they account for only 15% of the population. In fact a lot of the young children and old people around Sapa barely speak Vietnamese.

These people are probably Kinh, I guess:

There are about 20,000 H’mông people in Sapa, 53% of the population. The H’mông-Yao language group has 8 million people, spread across Vietnam, Laos, China, Thailand and Burma. The H’mông make up 6.5 million and the Yao 1.2 million, and in Vietnam they are almost entirely in the mountains in the north. They were originally dry rice cultivators but are increasingly wet rice growers, especially the H’mông. They also grow maize, hemp, cotton, vegetables and opium. The last makes them unpopular with the government.


The men wear sleeveless vests with long flaps. Often they sport a skull cap, but more often than not in Sapa they are wearing motorbike helmets, because all the xe om riders seem to be H’mông.


The H’mông women wear black clothes dyed with indigo, and usually a black pork pie hat. They wear sleeveless jackets, coated with beeswax, and long shorts and gaiters, leaving the knees bare. They wear huge crescent-shaped earrings. On wet days they wear purple or green wellington boots. Each carries an umbrella, making them look at times like miniature Mary Poppinses.


The tourist office is currently showing a good exhibition of photographs and commentary, all done by H’mông girls. It was previously shown at the ethnology museum in Hanoi. The exhibition makes clear how much tourism has changed the way of life of locals, women and girls especially. They now spend most of their time in Sapa selling to tourists, and many aspire to work in hotels. Grandparents are left at home to look after the very small ones, and to cook.


The downside is that it is impossible to walk down the street in Sapa without being asked twenty times to buy some trinket or other: “You buy from me?” they all ask. Other than the bracelets what they are selling is not tat on the whole, but it is not stuff I want to buy: bracelets (cloth and metal); purses; cushion covers; blankets; sometimes, marijuana and opium. It is rather wearing, but they are all just making a living after all, and since there is no aggression in the sales pitch and it's always done with a smile, the only thing to do is to smile back and decline as politely as possible. Twenty times.


Any westerner who looks like buying something attracts clouds of sellers. Most of the Montagnard women are minuscule: well short of five feet tall, and probably about five stone. So as the westerners drift Brobdingnagianly down the streets, they look like tankers surrounded by tugboats.


The main groups of H’mông in Vietnam are Black H’mông, White H’mông, Blue H’mông and Flower H’mông. I don’t know how to tell them apart. But the H’mông themselves can tell the commune, the village and often the family of the wearer by looking at the pattern of embroidery.

I don’t know who this woman is, for example, but she is H’mông:


About 25% of the population of Sapa are Yao (aka Dzao, Dao etc). These are also part of the H’mông-Yao language family. The Dao migrated into Vietnam in the 13th century, and they live in the mountains and midlands of the north

In Sapa they are almost all Red Dao. The women are easy to spot because they wear scarlet headdresses. They usually shave their foreheads and eyebrows. They wear long dresses with open fronts, and two lines of large silver buttons. The front flaps are embroidered with white or yellow thread.

The headdresses vary. Old women wear a scarf the size of a bag on their heads.


Girls wear a red cloth.


Married women can wear red cloths with tassels, or strings of silver coins, or several layers of hems.


They also wear a lot of jewellery. A woman may wear silver weighing several kilos and costing 5-7 million dong.

Men wear a short jacket with a piece of rectangular embroidery on the back. They can wear black turbans.

The women also wear the embroidery square on the back. The square is called the “imprint of King Bàn Vương”. They believe that they are descended from this king, who was as it happens a dog-dragon.


The Dao traditionally grow dry rice, with only one crop a year. But some of the Red Dao are said to be pretty well off. Cardamom, a very valuable crop, grows well around Sapa, and some Dao families own large fields which can produce millions of dong a year. These families can own TVs, bikes and cars.

There is a bar/restaurant near the Baguette & Chocolat café at the top end of town called Red Dao House, run eponymously. I had a very good pork and lemongrass there. There are one or two computer terminals in the restaurant and the waitresses use the email when they are not busy.

According to the museum of ethnology, the Dao are strongly influenced by Taoism and Confucianism, and use Chinese characters to write poems and ritual texts.

These people are Black Dao (I asked them):

About 5% of the population of Sapa are Day (part of the Thai-Kaday linguistic group). The men wear indigo clothes and a beret. The women wear long indigo dresses, tied with wide cloth belts at the waist. They also wear woollen scarves.

There are 75 million speakers of these languages in southeast Asia, and 3.9 million in Vietnam, mainly in the north. They are in Vietnam, China, Laos, Thailand, Burma and India. They probably migrated south from China in ancient times, although they may also have come from northern Vietnam. In VN they worship ancestors, but have also been influenced variously by Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

The ethnology museum in Hanoi reported that the Thai and Tay families are related to Mon-Khmer and Vietnamese; but the family relationship is not obvious.

2% are Giai. They are also part of the Tay-Thai ethnic group. There are 25,000 of them in Vietnam, mainly in Tả Van and Lao Chải. They look and dress Chinese, with a short flapped jacket fastened on one side. I’m not conscious of having seen any.

Are these people Day or Giai? I'm not sure.

And what about this lady?

The few remaining people around Sapa are Xá Phó. Apparently the women wear long, tight cotton skirts. They wear a short jacket closed at the chest and decorated with strings of beads. The men wear red-hemmed collars and shirts decorated with crosses and beads on the back.

I haven’t seen any. There are only 4,000 Xá Phó in Vietnam. Those around Sapa live in Nâm Sài commune, in the remote southern areas. Some speak Mandarin, others their mother tongue, which is in the Tibetan-Burmese group.

The information largely comes from Sa Pa in the Midst of Clouds and from the Hanoi Museum of Ethnology. But if you're confused, so am I. So none, or less, of the above may be true.

Posted by Wardsan 04:46 Archived in Vietnam

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