Sapa : Dawn of the Threads

Sapa Travel Blog

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The beautiful mist bowl of Sapa valley in the early morning.

At 5am I’m sat in a mini-bis van attempting to defrost from the popsicle like state that the air conditioned sleeper train cabin has left me in.  Mike had warned me that Sapa gets pretty darned cold at night so shivering in my middle bunk for 90 minutes or so I thought I was crossing into this new climatic zone.  But no, I step out into a warm pre-dawn Lau Cai.  It was just a psychopathic A/C system.

Sapa sits tucked in the far north west of Vietnam.  Approximately 350 kilometres from Hanoi, at about 1,600 metres above sea level and not too far from Mount Fansipan, Indochina‘s highest mountain peak at 3,143 metres.

Sapa Market
  The more hilly and mountainous regions of Vietnam teem with any number of different ethnic communities, no more so than here in the villages and outlying areas of Sapa and Son La.  If I heard correctly from Vin, a very informative lady yesterday at the Vietnam Ethnographic Museum in Hanoi (and it could I think have been misinterpreted in translation) there are 54 ethnic community groupings in Vietnam of which 53 are represented somewhere in this region of the country.  I find this last fact a touch hard to believe, but hey, far be it from me to know!

Amongst many others these groups include the Tay, Thai, Muong, Khome, Hoa, Nun, Yao, Dzao and H’Mong peoples, each group constituting between 1 to 1.5% of the Vietnamese population.  The vast majority of these groups all together only comprise a sum of 4.

Yes, believe it or not there are tourists trying to leave the cafe here : you can quite feasibly be mugged by large numbers of wonderful, colourful people in Sapa :)
5% of Vietnam’s total population, with communities sometimes numbering less than 1,000 people.  The 87% ethnic majority of Vietnam are the Viet people who predominantly live in the lower river delta and coastal regions of the nation. 

Some of the ethnic minorities subdivide further into differentiated inter-community groups each distinguished from one another with subtle differences in dialect, customs and predominantly the women’s dress.  For example there are the ‘Black‘, the ‘Blue‘, the ‘White’ and the ‘Flower’ Hmong communities.  The ‘White’ and the ‘Black’ Thai communities with their different architectural approaches to home building. 

Some of these ethnic groupings have a presence dating back in Vietnam many, many hundreds of years such as the Yao from the 13th Century, however larger groupings such as the H’Mong only date in Vietnam from the 18th Century.

My first meeting with Ku (left) and Sa (right) two ladies of the Black H'Mong ethnic hill tribe.
  Many of the northern ethnic groupings are of Chinese/ Han origins.  Soon to cross the mountain border into Yunnan Province, China I am going to be fascinated to see how the social and cultural signposts of dress, customs and aesthetic appearance shift subtly as I move through the ’sister’ communities of southern China.  

Within the streets of the Sapa, a hub town in the region where tourists flock in large numbers (especially at weekends) you will meet - “Oh boy will you meet!” - the ladies and girls mainly of the Black H’Mong and Red Dzao communities.  It is the former that come to town in the largest numbers.  Their distinctive dress : lengths of black fabric wound many times, thickly around their calf muscles and bound in place with ribbon; black velvet ’shorts’ running up under a deep blue-black indigo died kimono-style shirt dress bordered with bands of beautiful, elaborately embroidered silk-stitch patterning or delicate brocade.

A congregation of the Red Dzao (I think?) ethnic group.
  Upon their heads the women wear a variety of traditional headdress.  Sometimes a velvety black circular ‘tube‘, about 6-7 inches deep, encircling and containing their hair or else a brightly coloured check-tartan scarf arrangement almost like a super-sized pirate bandanna.  For accessorising, large silver or aluminium ¾ necklaces hang about their necks with a chaotic cascade of chain-link arcing from it across their chests.  Several circular earrings of the same materials hang circular, large and weightily from ears often causing elongated lobes over time. 

The women come to town, out of the rice tending months to try to earn further income by selling examples of the beautifully crafted and coloured textiles treasures of their communities… with modern functional twists of course.

"You wan' one you buy fro me Mistuuuuh?". The cotton-carrying little H'Mong tribes girls of Sapa.
  Satchels and pencil cases and such like.  To assist them in their task a lot of them speak some rudimentary, often quite serviceable English and the linguistic trickle-down effect to their young daughters is impressive to observe.  Especially at the busy weekends it can be quite a hard sell, and in fare warning to you if you are the kinda person/ traveller that does not tolerate or enjoy constant - and I mean constant! - attentions, propositioning and conversation in aid of trying to sell you stuff you are going to have to prepare well; toughen up a little before you come here if you are to take away the undoubted magic of Sapa.  You will not be left alone.  Not for one minute.  Not for one second.  Not never.  Seriously.  I’ve been in some hellish soul-hammering markets or street scenarios in maybe Cairo or Bangkok but actually the experience in Sapa is potentially much more intense, much more suffocating for the uninitiated or unsuspecting.

Personally I’m well inured to the hard-learnt arts of patience and travel-humour required to survive and float through 10,000 conversations demanding a new and inventive way of politely saying “no thank you”.  I’ve even reached that point in my journey where in some perverse way I kinda enjoy all the insane, buffeting and attentions.  A kinda human-contact junky maybe?  But a lot of people will not enjoy this despite the fact the ladies are happy, friendly, often funny and always well meaning in their approaches… but for sheer dogged persistence  they cannot be beaten in my experience to date.

I think I politely said “no thank you” no less that 50 times to one lady.  They will float along behind you like happy little shadows for any long number of minutes, or blocks of the city.

  Pitching the occasional question at you.  “What your name?”, “Where you from?”, “How long you stay in Sapa?”, “Where your fren’ / your famly?”.  “How old are you?”.  The usual roll call.  I’m actually asked the latter question three times in the 200 metre walk from my bus to my hotel on arrival.  I’m sure there’s something wrong with having to reveal the fact that you’re 30 three times before you’ve even had breakfast!  Dignity requires caffeine to wake up too. 

The little girls will be all over you wherever you go.  First two, three, then four then more.  They appear, in their little dresses and leggings and walk towards you holding up brightly coloured offerings of stitched thread bracelets.

  If you hesitate for a minute or - G. forbid - actually express interest the number will suddenly billow to anywhere up to ten or more!  Where did they all come from?!  All standing around you in a circle, holding up their little thread rainbows.  “You wan' one mister?”,  “You wan one you buy fro me!”, “Please mister help one buy one for me?”, “One one cheap price for you!”.  Hands lifting, crossing, pawing, clawing and clutching and waving before your eyes.  Colour and children’s faces blurring all around you.  Disorientating.  I’m reminded of those classic shots from the George A.Romero zombie movies where the camera locks on a seething mass of waving limbs, faces with gaping maws, reaching for the lens.
The kidz of Cat Cat
  For you the viewer!  Faces with no other purpose left in what was formerly 'life' other than to pursue one goal "BRAAAAAAINS!" or in this case, a sale!  “AAAAaaagh!”.

It’s all good fun.  I have an absolutely great time walking around the town of Sapa and its streets and markets all day interacting with the H’Mong and Dzao ladies.  In the afternoon, following from an early morning downpour the weather improves greatly and so I take a stroll 3 kilometres to Cat Cat village, the nearest and consequently most tourist-orientated of the many villages in the Sapa area.  As with most tracks and trails that lead you to areas of either scenic splendour or villages of cultural interest there is an ‘entrance’ fee.

Thac Tien Sa waterfall near Cat Cat village.
  Usually 15,000VND ($0.80) but sometimes higher.  To go further afield requires more time, and possibly a guide.  I’m still considering my options but am keeping an eye out for Sa and Ku two very friendly and humorous H’Mong ladies who I got joking with in the morning and whom invited me back to their village.

In the evening I hook-up with Daphne, a very pleasant lady.  A San Francisco nurse who worked in Mongolia for two years with the Peace Corps.  She’s drawn  my attention to a performance of traditional ethnic music and dance performances that happens some evenings at one of the swankier hotels (the Bamboo Hotel) so we pop along and greatly enjoy this.

It’s night.   I lie in bed.  Can’t sleep.  Suddenly a hand bursts through the wooden headboard above me.

  Ripping right through from the wall behind.  The little hand clasps a bunch of rainbow coloured cotton-thread bracelets.  Another arm bursts through the other side of the headboard.  Then another through the wooden door on the opposite side of the room.  Children are bursting through and into my room.  Arms held aloft.  Wavering.  I jump out of bed but trip and fall.  More little bracelet clutching kids are tearing and clattering through the thin plaster walls now and are advancing towards me!  Help.  They hold their arms out before them.  The arms with little hands extending to offer me their brightly coloured offerings.  There’s no escape.  There’s too many.  Three, then four, then more and more.  Swarming in from G.
knows where!  “Please mister, pleeeeeeeease….”.  Help! “You wan one you buy fro meeeee…..”.  Red.  Pink.  Green.  Blue.  Purple.  Orange.  Yellow.  An advancing ocean of colour that I am to drown in amidst their groans and implorations.  Ribbons of brocade and cascades of black hair swirl around me.  Arms reaching, pawing, clutching, clawing.  “Miiiister, you wan one you help one for meeee….”  “HELP!  Can anyone hear me?!  HELP!”.  I’m drowning.  There’s too many of them.  Too much deadly intent to sell, to pester to compel me to purchase.
Portrait of Thu (her earring)
  Guilt starts to sink its fangs into me.  They’re on top of me now.  These one track mind(less) cotton bracelet entrepreneurs have got the better of me!  It’s a nightmare right?!  A bad dream that I’ll wake up from?!  A bad movie!?  ’Night of the Living Threads.’  Pinch me.  “You buy for me mistuuuuuuuuuh…”  They’re still coming.  Is there no hope?!  I reach for my camera with one hand but it’s held tight by three kids whilst another ties the brightly coloured cotton manacles around me… pinch me!… I reach for my wallet with the other, the only thing surely that can defeat them; that can make them go away.  To force them back from whence they came… but it’s too late! I moved too slow.
  My left arm's already bound tight with a very pretty, traditional stitched brocade belt length. PINCH ME!  I’m done for.  Collapsed.  It’s dark.  Except for glittering eyes above me and rainbow coloured threads all about me.  Will the pestering ever stop!!  Nightmare. PIIIIINCH ME SOMEBODY PINCH ME!!!  

“Ouch! Not that ‘ard that hurt!!”.  Phew.  Just a dream!

espa137 says:
Great read. I can't wait to visit Sapa.
Posted on: Mar 28, 2011
sylviandavid says:
Oh Steve....Great Read!!! how hard it must be to say your age... Ha Ha..! 30! When I travel I have to tell them I'm 56 ... and they inveriably look astonished... I REALLY need to make sure I get my caffeine... Sylvia
Posted on: Apr 13, 2009
globalodyssey says:
sometimes the travel gods smile upon you and drop treasures into your path,
and sometimes they don't

great blog
Posted on: Apr 13, 2009
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The beautiful mist bowl of Sapa va…
The beautiful mist bowl of Sapa v…
Sapa Market
Sapa Market
Yes, believe it or not there are t…
Yes, believe it or not there are …
My first meeting with Ku (left) an…
My first meeting with Ku (left) a…
A congregation of the Red Dzao (I …
A congregation of the Red Dzao (I…
You wan one you buy fro me Mistu…
"You wan' one you buy fro me Mist…
The kidz of Cat Cat
The kidz of Cat Cat
Thac Tien Sa waterfall near Cat Ca…
Thac Tien Sa waterfall near Cat C…
Portrait of Thu (her earring)
Portrait of Thu (her earring)
Clouds in the distance seen from S…
Clouds in the distance seen from …
Town square steps (abstract)
Town square steps (abstract)
Washing greens in the lake waters.
Washing greens in the lake waters.
Town lake in Sapa.
Town lake in Sapa.
Sapa town square and catholic chur…
Sapa town square and catholic chu…
My first distant glimpse of the fa…
My first distant glimpse of the f…
Boy and his ox plough the water-fi…
Boy and his ox plough the water-f…
Boy and his ox in Cat Cat Cultural…
Boy and his ox in Cat Cat Cultura…
Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! :)
"Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" :)
Rice Paddy (abstract)
Rice Paddy (abstract)
Two curious Black HMong boys in t…
Two curious Black H'Mong boys in …
Red Dzao lady.
Red Dzao lady.
Red Dzao women stitching at the st…
Red Dzao women stitching at the s…
We all staaaaand together! :)
"We all staaaaand together!" :)
Pigs, caged and brought to market …
Pigs, caged and brought to market…
Pig baskets at sapa market.
Pig baskets at sapa market.
photo by: Paulovic