Head to the stunning mountainous region of northern Vietnam and meet some of the most authentic ethnic tribes of all.
Culture encounters are the hallmark of rewarding journeys and few countries in Asia can offer them like Vietnam. That’s because unbeknownst to many first-time visitors, Vietnam is an incredibly multi-cultural country, comprising over 50 distinct ethnic tribes whose main commonality is a life based on agricultural work. Aside from this, each distinct group boasts its own language, cuisine, history and cultural heritage, combining to make Vietnam a colourful, eclectic and very fascinating country to visit.
Head north to the magnificent mountains of the Lao Cai Province and enjoy the cultural adventure of a lifetime.
Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities
Over 8% of the Vietnamese population belongs to a minority tribe which, although it may not seem like much, equates to over 9 million people. That’s more than one-third the population of Australia. The most popular minority villages to visit are found in the highlands of northern Vietnam, around the town of Sapa, in the most agricultural region of the country.
Vietnam’s Hill Tribes, as these ethnic minorities are collectively known, are famous for their colourful attire, unique crafts and distinct lifestyle, each one showcasing an authentic cultural heritage. Visiting minority groups in their own home turf, in their villages and homes, is an immensely rewarding experience for culture-vultures.
Apart from the obvious cultural injection, trips to the Hill Tribes of Sapa also offer the unrivalled chance to explore a more remote and lesser-visited region of Vietnam. Still largely undeveloped and non-commercialised outside of its main towns, the Lao Cai Province is the rural Vietnam of postcards.
If you’re dreaming to get way off the tourist trail and experience a more untouched side of the country then come discover Vietnam’s Hill tribes – this is where authentic culture thrives.
Sapa – Vibrant Markets, Hill Tribe Villages and Magnificent Nature
The hub of ethnic domestic trading in north-western Vietnam, Sapa is a historically contested town that’s been left relatively untouched by foreign influence despite the fact that both France and China had a hand in its development: the former by turning it into a military wellness destination and the latter by staging a dramatic but rather short-lived occupation. Ethnic minority tribes like the Hmong, Tay, Dao, Xa Pho and Giay have been living in and around Sapa for centuries and although the hostilities of the early 1950s forced many to flee, they returned in earnest within less than a decade.
Officially opened to outsiders in the early 1990s, the town has undergone a massive rebirth and, within the last few years alone, has become one of the country’s most beloved inland destinations. Sapa town itself is quite developed and here you’ll find upmarket hotels, great restaurants and a vibrant crowd – both local and foreign. Yet step away from the town and you’ll discover what all the fuss is about.
Sapa is about 350km northwest of Hanoi and is quite time-consuming to reach so even though you may be surprised to discover such a well-developed and commercial town in the heart of the region, be thankful that this springboard exists – having a base from which to trek and visit Hill Tribes is priceless. Besides, the town itself holds much appeal if you give it some time. Visit the Central Market, Sapa’s daily wet market spectacle (an absolute visual feast!) and don’t miss the nightly market where local craftsmen and women sell gorgeous handicrafts which make for unique souvenirs. Loads of great restaurants and bars (some with live music) make nights out in Sapa totally fun. Just make sure you pack comfortable walking shoes: this mountainous town and its steep streets are a great workout!
How to Visit the Hill Tribes of Sapa
Minority tribal villages are scattered around Sapa and, from here, you can take day-long trips and even overnight visits, enjoying the warm hospitality of home stays with local families and learning about their distinct music, cuisine, agriculture and textile-making. Community-based visits ensure the Hill Tribes of Vietnam not get exploited in any way and help them protect their heritage whilst ensuring a steady income. Visits and home stays are regulated to ensure every household benefit in one way or another and this is the reason visits to the Hill Tribes must be guided and organised. You can’t just pop into an ethnic minority village of your own accord and, considering their remoteness and isolation, you’d be hard-pressed to even if you wanted. All of these efforts don’t make for kitsch touristy exploits at all: if anything, they help preserve the authenticity of the experience and help ensure responsible tourism in the region. Vietnam’s Hill Tribes don’t dress in their colourful garb in order to attract tourists, they simply haven’t been influenced by Western civilization yet and, hopefully, they never will.
Guides also help make the most out of your trip and, through them, you’ll learn to differentiate among the tribes based on their headdress and clothing (or gold-capped front tooth) and learn about the varying tasks given both men and women. Hill Tribe villagers still live in extended families and you’ll see how everyone – from the youngest to the oldest – has specific roles that help ensure both the family and farm prosper. From harvesting to textile making and home-keeping: Hill Tribes villagers are among the most industrious people you’ll ever meet and it is an absolute eye-opener to encounter this kind of lifestyle for the very first time. People in this incredible part of the world are welcoming, curious and eager to please, showcasing their textiles, wares and children dressed in colourful garb. They may not understand why they are unique and why foreigners want to spend some time with them but they understand that there’s an appeal and they love being a part of any visit. Spend a night with a local family and, soon enough, the entire village will want to come and see you. It’s an ethereal cultural experience that’s hard to find, nowadays, almost anywhere else in the world.
If you can, plan your visit to coincide with a weekend, so you can visit Bac Ha Market (2.5hr drive from Sapa) where local Hill Tribes meet to trade their unique wares.
Less than 10km out of town is the Hoang Lien National Park, home to Vietnam’s tallest peak, Mt Fansipan (3143m). Wildlife and wilderness lovers will have a field day here, with the park home to many endemic species, including black gibbons and large spotted eagles among its more than 60 species of mammals and almost 350 species of birds. This is one of the country’s most biodiverse reserves and an attraction of its own accord. From Sapa, you’ll have a nearly endless array of trekking options, some suitable for beginners whilst others for more adventurous trekkers. Half-day, daylong and multi-day trekking tours abound. If you’re not too fond of trekking then rest assured that cheating is not only possible but also very enjoyable. The 20-minute cable-car ride up to Mt Fansipan is out of this wold!
Best Time to Visit Vietnam’s Hill Tribes
Defined by its monsoon season which runs from June to December, with varying degrees of downpours, Sapa can get bitterly cold in January and February, leaving March-May as the best time of year to visit for both pleasant temperatures and clear sunny skies. June to August are also quite special and although you’re bound to experience some morning fog and a little rain, it can make for very photographic scenery.
At Get About Asia, we pride ourselves in offering personalised and authentic adventures to Vietnam, taking guests off the beaten path and offering unique, ethical and sustainable travel experiences. If all of this tickles your fancy, then see the kind of Vietnam Itineraries we can create and ask us how to personalise a journey to meet your specific needs, dreams and budget. We specialise in travel for the over-55s and family trips and understand how a more personalised service is a much-appreciated requirement.
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Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”