A Tour through Sapa’s Hilltribe Villages

Jennifer Arnow

Located deep in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and just three miles from the border with China, Sapa offers a glimpse into old-world rural life that remains virtually unchanged.—Words and photos by Jennifer Arnow

Jennifer Arnow

Sapa Town

The charming town of Sapa is a starting point for many unique experiences in this mountainous region of Vietnam. Beyond visiting the tribal villages, many people come for hiking. Nearby Mount Fanxipan is the tallest point in Indochina. But don't skip out on exploring the town itself—shops are abundant and merchants set up their wares down winding side streets. Stroll the main square near the stone Catholic church to get a glimpse of local life.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Say Hello

Tribeswomen from the nearby villages come into town to sell their hand-crafted textiles. Some set up stalls but others, like these two members of the Black H’mong tribe, walk around the square looking to chat up tourists. They are very friendly so don't be shy, but resist the pressure if you're not interested in buying. Ending a conversation without a sale is perfectly fine.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Cat Cat Village

The Cat Cat village is home to the Black H’mong tribe. Less than 2 miles from Sapa, Cat Cat village offers stunning views of rice paddies and hilltribe homes. Entry into the hilltribe villages is by advanced reservation only; if you hire a tour guide, they will sort out the reservations for you or your group. A guide is highly recommended, since foreigners cannot rent cars in Vietnam and Sapa is a 5 hour drive from Hanoi. Hanoi Red Tours is an exceptional outfitter—they provide transportation, accommodation, meals, and the reservations for village visits.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Beautiful Textiles

The indigo-dyed textiles get their characteristic blue-black color from indigo dye that is extracted from local plants. The pattern is created from small repeating symbols that were traditionally used amongst the H’mong people for communication. The patterns on each piece of fabric are unique and never repeat.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Handmade Crafts

The hilltribes are known for their textiles decorated with a handmade batik technique. The textiles are used to make clothing, scarves, and bags. Walking through the villages, you'll see tribeswomen working on their latest project, like this woman in the Cat Cat village. She is drawing traditional H’mong symbols onto cotton with a dye resistant wax. Once the pattern is complete, the fabric will be dyed and the areas covered by wax will remain white.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Shopping

Villages are filled with small shops selling clothing and other trinkets. With so many shops, eventually you'll notice prevalent items that are clearly mass-produced and not genuine village crafts. Clothing and other items with intricate batik or embroidered patterns are very likely authentic and hand-crafted, as well as silver jewelry, carved soft stone trinkets, and animal horn utensils. Plastic dolls, magnets, and key chains? Not so much.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Look Down

The steep hills of the tribal villages offer a fantastic opportunity to peek into tribal life if you’re not afraid of heights.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Rice As Far As The Eye Can See

Rice is a main source of sustenance for the hilltribes and the village landscapes are covered in vast, ascending, brightly colored paddies. As you walk through the village trails, stop and admire the growing rice grains.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Ta Phin Village

Both the Black H’Mong and the Red Dao tribes live in Ta Phan village, which is about 7 miles from Sapa. Although the hike through this village is less steep than through Cat Cat, you’ll be covering more ground. Be prepared for sudden changes in weather (sweltering heat mixed with bursts of hot sunshine or sudden rain) and don’t forget to bring a hat, sunblock, and water. There are some cafes along the way though if you’re in need a refreshing cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee).

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Red Dao tribe

When you enter Ta Phin, you’ll be greeted by a throng of smiling Red Dao tribeswomen and children. Identifiable by their red headdresses, the Red Dao migrated to the remote Sapa region from China around the 12th century and have been living here ever since. The tribeswomen will follow you on your tour of the village, hawking their wares all the way.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Animal Inhabitants

The hilltribes of Sapa are farmers, mostly growing rice in their vast terraced fields. And with farms come farm animals. Water buffalo, goats, and ducks are just a few village staples, roaming the landscape freely. I spotted this laid-back rooster in Ta Phin village.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Street Sign

A weathered street sign in the Ta Phin village keeps tourists and locals alike on track.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

School children

Shy school children clustering as tourists pass by.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

Jennifer Arnow

Ta Phin crafts

Just like in Cat Cat, Ta Phin is bursting with craft shops. Unlike the batik processed textiles of the Black H’Mong, the items sold by the Red Dao feature hand-embroidered patterns stitched onto fabrics. The shops in hilltribe villages offer an extra source of income for the tribes and unique souvenirs for tourists.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sapa Guide

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