Sa Pa is a quiet mountain town located in the far northwest of Vietnam, only a few kilometers from the Chinese border. It’s most famous for the terraced farming and the ethnic minority people who make up the bulk of the population. For my wintertime journey, I enlisted the services of Say, a local Black Hmong tour guide, to take me on a 2 day trek through the Sa Pa highlands. In addition to the Hmong tribes, Sa Pa is home to the Dao (Yao), Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tay tribes.
The people live in traditional single-room homes, often shared among the extended family, with outdoor cooking and no bathroom facilities. They wear traditional garb specific to their tribe, occasionally mixed in with a couple pieces of modern clothing. The children mostly attend state-funded schools, however there is the occasional child beggar on the streets whose parents don’t value education. Some villages had electricity installed about 6 years ago. Many of the women have old flip phones and almost all of them speak English very well. With tourism booming from about 4000 to over 140,000 visitors per year over an 8 year period, knowing English is a way of making money.
The tribal women trek into town each morning to sell their crafts or to follow the tourist trekkers into the wonders of the terraces. In both places they forcefully sell their crafts. As they walk around, they’re rubbing hemp into thread. And asking you “Where you from?” with the sweetest smile. They probably don’t understand the answer, but do want to be polite and become your friend.
The hemp thread is woven into 8 or 10 inch strips of fabric and dyed using natural dyes from their hyacinth and indigo plants. There are 2 typical designs for the fabric: Either beeswax is applied in a design on the fabric prior to dying so that it stays undyed where the wax touches. Or there is a hand stitched design similar to cross stitch done after dying.
The decorated fabrics are sold as scarves, table runners, pillows, or several are sewn together to make blankets. I ended up with at least one of each because I have a hard time telling the pushy tribal saleswomen no. J
I find such magnificent beauty in the will of the minority people to maintain a life so intrinsically simple. The complexities and superfluous nature of modern culture is absent, not by ignorance or a lack of resource, but instead by a cognitive, intentional choice. A choice to value simplicity and history and culture. A choice to stand strong against the pressures to assimilate. A choice to live out their values of family and happiness.
Most of the time when I gulp down a heavy dose of perspective on a vacation like this, the discernment comes from a distinct difference in resources—I’ll reflect on (and usually feel guilty for) living arrogantly in excess when there are those who live in need. But this time, it’s different. It’s not a comparison of Excess vs. Need- these beautiful people just NEED LESS.
While much of the rest of Vietnam views the ethnic minority people as the poorest of the country, it’s hard for me to think of them as living in poverty. By definition, that implies that there is deprivation of money or possessions to a level below the standard. But there just isn’t with these people. While they might lack the “requirements” for my standard of living, by theirs, they are all wealthy.
They’ve carved the mountains into fields for food and learned to use the bountiful natural resources to provide housing and to manufacture clothes. There’s never a lack of available workers to share in the manual labor. They truly have everything they need—and have it all in excess.
So this is my challenge to myself… reflect on and adjust my definitions for what I need.
If you can’t tell… I kind of loved Sa Pa.
Other posts from this trip:
Cambodia- Siem Reap and Angkor Wat (coming soon!)