SAPA - fascinating place in northern Vietnam with Hmong and Dao ethnic minorities

Located in the very northern region of Vietnam, 350 kilometers away from Hanoi, Sapa features the most spectacular sights and the most colorful cultures of the country. Surrounded by the magnificent Hoang Lien Son range, 5,500 feet above sea level, you will literally walk in the clouds when visiting this hill station. And there is also the Fansipan Peak, a 10,000-foot giant, for you to conquer.

Once again, Sapa is truly famous for its landscapes of rice terraces, blooming hills, a cloud-piercing peak, and trails in lush valleys. There have been endless articles boasting about its beauty, but the fantastic people of Sapa have are still a mystery. Your traveling experience may not be whole if you only see the stunning landscapes without the smiles and vivid textiles of the locals.

Sapa is home to five ethnic minorities of Vietnam: H’mong (internationally known as Miao), Red Dao (Yao), Tay or Choang (Zhuang), Giay, and Phu La (Yi). Many of these people share the same traits with their brothers and sisters living in southern China. Each person has a fantastic history and magical culture that will surely attract your curiosity. And I am here to do the homework for you. But before that, you should have a look at this article to be able to recognize one person from another through their distinctive clothes.

SAPA - fascinating place in northern Vietnam with Hmong and Dao ethnic minorities
Photo by collect on the internet
Traditions and Customs of the H’mong People in Sapa

H’mong Hospitality

The H’mong are the people of etiquette and hospitality, they pay great attention to treating their visiting guests extremely warmly and well. If you have the chance to enter a H’mong home, they will try their best to provide you the best experience. Usually they will butcher one of their livestock to make a feast to treat you, for example a chicken made into a whole range of dishes.

There are two things that you must note when attending a H’mong feast: the chicken (or duck) ritual, and do not overeat. The chicken ritual shares many similar characteristics with how to share a chicken with a northern Vietnamese family. The chicken head is for the eldest, and the legs are for the kids. But there is one difference: the chicken’s heart. In a H’mong treat, the chicken heart is shared between the host and the guest, followed with a toast with a local alcoholic drink. This act pays respect and shows hospitality to guests, but worry not, you can refuse, and they will not look down on you. Also you must eat at a good pace, because over-eating is considered a serious insult in H’mong culture.

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Photo by  collect on the internet
H’mong Marriage

The H’mong have one of the most ridiculous marriage customs of the world. Back in the day, a H’mong woman had no right to choose her own partner because of a ritual called “Wife-Snatching”.

The marriage season takes place in the springtime, right after the H’mong New Year. A man who wants to marry must find a way to snatch his prospective wife to his home, without being caught by her parents. The man’s parents will then butcher a chicken and make a charm to offer to the H’mong ancestors, forming an unbreakable and undeniable vow between the couple. After three days, both the man and the woman return to the bride’s home, bringing offerings of jewelry, food and money to complete the ritual.

The bride’s parents have no way to reject the marriage, according to the H’mong norms. The man has to stay at the woman’s home for one night before both of them can settle down in their new home. The wedding must occur, but it is not necessary until the newlywed family has enough money to support the wedding expenses. The couple can have a child before the wedding.

As crude as it sounds, this ritual eliminates the wish of the girl to marry the one she loves. This means a random guy can show up during the night and snatch her away, and there is nothing she or her family can do. The government has put a lot of effort into changing the ritual while still maintaining its uniqueness. Nowadays, the H’mong marriage has adopted Viet customs, where it takes more time for a couple to get to know each other, and the girl can choose to marry anyone she wants to. Then, the customs either proceed as they would in a normal Viet wedding, or the couple can plan a snatch with the approval of both families.

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Photo by  Wagner T. Cassimiro "Aranha"
Red Dao – The People of Agriculture and Musical Romance

The Red Dao people belong to the family of the Dao ethnic group, officially called Yao worldwide. The Yao ethnicity is the second biggest ethnic minority in Vietnam with a population of 750,000 people, just behind the H’mong. They are well known in the Sapa area for their terraced fields, big markets (including the “love” market), and romantic love songs that echo over the mountains. There are a lot of love stories about the Red Dao couples crossing many mountains, rivers, and forests to be together.

Compared to the H’mong, the history of the Red Dao people is less significant, but they have played a major role in aiding the H’mong through the course of time. They arrived and settled down in Vietnam together with the H’mong during the suppression of the Imperial Chinese government hundreds of years ago.

Legends say that the Dao people were mountain jackals transformed into humans, and the word Dao (Yao) in Chinese also means “jackal”. Their god is a jackal named “Ban Ho” with rainbow fur, which was promoted to the rank of general by the Heaven Emperor. The people are also more used to livinh in high mountains rather than down in the plains. Legends also describe them as people with cheeky smiles and innocent looks, but really smart and talented in every field, from agriculture to blacksmithing and art.  

Despite having a shallow recorded history, their culture is considered as one of the most colorful and unique amongst the ethnicities in Sapa. They also share hospitality traits with the H’mong, treating their guests royally with their own cattle for a communal feast. You can have a look at how the Red Dao treated our beloved friend Sonny Side with seven dishes of pork in this video. But now let’s have a look at more unique cultural spotlights of the Red Dao.

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Photo by collect on the internet
Traditions and Customs of the Red Dao People in Sapa

Red Dao’s Maturity Test for Men

The Dao culture favors men over women like in the old times, therefore, the man of the family has to prove himself to be capable. The maturity test takes place during the last months of the Lunar calendar and is held to evaluate the maturity of a man. Those who fail the test despite being old are considered childish, and those young men who complete with flying colors will be regarded as mature men.

There are no risky challenges in the test, it is more educational in purpose, reminding the men of their ancestors, karma, and not to do bad things. There is no age limit for taking the test, and upon completion, the participants will be receive new names. This is also a major event in the Red Dao’s belief, and they will usually hold big parties with local specialties and wines to celebrate the new matured men within the community.

Red Dao’s Love Chasing Custom

Unlike the H’mong people, the Red Dao marriage is based on true love between the man and the woman. They spread the love throughout their songs and melodies. There is also a Love Market in Sapa where Dao boys and girls meet and date, choosing the right partner for their marriages. The love season occurs during the spring time also, after the New Year celebration.

Come to Sapa during this time, and you will be be able to hear with beautiful love songs and melodies that echo across the mountains by the Red Dao lovebirds. This custom is part of a bigger culture they refer to as “Pao Dung singing”, where the Red Dao people put their stories, love, and hope into their songs to filter across the valleys.

While a H’mong man has to snatch his wife out of her parent’s home, a Red Dao man “rescues” her. The Red Dao people live in stilt houses, high above the ground. In order to marry a girl, a Red Dao man has to figure out, by himself, how to take her down to the ground, without using the stairs of her house. This can mean either building his own stairs, or asking for help to form a human tower. The girl meanwhile will sing and tell her stories to encourage her man. Further on, the wedding takes place and shares similar traits to the Vietnamese’s wedding.

Vietnam culture is also one of the highlights attract tourists, you have to be a cultural lovers? Vietnam is the country where you can make that ideal trip.