A Rainbow of Diversity in Vietnam
Vietnam is home to a baffling number of ethnic groups: there are 54 recognized ethnicities that filter into hundreds of subgroups. How can you get to know them all? The engaging Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is a great place to start, but the best way to understand Vietnam’s ethnic makeup is to ascend the northern mountains and delve into one of its most diverse provinces: Lao Cai, the home of Sapa. Marvel at intricate textiles that burst with color, such as the glittering skirts of the Hmong. Explore the magnificent architecture like the raised houses of the Tay. Or delve into the medicinal knowledge of the Dao.
The Hmong People
The Hmong live in daring houses that cling to the sides of mountains and farm on precarious slopes that may collapse at any moment. Peering across valleys in Vietnam’s most mountainous provinces, like Lao Cai, you’ll see unlikely Hmong hamlets nestled in some of the harshest topography in the country. Lingering typhoons can lash Hmong villages for days, not to mention the risk of landslides, extreme cold, and occasional snow storms.
Living and working in severe conditions has made the Hmong hardy mountaineers and excellent trail guides. Almost all the guides in Sapa, most of whom are women, belong to this ethnic group. Trails throughout the area crisscross valleys and pass through villages where guides will proudly talk you through the rich Hmong culture.
The Hmong are a large ethnic group and can be further categorized into subgroups: White Hmong, Blue Hmong, Flowered Hmong, and Black Hmong. In Lao Cai you’ll mainly come across Black Hmong, which produce moody dark-colored textiles. Try and pick up some Hmong words if you can, though keep in mind that it’s a notoriously difficult language: it has eight tones (Vietnamese has six; Thai and Mandarin have five).
The Tay People
The Tay live in valleys at the bottom of mountains where land is relatively flat and close to rivers, streams, and lakes. Tay clothing is generally less striking than Hmong, but their raised houses made mostly of wood, are remarkable pieces of architecture that decorate the lower slopes of Lao Cai.
The Tay are one of Vietnam’s largest ethnic groups, and they have a long history of cooperation with the Kinh, Vietnam’s ethnic majority. As such, it’s common to meet Tay that blend seamlessly into broader Vietnamese culture, though they often maintain different belief systems and cultural practices at home.
The Dzao People
The Dzao (or Yao or Dao) are one of the first ethnic groups to settle in the northern mountains, probably long before the Hmong or Tay. Like the Hmong, the Yao are divided into further subgroups, including Money Yao and Red Yao, with the latter being the most common found in Sapa and beyond.
Foraging is an important part of Yao culture, and cooking recipes will commonly include wild bamboo, banana blossom, and herbs found in the jungle. Deep knowledge of the land has made them excellent traditional doctors, and even other ethnic groups will sometimes seek out Yao healers before turning to conventional medicine.
You’re not likely to get sick in Lao Cai, but you’ll have the opportunity to experience Yao medicinal knowledge with a foot bath, which use carefully collected herbs that scent and flavor the water – the perfect way to unwind after a long day of hiking. Alternatively, some Yao massage therapists have learned to use their botanical knowledge for soothing massages.
The Giay People
The Giay number in the tens of thousands, making them a smaller ethnic group than the Hmong, Tay, or Yao. They’re typically animist, believing in the spirits of the mountains, rivers, and planes, though some are beginning to be influenced by broader Vietnamese Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the Giay in a province of such diversity; the best way is to look out for brightly-colored tartan headscarves, which might be green, red, or blue. As one of the smaller ethnic groups that reside in a region dominated by other groups, in and around Sapa you’ll often find Giay people that speak Hmong and Dao (as well as Vietnamese and English).
The Xa Pho People
The Xa Pho are another small ethnic group, encouraging a polyglot culture in a multiethnic environment. They probably arrived in Vietnam two or three hundred years ago, meaning they’ve lived here for longer than the Hmong but not as long as the Dao.
This ethnic group are one of the shyest and poorest you’ll find in Lao Cai, and they have little contact with tourists so it’s rare to find people that speak English. If you do come across the group, be sure to look out for their embroidery work, which is unique among the northern ethnicities for having possible Austronesian influence from Malaysia or Indonesia.