The population of the Lao Cai province is a mosaic of ethnic groups. An incredible variety of peoples, some of them unique to Vietnam, are found on a relatively small area.
Ms Nga - the right of image (staff at Green Lotus Travel) with her local guide in Sapa Famtrip, was in Black H'mong clothes
In fact, visitors can meet 24 ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture and traditions. This cultural wealth is explained by the diversity of landscapes and of land available for farming. History also offers clues as to why the highlands in the Lào Cai province served as a refuge for certain ethnic groups during political unrest like the Taiping rebellion in 19th-century China.
The seven most numerous ethnic groups in the Lào Cai province account for over 90% of the whole population. The following groups are found: the Kinh (the true Vietnamese) 35%, the H'mong 22%, the Tay 14%, the Dao (Mien) 13%, the Thai 9%, the Nung 4.5% and the Giay 4.3%. The other ethnic groups: the Phula, Hani, Latis, Tu Di, Pin Tao, Tu Lao, Pa Di, Sapho, Lolo and the Xa Mang are sometimes represented only by a few villages and a few hundred individuals.
The H'mong people
The main subgroups present in Vietnam are the White H'mong, the H'mong Leng, H'mong Pua, H'mong Shi or Sheu and the black H'mong. In Sa Pa, the H'mong Leng are the most numerous, some H'mong Sheu and H'mong Pe women – with their colorful skirts and double-breasted tops – come from the Muong Khuong district.
Today, the traditional agrarian economy is still based on family farms raising pigs, chickens, buffaloes and horses, on food crops (rice, corn, manioc) and cash crops (cardamom and vegetables).
The traditional social organization of the H'mong is based on the clan. Each clan is made of lineages, all the members of which acknowledge a common founding male ancestor. In the H'mong household, up to four different generations may be gathered under the same roof. The household is the most important economic, political and ritual unit. The villages perched on the mountain slopes house several clans.
Easily recognizable by their costume, the Sa Pa H'mong Leng – who do not call themselves Black H'mongs – still wear hemp clothes dyed with natural (black-blue) indigo. The women wear stiff indigo-blue turbans over their hair gathered into a bun. Nowadays, they hardly ever wear their batik or embroidered pleated skirts, replaced with short indigo pants. Only the collar, sleeves and belt are embroidered with geometric patterns in silk.
The White H'mong women from the Bat Xat district wear long black pants, fairly short-waisted double-breasted jackets, and cover their hair with colourful head scarves.
The H'mong Pua, H'mong Pe and H'mong Sheu women from the Bac Ha district wear similar batik skirts with an embroidered band. They are distinguished by the decorative patterns and shape of their aprons.
The Dzao people
Red Dzao woman
The Dzao, known as the Man or Yao in south-west China for centuries, also number a few tens of thousands in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Like the H'mong, the Dzao build terraced paddy-fields irrigated by a sophisticated system of canals around Sa Pa. They also have a reputation for pig and horse breeding.
The different Dzao groups from the Lao Cai province usually wear red headdresses or red pieces of clothing. The Dzao (Ké Mien) from the Taphin and Tavan villages (Sa Pa district) wear flat headdresses, totally red, hung with silver coins. The headdresses of the Dzao (Ké Mien) from Muong Hum district (north of Sa Pa) are cone-shaped and made of red flowery material. The Bac Ha (Ké Moun) Dao enhance their turbans with red and pink wool or silk threads. The headdresses of the Dzao (Iu Mien) from Van Ban district – south of Sa Pa – are decorated with red and yellow pompoms, and hang low down their backs.
The Tay people
Tay people in Sapa
The Tay grow rice in paddy fields, preferably in the plains and in the valleys. The villages consist of wooden or bamboo stilt houses and are often built in the immediate vicinity of a stream or a river. The household is the basic economic unit and tends to be a nuclear family limited to close relatives.
The Tay, Giay, Numg and Thai women wear brightly-colored jackets, – pink, green, or blue – double-breasted, often with contrasting braid at the collar. The tartan headscarf covers their hair gathered into a bun. Traditionally, each group used to have their own style of bun, held up with long silver needles, but the custom is vanishing.
The Giay peopele
The Giay (pronounced”Zay”) are a relatively small minority group, with a population of around 40,000, living at high altitudes in Lao Cai, Lai Chau and Ha Giang provinces. Traditional Giay society is feudal, with a strict demarcation between the local aristocracy and the peasant classes. All villagers work the communal lands, living in closely knit villages of stilt houses. A few Giay women still wear the traditional style of dress, distinguished by the highly colored, circular panel sewn around the collar and a shirt-fastening on the right shoulder: the shirt itself is often of bright green, pink or blue. On formal occasions, women may also wear a chequered turban.