Hill Tribes of Sapa

A camera gives the author license to steal in Northwest Vietnam.

Tami, a Ta Phin villager from the Dzao tribe.
  • Tami, a Ta Phin villager from the Dzao tribe.

Also, being a photographer gives you a license to steal experiences that you ordinarily wouldn’t have. You enter into other people’s worlds who are usually very highly specialized, very rare.” ~ Jay Maisel

I love and loathe Sapa, Vietnam.

Maybe loathe's too harsh of a term. Let’s just say I found some aspects of traveling in Sapa irritating.

Sapa is located in Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains along the border with China. Many hill tribe ethnic minorities call Sapa home, such as the Black Hmong, Red Dzao, Tay, Giáy , Thai and Phù Lá. The region is famous for its stunning scenery, treks, homestays, cultural diversity, the colorful dresses of the local hill tribe ethnic minorities – and the pestering sales tactics of local hill tribe ethnic minorities who wear colorful dresses.

As a photographer I found Sapa frustrating, because every time I would ask a local if I could take their photo they would either demand money or I had to buy one of their souvenirs.

To add to my growing frustration, when I would walk down the street in the town center of Sapa or trek through the beautiful rice terraces, I was always accompanied (stalked) by members of the Black Hmong tribe (Sapa’s #1 aggressive sales team) who were relentless with their standardized sales pitch to buy their wares.

After a couple of days of this I reached my boiling point.

Hmong schoolchildren near the village of Cat Cat, Vietnam.

Hmong schoolchildren near the village of Cat Cat, Vietnam.

One day I was hiking in the Black Hmong village of Cat Cat, and started to descend a steep staircase when I saw the perfect candid moment of a group of Hmong children who were approaching me. I took a photo, and when I lowered my camera they extended their hand and said, “One dollar!”

“I’ll give you five!” I replied.

They all jumped for joy and then I extended my hand in the air and gave them all a high “five.”

I don’t think they were expecting that type of five.

While the Black Hmong are well represented in Sapa, the Red Dzao (also known as Yao or Dao) ethnic minority tribe are also another colorful hill tribe you will encounter, whether you want to or not. Besides their perfectly honed salesmanship techniques, they are noted for their bright red headdress, shaved foreheads and shaved eyebrows.

After a couple of days in Sapa, I really wanted to know the people behind the constant sales chatter of “You buy from me!”

So one day I rented a motorbike and drove twelve kilometers from downtown Sapa to the Red Dzao village of Ta Phin. It was here I met Tami, and before she could employ her crafty sales tactics I stated that I wanted to buy something from her. But not one of her handicrafts – rather, her time.

I asked her to share with me her family life, the history of the Red Dzao people, her daily activities and how tourism has affected her village.

She extended an invitation to me to visit her home, which was a mile away. On the way we passed by the local school that was recently built by the Vietnamese government. I asked why it was painted a bright yellow color, and she said that government buildings in Vietnam are painted yellow.



Our visit coincided with recess, so she introduced me to her daughter and son who were playing in the schoolyard. Afterwards, we walked by picturesque rice fields where I asked Tami why it was mainly the women who were employed in the tourism industry.

“The men work in the fields,” as she pointed to the farmers, “their English is not good so it is hard for them to talk to the tourists.”

At her home she offered me a drink and led me on a quick tour. I asked her how tourism affected her village.

“I like the tourists because it provides money for us,” she replied. “I like it because I get to practice my English.”

The whole time I had my Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera at my side and she looked at it and asked, “Do you want to take a photo?”

I asked her to move to the open doorway where some beautiful, diffused light was coming in.

In the end, we both enjoyed our time together. She wasn’t pressured to make a sale, and I didn’t need to engage in any “run and gun” travel photography.

Even though I took only three photos of Tami, my camera gave me a license to steal an experience that morning.

I think I’ll be returning to Sapa soon.

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