Vietnam is one of the most diverse countries I’ve visited in SE Asia. It’s dramatically different from north to south, both topographically and culturally. You can’t really say you’ve seen Vietnam if you’ve only been in the south or the north, but not both.
The southern part of Vietnam is generally hot year round, with a dry season and a wet season. Northern Vietnam, by contrast, has 4 seasons, and can be quite cool in the winter months. Although snow is rare, it does happen some years in the far north. Cuisine is different, languages are different, and even clothing is different.
A woman dressed in traditional Red Hmong clothing, poses outside Sapa, Vietnam.
An elderly woman wears the traditional colours of the Flower Hmong hill tribe, outside Sapa, Vietnam.
It’s commonly said (though not officially) that people in the north part of Vietnam are more culturally aware, more conservative and more interested in their appearance. Although this is a stereotype, it plays itself out in Hanoi and further north, in my opinion.
A small group of Flower Hmong women sit in the market in Bac Ha, outside Sapa, Vietnam.
In Sapa, which is an overnight journey north of Hanoi, the residents personify this stereotype in every day life. Hmong ethnic groups populate much of the city and the surrounding villages. The Hmong people likely originated in what is now southern China many centuries ago, and now inhabit northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
A Blue Hmong woman makes a transaction with a young Flower Hmong woman, in the Bac Ha Market, outside Sapa, Vietnam.
There are many different tribes among the Hmong. Although they share the same origin, they have different languages, cultures and ways of dressing. Luckily for those of us who are just visitors to the region, each Hmong group can be identified by the color of the clothing they wear.
When you’re in Sapa and the villages nearby, you’ll encounter Red Hmong, Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and others. The traditional dress among these tribes is very colorful, and unique to each tribe. You can likely identify each group visually, even from a distance.
A Blue Hmong woman sells fabrics in the Bac Ha market outside Sapa, Vietnam.
From my visits in Sapa, photographing Hmong women was one of the greatest experiences. They were quite friendly, and eager to engage in conversations. I have to assume that they are quite accustomed to visitors in their area, and are always being photographed. In most cases, they would have something to sell me, and sometimes I would buy whatever it was they had. It was never expensive, and it helped to keep their interest in being photographed.
In the village of Bac Ha, which is a few hours drive away from Sapa, there is a large market that takes place ever Sunday. In this market, you see a large concentration of Hmong people selling their produce, crafts and animals. You’ll see everything from cows, horses and chickens to ceramics, food and clothing. It’s the largest market in the area, and well worth the time it takes to visit.
Make the effort to plan a trip to Sapa when you can. Spending time with the wonderful Hmong people will bring memories and amazing photographs to cherish.