Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Many ethnic minorities live in and around Sapa. Excluding the Kinh people or ethnic Vietnamese, eight different ethnic minority groups are found in Sapa. They include H’mong (pronounced Mong), Dao (pronounced Yao), Tay, Giay (pronounced Zai), Muong, Thai, Hoa (ethnic Chinese) and Xa Pho (a denomination of the Phu La minority group). However, the last four groups comprise less than 500 people in total. The population of the district is estimated at 31,652 (1993) of which 52% are H’mong, 25% are Dao, 15% are Kinh, 5% are Tay and 2% are Giay. Around 3,300 people live in Sapa town, and the remainder are peasant farmers distributed unevenly throughout the district.
Bear in mind that some of the minorities do not wish to have photos taken of them – ask permission beforehand. To ask for permission, smile, lower your head down and raise your camera up to ask. If you take pictures of anyone, it’s considered polite to show them their pictures. Most won’t charge you for a photo.
Bring along a poncho, or you can also buy a cheap one in the many shops around. Rubber boots and trekking shoes can be rented from some shops or perhaps at the hotel you are staying in. However, do bear in mind that they have limited sizes. If you are going trekking these are highly recommended, particularly if it has been raining!
Do buy some hand made items direct from the ethnic minorities, especially if you have enjoyed a good conversation or received help from them. Though they do charge slightly more than the shops, bear in mind that the majority of them are very poor and depend on tourist money to survive.
Children from these ethnic minorities often begin to support their families financially through selling trinkets to tourists. Do not encourage this by buying from children – buy from adults. They peddle small metal or silver trinkets, embroidered pillow cases and friendship bands in the main town, and often walk for several hours from their surrounding villages to reach the town. At the end of the day, some take a motorbike ride back to their village, some walk home and some sleep in the market. Children have poor or non-existent dental hygiene. As the signs around town say, do not give them candy or sweets – it will cause dental issues. If you want to give them something, safe toys from your home are highly regarded. It has become customary to hand out toothbrushes to the children.
There are schools in Sapa’s villages. Most of them lack essential learning tools like books, pens or pencils. Give those to the teachers if you’d like.
If you want to support the ethnic minorities, try to hire a guide directly instead of doing it through your hotel.