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Ethnic Embroidery Lessons With The Red Dao in Vietnam

Ethnic Embroidery Lesson with the Red Dao in Sapa

Ta Phin is a Red Dao hill tribe village near the Chinese Vietnam boarder. Just a short 3 hour hike from the former French colonial town of Sapa, Ta Phin has become a popular tourist destination for it’s epic landscapes and ethnic minority encounters. It is impossible to walk by the village without seeing a abundance of scarlet clad sewers eagerly stitching their souvenirs to sell to passers by. January 2016 would be my 5th visit to Sapa from my home in Hanoi, only this time I would be taking the traditional textile techniques into my own hands by enrolling on a 1 day Red Dao ethnic embroidery class.

Hiking in Sapa

One of the incredible views on the hike to Tamay’s house in Ta Phin

My Teacher Tamay

Tamay, 45, and mother of 3 is one of the many ethnic minority women employed at Ethos Spirit of Community for her traditional textile expertise and local knowledge. The spectacular sunny morning of our day together came after a bitterly cold 3 day snow down with shocking sub zero temperatures. After buying food for lunch from the local market we motorbiked from Sapa down to Ta Phin village before dismounting for a short 30 minute hike up the hills towards Tamay’s home.

Tamay’s house was a simple structure perched on the precipice of the hill over looking the valley and neighboring Red Dao families below. It was made from wooden planks with a huge open plan interior that had a wood stove fire in the middle of the room for cooking. There were out houses providing shelter for small livestock, vegetable and fruit plantations, an outdoor toilet and herbal bath. We decide the best place to enjoy the embroidery lesson would be outside soaking up the much welcomed sun.

Red Dao embroidery lesson in Sapa

Tamay and I outside her house

Exceptional Ethnic Embroidery

Embroidery skills are extremely important in ethnic minority life. No Red Dao women is seen as fit to marry or even desirable until she has sewn her own clothes. Tamay started learning from her mother at the age of 7 and is now considered one of the most accomplished and respected artisans in her community. Designs representing village life and animist mysticism such as stars, trees, rice terraces and family are meticulously stitched in silk with pin point precision. Every new year it is the wife’s duty to make a new set of clothes for her husband and children in time for Tet holiday at the end of January. Each Red Dao traditional dress includes a intensely embroidered knee length jacket, trousers, belt, necklace and head dress, consuming all their free time after chores for the whole year round.

The Traditional Technique

Watch this short vlog about my day with Tamay and see how I learnt the traditional Red Dao embroidery technique.

I don’t even know how to explain how complicated and time consuming Red Dao embroidery is. The process starts by dividing the silk threads into 3s and twisting them together between the skin on your knee and the palm of your hand. Each stitch is sewn in and out of the tightly woven warp and weft threads in a black cotton fabric. Tamay and her peers must have the eye sight of an eagle as not a single stitch is in the wrong place. Ever. The symbolic motifs and patterns are sewn from the reverse side of the fabric and the sequence of the stitches used to create the design is recalled from memory. It is not simply cross stitch. It took over 3 hours for me to sew that one tree. I cant even begin to contemplate the patience and perseverance required to sew your clothes this way little by little every day.

Textile Tours

It’s one thing to look and admire a piece of textiles for sale in a shop or from a street vendor but it’s another to spend a day with the person that made the product to practice their craftsmanship for yourself. I always appreciated the Red Dao’s exceptional embroidery skills but now I know how long it takes and how under valued their products and time are sold for. I strongly recommend this textile tour with Tamay for any one interested in traditional dress and culture in order to gain perspective and truly understand this unique ethnic art form. To book your day with Tamay contact me at

Are you a embroiderer? Have you visited ethnic minorities in Vietnam or SEA? Do you love ethnic textiles? Please share your experiences, ideas and suggestions in the comments box below.

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  • dreadfarm
    May 31, 2016 at 9:14 am

    nice article, awesome to see you doing such amazing things.

    • donna
      May 31, 2016 at 10:52 am

      Thank you for your support babe 🙂

  • vacanzanomads
    October 15, 2016 at 10:38 am

    “I always appreciated the Red Dao’s exceptional embroidery skills but now I know how long it takes and how under valued their products and time are sold for.”

    Hi Donna– Just came across your website and LOVE it. I’ve been in Hanoi for just under a week and will be in the area for another before heading up to Sa Pa next weekend for a handful of days. I’m so very impressed and enamored by the textiles in this part of the country! I’ve never been a “textiles person” but these fabrics are just… breathtaking. Having recently visited both the Ethnology Museum and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, I’m very much looking forward to my 4 day trip to Sa Pa (and hopefully the Bac Ha Sunday Market). I’m very much a novice though and am not sure what I should expect in terms of shopping in the region. Are these handwoven goods available for purchase in shops or just in markets? What are the typical prices for jackets or scarves or metered cloth? I most certainly want to make sure that I put my money into the hands of the local women making the cloth because I want to support these time-consuming traditions and the women, but I want to avoid be duped or taken advantage of because I’m a terrible bargainer and a true greenhorn in this part of the world.

    Thanks in advance for your sage advice! I’m enjoying all the articles I’ve read so far 🙂

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