The Red Dao hill tribe population of Sapa are one subdivision of Dao people living in the highlands of North Vietnam. Red Dao women are considered the most skilled embroiders of all hill tribes. Their scarlet drenched ensembles are sophisticated examples of hand stitched cultural symbology and showcase generations of dedication to sewn storytelling. The Red Dao wedding dress is seen as the summit of success in a women’s sewing accomplishments. Mother and daughter are known spend up to 1 year making nothing else but a brand new ceremonial outfit in preparation for the big day.
In Red Dao culture embroidery is not seen as a mere leisurely past time but an important responsibility undertaken by the women to maintain the traditions and stories of their culture. Red Dao women can be seen sewing round the clock only taking a break for cooking, cleaning and caring for family members. Around the age of 8 most girls start learning hand embroidery from older female relatives. By the time they reach a marriage appropriate age, a women’s ability to sew is deemed as one of the a desirable qualities a potential husband is looking for.
It is recorded that a Red Dao bride walks veiled to the grooms house in a carnival style procession with an entourage of musicians, singers and guests by her side. Once at the house the local shaman performs a series of rituals, offering gifts of food and wine to the ancestors and chanting spells to expel evil spirits and bless the new couple with happiness and longevity.
Much to my disappointment I have not attended a Red Dao wedding, despite being invited on 2 occasions. In April 2015 I traveled to the Red Dao village of Ta Phin, a 13 km walk from Sapa town where I was holidaying with my mum. I enquired with our guide at the time of our booking if it would be possible for me to learn about Red Dao wedding outfits, as I had seen how spectacular they were displayed at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi.
Below is a short video where I interviewed a Red Dao family about their culture, traditions and clothes. I got the rare opportunity to learn about the Red Dao wedding dress and how it was worn with the help of my hosts and guide.
Trekking to Ta Phin
How to get there
1. There is no train station in Sapa, I have only ever taken the overnight sleeper train which departs from Hanoi train station at 8:30pm and arrives in Lao Cai City at 5am in the morning. Tickets cost around $50 one way , tickets must be booked in advance the train is always sold out. You can purchase tickets from the station or a local travel agent in the old quarter. There is normally around 50 touts waiting for you at the Lao Cai exit trying to sell bus tickets to Sapa for around 50.000 – 100.000 vnd. From my experience if you include waiting time and drops offs this will add another 2 hours onto your journey.
2. As of August 2014 a new super speedy highway has opened up a direct route from Hanoi to Sapa. Apparently this only takes 4 hours by car and 6 hours by coach. Sapa Express offers this for service for a mear $17.50
Where to stay
I honestly can’t remember where we stayed in Sapa town. There are guest houses and hotels everywhere for around 300.000 vnd £9 or $15 more or less.
What to expect from a Home Stay
1. Electricity is usually only on for a few hours per day, if at all.
2. Basic accommodation, expect an open plan dorm style room in a barn or out house. Mattress is often on the floor.
3. Bugs, you are normally in the countryside so take mosquito repellant.
4. Bathrooms are very basic, squat toilets and cold water troughs with buckets for bathing. Take your own toilet roll.
5. You eat dinner with the family.
6. Being woke up at 6am by cockerels/pigs/kids.
Have you been to Sapa and met the Red Dao? Have you done a homestay with a hill tribe before? What do you think of Red Dao embroidery? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts in the comments box below.
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