It is a land of mist and mountains, the Himalaya’s eastern extremity that divides Vietnam from China, and the home of Vietnam’s hill tribes. A bulwark against centuries of Chinese invasions but never originally colonized by lowland Vietnamese, Sa Pa District grew out of Hmong and Yao settlements and during France’s colonial rule housed an occupying army garrison. During the First Indochina War (1946-1954) Sa Pa town was destroyed by both the Viet Minh and French and the region was occupied by the Chinese army in the Sino-Vietnamese War. Long isolated for political and cultural reasons, the Hanoi government only opened Sa Pa and its people to the outside world in 1993. 

Five major groups comprise Sa Pa’s ethnic population with the majority being Hmong followed by Dao, Tay, Giay, and Xa Pho. Most hill tribes continue to work the mountainous region’s sloping rice terraces as they have for centuries and it is a poor life in a difficult climate. With 160 days of mist and a single rice crop per year food shortages are habitual throughout Sa Pa’s tribes. The winter’s persistent mist and temperate cold afflict the many communities with respiratory problems and other chronic illnesses. 

Today, Sa Pa’s hill tribes are afflicted by poverty, prostitution and widespread illiteracy, leaving them forgotten and marginalized by Vietnam’s modernized economy and growing prosperity. In spite of these challenges the hill tribes of Sa Pa struggle to maintain their languages and unique cultures in the rugged borderland between the rapidly evolving and ever encroaching states of China and Vietnam.

Sa Pa lies in Lao Cai province, home to 25 of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities who account for 64% of the population.  Hmong are the most prominent ethnic group followed by Dao, Tay, Giay, and Xa Pho.  Many of Sa Pa’s hill tribes originated in southern China and their cultural roots can be traced back some 2,000 years.

Though rich in diversity Sa Pa lies in one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces where Oxfam estimates the per capita GDP at $300, just one fifth the national average.  Education remains a challenge for Sa Pa’s ethnic minority children and according to UNICEF only 60% of them will complete primary school.

Sa Pa has a long history of building and rebuilding.  Sparked by Vietnam’s ousting of the Khmer Rouge, China invaded northern Vietnam in 1979 and Sa Pa was occupied.  After only 28 days China would claim victory and withdraw, leaving 10,000 Vietnamese and 26,000 Chinese dead, and the status quo was reinstated.  Vietnam would continue to dominate Cambodia for another ten years.

Though ethnic minorities represent 11 million of Vietnam’s 87 million people they make up 44% of the national population living in poverty.

In recent years Sa Pa has become a center for child sex tourism, primarily driven by Vietnamese tourists.  According to the US State Department in 2007 eighty cases of child prostitution were uncovered. 

Today agriculture and forestry comprise 78% of the region’s economy and it is a hard life with few rewards; seventy percent of the province lives below the poverty line.  The mountains’ persistent mist and temperate cold afflict the tribal communities with respiratory problems and other chronic illnesses.  Sa Pa’s difficult climate allows for a single rice crop per year and food shortages are a constant concern.

The mountains of Vietnam’s border region have long preserved the hill tribes’ languages and unique cultures but today it leaves them in the shadow of Vietnam’s growing prosperity, marginalized and forgotten.  Time can only tell if they will persevere or, like the mountains, disappear into the clouds. 

THE HILL TRIBES OF SA PA