Category Archives: culture


There are several tribes in this area, each living in a separate village and wearing their own traditional dress. The tribes don’t speak the same language, so most locals have to learn the dialect of their village and official Vietnamese to be able to communicate. Regardless of the tribe, though, primary sources of income are rice, tourism, and crafts. The most popular crafts are brightly-colored embroidered clothes, purses, blankets, belts, and anything else you could embroider, really. Other than clothes there are carved stone items and jewelry. These are sold at the Sapa market, in little shops in the villages, and by women and girls of all ages going around the streets with baskets. “Buy fro meee,” they whine. These street vendors are ones who cannot afford their own shop or spot at the market, and their business doesn’t seem to be going too well for them.


Co, our Sapa tour guide, and I after the second hike.

Co, our Sapa tour guide, and I after the second hike.

Co was our tour local guide in Sapa. She learned English from the tourists and spoke very well, her vocabulary and ability to communicate easily rivaling that of some graduate students I’ve met. She was our guide for two days and told some interesting stories about the area and about herself.

Showing us around Catcat village, she led is around a few shops set up for tourists to view how local goods are made. In one shop Co explained that the locals make their clothes from hemp and for the new year dye them a special shiny purple. The dye is made from a plant that grows in the area and is boiled for 2 days before it can be used to color clothes. Another shop had traditional medicines, including, i’m not kidding, tiger penis and bear gall bladder.

Co said that traditionally the locals marry very early at age 16 or so, and until just a couple of years ago, the marriage was set up by parents without the couple’s consent. Once the parents agreed to a marriage, they ask the shaman to kill two chickens, one male and one female. If the chicken’s feet were open, the marriage would be considered unlucky and called off. Otherwise, the parents negotiate a price for the bride and off she goes.

In fact, that’s how Co was married. First there was a boy from another tribe after her when she was 16 whom she refused. She ran away to Hanoi for a week, came back and everything was okay. But some time later she met another boy in the street and didn’t think anything of it until a week later his parents came and took her to their house. She said she didn’t want to marry, but her parents insisted: she was already 18, too old to be unmarried, they said. The boy’s family had already killed the chickens, drank the wine, paid 7 million Viet Dong, 20 kg of chicken, and 80kg of pork to her parents. It was too late. She tried to run away but they brought her back. She says she would have rather gone to Hanoi to go to college, but now she’s got family, she’s got a baby, she can’t.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi

I arrived in Hanoi just in time to celebrate Tet, the lunar new year.

Similarly to Western tradition, people celebrate with toasting at midnight, fireworks, and celebrating out in the streets.

But unlike the Western new year, Tet is a family holiday and is associated with many traditions. Some of these traditions I had heard about from my grad student friends from this part of the world and others were completely new…

Nguoi xong dat: Land blesser? Luck bringer? the person in the family who was born on a lucky year should be the first to enter the house. He or she will bring luck and prosperity.

Bring home a branch: after going out to greet the year with everyone, you should pick a tree branch and bring it home. It will bring health and luck to the house. To represent this branch, many people in Hanoi buy sticks of sugar cane so as to not destroy the trees in the city.

Chi's father presented me with this branch from his star fruit tree for luck

Chi's father presented me with this branch from his star fruit tree for luck

Little red envelopes: older relatives give red envelopes with lucky money to younger relatives.

Burning money: you can buy toy money, clothes, and other necessities and burn them (usually in front of your house). The burned items will turn into real stuff for your deceased relatives in the afterlife.

On the way back from the fireworks, the streets were full of people burning money.

On the way back from the fireworks, the streets were full of people burning money.

Family time: on the first day of Tet you visit your father’s family. On the second day of Tet you visit your mother’s family. On the Third day of Tet you visit your friends. And the fourth day of Tet is a good day to open doors for business.