Friday, October 24, 2008

Hill Tribes of Sapa

There a hundreds of minority groups who live in the mountains around Sapa, the French called them Montagnards (highlanders or mountain people). Each tribe has it's own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs and it has been one of the undoubted highlights of my trip to visit some of their villages and meet them.

Most minority people live a rural / agricultural lifestyle with their houses raised on stilts and finished in natural materials in harmony with the environment. It is a hard life and despite improvements in rural schools and regional healthcare, many minority people marry young, have large families and die young.

The Red Dzao, pictured with me above, are one of the most colourful of the tribes and are easy to recognise due to their red head dress, intricate weaving, silver-coloured beads and coins on their clothing. Like in other parts of Asia, the traditional culture of so many ethnic minority groups are gradually giving way to outside influences, but it seems to be the women who are helping to keep their traditional culture alive, weaving traditional clothing and passing on this knowledge to their daughters.

While an increase in tourism has led to more revenue, cross-cultural understanding, improved infrastructure, such as roads, and employment opportunities such as guides, there is also a downside. Often the minority people themselves are not the main beneficiaries of tourism activities and have no say or control over its development. Tourism also increases litter and pollutants, lead to dependency on the tourist dollar, and potentially the erosion of local values and practices.

A good resource on how to minimise your impact when visiting such villages is

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