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.
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