Dressing up in Sapa - Rusty Compass travel blog

Dressing up in Sapa

| 19 Jan 2014
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19 Jan 2014

Staff in many of Sapa's hotels and restaurants wear traditional ethnic minority costumes. Is this a celebration of special cultures or another cheap shot?

In recent years, some hotels in Sapa have taken to employing staff from the local Hmong and other ethnic-minority communities. It's a great thing - if it's done properly. It can also mean more exploitation though. As a traveller, it's difficult to pick one from the other.

During my recent travels to the area, a young Hmong girl told me  in one hotel that she was well looked after and appreciated the training the hotel was providing. But she regretted that the hotel required her to wear a more colourful minority costume than that of her native Black Hmong.

At another hotel, a young waitress decked out in Hmong costume told me she was Vietnamese from a province outside of Hanoi and that while the staff were all decked out in ethic minority kit, the hotel didn't employ anyone from the local ethnic minorities.

Ethnic Dzao seller upstairs in Sapa market.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Ethnic Dzao seller upstairs in Sapa market.

Employing ethnic minorities in good jobs has to be a good thing - whether they wear their traditional costume or not. Forcing minority people to wear a costume other than their own seems odd. Forcing ethnic-Vietnamese to wear the costumes of living cultures surrounding the town seems plain wrong, patronising and  exploitative.

The balance seems to be a little better at Hillstation restaurant, owned by a local Hmong woman a Dane and a Norwegian. Most of the staff are from local minorities - including the kitchen staff. And the focus of the restaurant is the cuisine of local minorities.

The team at Hillstation Signature Restaurant, Sapa
Photo: Mark Bowyer The team at Hillstation Signature Restaurant, Sapa


Hillstation Signature Restaurant, Sapa
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hillstation Signature Restaurant, Sapa

Meanwhile out in the villages, while traditional dress is still very visible, it seems to be in decline. More and more of the local minority village dwellers wear a mix of western and traditional clothes.

It's an inevitable if regrettable transition. Many ethnic groups in Vietnam's north threw off their traditional costumes long ago. It's remarkable how strongly the Black Hmong and some other groups have held on to theirs.

Fewer Hmong in villages around Sapa seem to be wearing the traditional costume.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Fewer Hmong in villages around Sapa seem to be wearing the traditional costume.

Any visitor to Sapa will quickly work out that the traditional cultures of the area, mainly ethnic Hmong, are marginalised. Whether it's in the local market, where they're shunted upstairs, or in the general tourist economy, where they're rarely employed. Their share of the tourism economy remains low - despite the fact that curiousity about these cultures is a major driver of tourism to the area. I'm doubtful that the tokenistic use of traditional costumes in hotels and restaurants will do anything to improve the problem.


I dined anonymously at Hillstation Signature Restaurant and Hillstation Deli and paid in full. I later met the owners Tommy and Soren to discuss their work. I have no affiliation with their restaurants.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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