You can’t plan a Sapa itinerary without visiting and learning about one of their many tribes! We had a chance to get to know the Red Dzao tribe in particular as they live in the village that surrounds the Topas Riverside Lodge. I learned so much and, of course, had so many photos I wanted to share, so here’s a lil bonus post of our experience!
I’ll be honest; I’ve done next to no research about the almost mysterious Sapa region of Vietnam. When I was invited to check out the newly renovated Topas Riverside Lodge, I vaguely knew we’d visit with some of the tribes and do some rice field trekking but otherwise I look into much else. Lucky for me we had some lovely guides in first Cuong and then Kien who were able to both translate and guide us around!
Since the Red Dzao live in Nam Cang village, where the lodge is located, we saw some of the members as soon as we hopped off our long van ride from Hanoi. To get to the lodge, there’s a tiny bit of a walk that takes you through the everyday sights, smells, and activities of the locals. You’ll pass by cheeky kids and their curious parents on the way and can recognize the Red Dzao best by the red details of their outfits.
“Foraging” for Herbs
Our first activity, after checking in and sitting down to a huge lunch spread at Topas, was titled “Explore the jungle with a Red Dzao specialist, foraging for spices and herbs.” Sounds quaint right? I almost stayed in a dress!
Turns out foraging more meant hiking as we followed Cuong and Mai, a local Red Dzao woman and our herb specialist, through an uphill bamboo forest. While Mai expertly chopped down herbs, Cuong explained to us that women are taught young to know what to chop and what to leave. They have their own names for it in their language that even he couldn’t quite translate into Vietnamese and then English for us.
All I know is Mai seemed as cool as a cucumber as she led us through the forest, and she was the one doing all the work! We’d see her whip out her knife, chop up some herbs, tie them together, and then slowly fill the basket on her back. Meanwhile we were instantly sweaty; huffing and puffing as we tried to keep up, and, of course, swatting away mosquitos unsuccessfully.
There were definitely points Cuong had to physically hold my hand to help me down our hike, which gave me flashbacks to my Bali sunrise hike four years ago, ha!
Back at the main house, Mai went to work chopping up the herbs she’d just collected while we stood around and learned a bit more about the tradition of herbal baths and why, of course, women would go through all the trouble!
Turns out these baths are the stuff of miracles. I’m sure any scientist reading this is rolling their eyes, but I’m just saying every single one of the Red Dzao women we met, whether young or older, had some superb skin and I don’t think they’re stocking up on Banana Boat sunscreen each time they go to town.
These baths do everything from helping with digestion issues to fighting off illness to helping with skin and blood circulation. There’s probably a lot more. The most interesting thing I found was how they help with post-birth healing. Apparently, Red Dzao women bathe in these herbs every day for three days after giving birth and are able to be back to work. Three days! I don’t even feel like working after three days on my period, and I can literally do my job lounging in sweats on the couch.
Anyway, after a bit, the water was boiled, and it was time to see what these mythical waters were all about. I did attempt to say hello to this cat before going off to the baths, but he was not interested.
Red Dzao Herbal Bath Time!
Our baths were in these circular tubs with two in one room and three in another. Amandine and I hopped into the smaller room while Frances, Alexis, and Elena went into the other. You can bathe naked or in a swimsuit and since I missed the memo on bringing mine with me, I got in without anything on. Thinking the bubbles in the tub would keep me modest, imagine my horror when I stepped in and half the water splashed out immediately. Ha!
I think if you stay there will be a brand new bathhouse with proper tubs and such, so it’ll be a little more private and relaxing than our tub experience, but I did think this was fun! It reminded me of the Bagby Springs hike I did in Oregon, only a lot less work on my end. The water has this nice reddish tint to it and is quite relaxing all things considered.
Unfortunately, all of us were still very hot from the hiking, so we did not last an hour like they generally recommend. We maybe lasted 15 minutes before immediately overheating. But hey, any mosquito bites seemed to instantly disappear, and I did feel like my skin had been nicely refreshed after a few months in Saigon’s sun and pollution!
Learning More About Red Dzao Culture
While we learned a few things about the Red Dzao tribe during our herbal bath experience, our real history lesson would come the next day as we spent the morning with first Phang and later Guyen. Phang is an elder member of the tribe and also a host of the lodge while Guyen is one of the two silversmiths in Nam Cang. First up, Phang!
With the help of Kien, our guide, we learned that the Red Dzao tribe comes from Hainan Island around the 12th century and migrated to both this area and some parts of China. You can see the influence as their writing is traditional Chinese though they have their own language. They practice a mix of a religion that has various influences including Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.
Phang also showed us some of the traditions of her tribe, specifically their traditional dress. Each Red Dzao women who’s married has a similar outfit, complete with this red headpiece and a long navy blue top and bottom. Additionally, married women often shave off their hair and eyebrows.
Apparently, this is because back in the day a tribe leader became ill after a meal. He decided it was from hair that had gotten in his food, so he declared all women had to shave their hair to prevent it happening again.
Anyhow, the Red Dzao outfits, like other tribes in Sapa, are not simple. They have complex embroidery and designs that are sewn by both hand and machine. Each woman is responsible for making new outfits for her family for Tet, and it usually takes all year to complete. I mean, with those details I’m not surprised.
Phang also told us a bit more about their marriage traditions. Many Red Dzao marry quite young, around 17 or 18 years old.
There’s also the matter of a dowry where the groom’s parents offer silver coins and other things to the bride’s family. Apparently, this is how your worth as a bride is determined. According to Phang, her sister got more silver coins than she did! Some of these coins are taken to a local silversmith to be melted down into the buttons and necklaces you see above.
I’ll admit, I was a little distracted while Phang and Kien were telling us about the tribe, but I did catch all the above ;)
Beyond making clothes, another thing the Red Dzao do is make bamboo paper. Phang gave us a little demonstration to show how they take the pulp of a bamboo and break it down to eventually make a nice, durable surface to write on!
It reminds me a lot of hanji in Korea, though that’s made out of paper mulberry bark not bamboo. They use it in similar ways. The main ones are for worship and for books, where they record their family history. If you look, each door will have a small bit of bamboo paper hanging that’s meant to keep out bad spirits. Like Korea, they also use it for less elevated reasons, like as lamp shades!
Of course, a big part of the Red Dzao’s economy is their farming. They mainly harvest cardamom, rice, and corn. I believe there’s a jungle trek option from Topas you can take to see more of this, but, uh, we opted to stay back at the lodge and enjoy the scenery instead, ha!
Meeting Guyen, the Silversmith
Anyway, after we left Phang, we met Guyen, a silversmith! Like I said above, silver coins are melted down to make buttons and necklaces for married women. Well, in Nam Cang village, Guyen is one of the men to do it! He showed us how he melts down the coins as well as how he uses a sort of blow method to create the tiny, intricate designs.
Guyen told us he’d been a silversmith since his teenage years. He had gotten a thorn stuck in his foot that took two years to come out, so he couldn’t go into the mountains like the other men in his tribe. He instead studied silver, getting some examples from a former silversmith to learn and practice from.
One fun fact is that he uses an old currency called piastre. I had no idea what this was at the moment, so I had to look it up. Back when Vietnam was part of French Indochina, they had their own currency called the piastre, which included these silver coins. Guyen said since his teen years when he started making silver, he had 40 of these coins left.
Topas Riverside Lodge
Of course, all of this was organized by Topas Riverside Lodge, where we stayed. Their guides have a trusted relationship with local tribes, which makes everyone more at ease. The nice thing is because the lodge is in Nam Cang village, we could walk everywhere easily and see the Red Dzao go about their daily life. To me it helped make us feel less like we were being given a show and more like we were just being introduced to the culture, which I much prefer.
If you want to check out Topas Riverside Lodge for yourself, you can look at their website here. They’re offering really great deals at the moment, including an Insta Summer Jungle Break I think sounds amazing. If you email firstname.lastname@example.org with Instasummer_Sam, you can find out more about them.
For 5.7million VND ($248 USD) for 2 people, the Jungle Break includes:
- 2 nights are the Riverside Lodge
- Full Meals (2B, 2L, 2D)
- Day Pass to the Eco Lodge so you can use the famous pool. Also includes a shuttle to and from.
- 1 Herbal Bath at either the Eco Lodge spa or, if it’s completed by your stay, you can do it at the Riverside Lodge.
That gives you a day to do one of the culture activities like meeting Phang and Guyen while also experiencing the famous herbal bath and getting a little fancy and checking out the famous infinity pool.
Booking is good to July 2nd and you can book as far in advance as December 20th!
Have you been to Sapa? Which tribes did you visit?
For more Vietnam travel, first check out my trip planning post. Then check out my first timer guides to Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, Hoi An (including hiking the Marble Mountains and getting clothes tailor made), Halong Bay, and Hanoi.