The Red Dao people of Sapa

Nga Do
The origin of the Red Dao, pronounced Red Yao, is not clear. They originally came from China. They are one of the 54 ethnic groups that are officially recognized in Vietnam. In the last census taken in the year 2000, there were found to be 2,637,421 in China, and approximately 470,000 in Vietnam. They are believed to have arrived not long before the H’mong tribes during the 18th Century. Their language is certainly one of the H’Mong languages and their writing utilizes Chinese characters, these have been adjusted to suit their different spellings of words.

The Red Dao people of Sapa
Photo by Quangpraha
The Red Dao typically build houses that are rectangular and are constructed using wood and bamboo. Each dwelling normally has three rooms: a living room and two dormitories on the sides. Each room will have a small oven for cooking.

These people still wear their tradition ethnic costumes and live lives unchanged little, for centuries. Both men and the women generally cover their heads with black or red scarves. The women will sometimes substitute this scarf for a turban. The traditional dress of the women is a brightly colored blouse worn over long trousers. The blouse is an intricately embroidered affair, which is normally decorated with silver. Both men and women wear their hair in a similar way; long on top, with the rest cleanly shaved. In addition, most women will also shave their eyebrows.

The Red Dao practice their own form of Taoism, based on the older Chinese equivalent. Though in recent years, some have converted to Christianity or Buddhism. This however, has had little impact on the way they live their lives. They still practice all the traditional customs connected to their tribe. Among these is there practice of arranged marriage. A village elder will act as a go between and will represent the boy’s family to that of the girl. If the union is acceptable to both parties, a price for the bride is agreed. This is normally somewhere between US$300 and US$1000. Payment is normally made in the form of silver bars worth about US$100 each, though silver coins, chickens, pigs and jars of rice wine are also acceptable. The marriage ceremony itself is in two main parts. First a small ceremony at the boy’s house, the guests then process through the village to the girl’s house to conclude proceedings. They marry very young normally at aged about 14 or 15.

The Red Dao practice and are experts in the field of herbal medicine. They use many treatments especially medicinal baths and know which plants from the forest to use to treat many illnesses. Tourism is fast having an effect on the financial situations of these people. It is now possible to book homestay visits with them. It is a fascinating way to engage with these friendly people. To see them genuinely in their real habitat is a very fulfilling thing to do. Vietnam is rightly proud of its ethnic minority people. Taking the opportunity to engage with them will provide you with an unforgettable experience.

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