Being a popular tourist destination, cheap souvenirs and local handicrafts are aplenty in Sapa. People want to take a part of the beautiful culture back home as these items symbolize the unique culture, traditions and the soul of the people. To be able to make an honest living, the hill tribes people trek surprisingly long distances from far away villages to be able to sell you their products that range from simple accessories such as bracelets and tribal wear, to dried food and even silver.
Wherever you walk in Sapa town, it is likely you will bump into a female from the age of five and up trying to sell you some handcrafted good. A bracelet will only cost you VND$10,000 which is just about USD$0.50. A small purse can cost around VND$100,000 (USD$5.00), but you can barter it down. We do not recommend that you do so, because a lot of effort is put into these items and lowering the price by a dollar could mean a whole day’s meals for them.
Brocade such as scarves, bags, quilts, embroidered jackets and woven skirts similar to those seen on local women are all meticulously hand-made with skills passed down through generations. It may take a person days or even months to finish a single item.
The Sapa market is a fabulous display of colors and warm smiles. You will find plenty of the aforementioned items spread out in front of each vendor who have created makeshift stalls for themselves on blankets. These H’Mong, Dzao and other ethnic minority ladies are lovely, hospitable, always smiling and completely enticing. Members of different tribes mingle together, and even though their outfits may look similar to the untrained eye, they have significant differences identifying each tribe, usually on the headpiece or other accessories. Most of these ladies even speak decent English, so you can talk to them and understand what it is all about.
Hemp is commonly grown around as the strong fibers are used to make clothes. Cotton and linen are also collected from the forest and silkworms are raised to make the beautiful silk thread used for embroidery. The colors, too, are made with natural ingredients. Yellow is made from turmeric, black from a local leaf, red and brown from the rind of local trees and blue from indigo leaves. With these, the locals get creative about patterns and styles. They really are a unique kind of beautiful.
Dried and packaged medicinal herbs are also available, and they confer a lot of health benefits to the user. You can use these as you please – as tea, mixed into food, added into a herbal bath or even used with a nice, aromatic massage. Raw honey is a Sapa favorite, as is ta meo fruit, a local apple. Dried produce is also popular, such as horse meat and buffalo.
Local fruits and vegetables are also sold in large colorful piles. The two most popular fruits one can find in Sapa are peach and pear. Vegetables such as radish, carrot, ginger, potatoes, eggplants are abundant, and often found in northern cuisine.
Bamboo sticky rice is a popular snack in Sapa and it is cooked in cut and carved up bamboo sections. The bamboo keeps the rice fresh for the long walks of the tribes people, makes it easy to transport, and also adds a little bit of flavor.
Despite the competition of industrial products, the high-quality knives made by the H’mong are still much sought-after by farmers. It may be a little hard taking these through airport security. Make sure you declare the items so you do not get arrested.
Silver is also made by numerous ethnic groups. The H’Mong and Dzao are known for their necklaces made of several silver circles put together. The weight of the bracelet is often an indicator of the person’s status. The shapes of these jewelry pieces are also a way of telling the tribes apart. These silver bangles can be quite expensive.
Whatever it is you decide to buy and take home will be unique, and rarely found outside of Vietnam. The items will have special memories tied to them and will only let you happily reminisce about the adventures you’ve had in the northern hill station of Sapa. Make sure you tell the stories behind the items you are gifting to your friends and family – it will make the gifts that much more special.