For the last part of my time in Vietnam, I headed up to the mountains to visit Sa Pa. My traveling companion and I took an overnight train from Hanoi, and we sprung for the fancy two-person VIP cabin (If you do take the overnight train, get the two-person cabin. On the way back, we got stuck with a four-person cabin with three other passengers - a husband and wife who were having a marital squabble and their poorly-managed two year old who shrieked very loudly every twenty minutes the entire night).
Tet is a great time to be in the area. We were told it's traditional for mothers to work all year to make new clothes for their families, and young people especially come into town to show off their new clothes. Textile specialties in the area include indigo dyeing, intricate cross-stitch, applique, and complex over-shot weaving.
From what we could tell, most of the cash income in the area comes from tourism. Trekking and textiles seem to be the two main draws. Strikingly beautiful young women in full tribal regalia are everywhere in town selling textiles out of baskets they wear on their backs. They are some of the most amazing sales people I have ever seen.
They have a set of stock questions, and if you answer one, you're going to buy something. It starts "where are you from?" and ends with "how old are you? You look so young! Will you buy something from my tribe?" With that pitch, who can resist?
Most of what is sold on the street is decent quality, and the prices aren't that bad - a bit inflated, but not crazy by Western standards. From what I saw, about 80% of the textiles are hand-stitched and virtually everything has been made into pillow covers, bags, etc. It was quite challenging to find textiles in their original state.
We arranged a special trekking tour to visit some villages. We were hoping to visit some of the makers of the textiles, find some treasures, and buy directly from craftspeople. We started out mid-morning, and walked for about 3 miles through the hills. The whole area is full of farm creatures - we saw chickens, ducks, pigs, and water buffalo along the way. It was a beautiful hike and not too warm.
We were "accompanied" by a number of roving textile vendors for the majority of the hike. "Accompanied" in this case means we told them we weren't buying, answered the entire list of vendor questions, and they continued to walk with us and ask the same list of questions again.
At the very end of the hike, we came into a lane full of ladies doing embroidery. About two minutes after we got there, a lookout shouted, and everybody dropped what she was working on - the tour bus had arrived! It was a feeding frenzy. I was glad to be out of the way snapping pictures when it happened.
We headed back to town, and I went shopping. I had found a shop the day before that had a whole table full of un-reconstructed textiles.
I bought a bunch of cross-stitched collars, an apron, embroidered trouser cuffs, and a piece of indigo over-shot weaving to turn into a throw blanket.
I really enjoyed being up in the mountains, and I'm hoping to do more trekking in the area. Next up on the travel list is to visit the China side of the region, via Yunnan province.