Textiles and Tourism: Vietnam

Earlier this summer I had the good fortune to take a group of students to Vietnam for a class titled “Food, Fashion, and Art through Tourism: Imagining the Nation of Vietnam.” Team-taught with my K-State colleague Dr. Michele Janette, we structured the class to allow for many experiences that would introduce students to the ways Vietnam is promoted to tourists, especially the role of clothing and textiles in performing culture and identity.

Hmong Mountain retreat includes a 70 year-old traditional Hmong home and incredible views

One of the most successful offerings to tourists for many years in southeast Asia has been mountain trekking and home-stays with minority ethnic groups. The Hmong are among the largest ethnic minorities in the mountains across southeast Asia, having migrated from the southwest regions of China in the nineteenth century. We arrived in Sapa – an overnight train ride from Hanoi and former French way station at the Chinese border – and began our stay in the region at the Hmong Mountain retreat outside of Sapa on the side of a mountain.

Ta May with a KSU student at the Hmong Mountain retreat


Ta May’s embroidery

The manager Ta May is Red Dao, another large ethnic group similar to Hmong. She was stitching spectacular embroidery for her garments and her family’s whenever there was a little down time, and was very generous answering our questions about her work.

Lan demonstrated weaving for the students at a stop on our trek

Our relatively modest 8 km trek the next day was led by Lan, one of the founders of Sapa Sisters, a trekking/guide company begun by Hmong women when they were teenagers. Lan is Black Hmong, one of many sub-groups of Hmong who can be recognized by the different traditional clothing styles. Lan learned textile skills growing up, but said she only has time for cross-stitch now. The success of Sapa Sisters keeps her very busy with many employees.
The greatest concentration of Flowery Hmong is in this region, but short of hiking to multiple villages, the best way to see a great number of garments and textiles is a trip to Bac Ha market, about a two hour drive from Sapa. It also was the part of our itinerary that we hoped might show a less touristy slice of Vietnam, as a point of comparison for the students. We didn’t see as many tourists due to low season, and it is still an important Sunday market for locals. But tourism has been embedded long enough that the selling was equally aggressive to the busiest cities, with many tourist products made from old repurposed paj ntaub as elsewhere in southeast Asia.

Flowery Hmong shopping at Bac Ha market

To close, I want to mention the tour we did of street food by motorcycle in Saigon. Our female tour guides/ drivers were all dressed in matching ao dai, traditional Vietnamese garments worn by women of the majority culture in the past. Today donning an ao dai is largely confined to those working in the tourist industry or worn for celebrations such as weddings and festivals. However, the foodie tour and conversation with young Hmong and Dao women we met about their contemporary views of traditional ethnic clothing were meaningful in understanding the role textiles and clothing play in representing complex cultural codes and the idea of nation in Vietnam.

Our Vietnamese foodie guides

Author’s 2 line bio: Geraldine Craig is Department Head of Art at Kansas State University, and a Director-at-Large TSA Board member.