The Red Dao embroiderers of Sapa

The Red Dao people are mostly to be found in the mountainous regions of North Vietnam, around Sapa, the main city of the province of Lao Cai, on the Chinese border.
Though the men have progressively adopted a western style, the women continue to wear the traditional costume. It is highly distinctive : an indigo blue tunic adorned with a number of tassels decorated with a red and indigo breastplate, embroidered trousers and leg warmers. The stole that they wear around their heads is the essential piece of their outfit, hiding their very long hair which is attached in a chignon.
The Red Dao women are expert embroiderers and this talent is passed down from mother to daughter, from a very young age. Embroidering is second nature to them : they do it daily, almost mechanically, stood up or with a child in their arms. Skilled and patient, they work complex stitches whose stylised patterns symbolise the surrounding nature, fauna and flora but also certain beliefs and rites of passage : birth, puberty, union and death.
The works made from wild silk thread on cotton or hemp are of superb quality, as much for their composition as for the association of colours obtained by natural pigments : tea leaves, turmeric, indigo…
The embroiderers also add to their creations metal elements like old pieces of money, tin pearls or little bells.
These people have a hard life and their days are full, between the work in the paddy fields, the daily household chores and the making of their costumes and those of their children.
With an increase in tourism in the Sapa region, the commercialisation of the local community’s crafts has become a considerable source of revenue.
Some women have joined a cooperative, such as those in the village of Ta Phin. They hold a stall in a covered market and sell their products: silver jewellery, clothes, belts and bags decorated with fine brocades, of appliquéd braids and tangled geometric details.
The sale of their textile work has become for them a way of encouraging the protection and transmission of their craft and their customs, but also, and most importantly, a way of escaping poverty.