Sapa, a place we probably shouldn’t have visited.
Nestled high in the mountains in a north-western province along the border with China is TT Sa Pa, known as Sapa in a lot of foreign information. I personally picked this place to visit a long time ago after reading about it somewhere and seeing a few photos online. If I had done more research then perhaps we wouldn’t have gone, we probably would have jumped on the first available 9 hour train to Hanoi from the border town we entered.
It is in fact the most stunning place I have ever seen. Rice paddies run like literal contours around the perfect hills which roll down the valleys from the cloud capped mountains behind. One of these mountains is Fansipan, the highest in Vietnam, and all of Indochina, at 3,143m. The wooden houses dotted amongst the fields form villages belonging to many different ethnic minorities, each having their own unique, beautiful and bright clothing and distinct language.
“Do you think tourism good or bad for Sapa?” Mischa asked our local guide from the nearby Hmong village of Lao Chải where we would stop for lunch. “I didn’t have a job before tourism came and until 7 years ago my village had no school,” she replied. We continued walking along and between the empty rice paddies with our group of foreign tourists. Our end destination was the Giáy village of Ta Van, leaving behind the luxury hotels climbing back up into the town, each with their own set of balconies and high price views down onto the villages. More and more are being built, the town itself is full of construction. Strings of tourists stride along the edge of muddy paddies below and above us, each following their guide in a slightly different yet local-only knowing path.
The younger British man from Essex jokes he wants to marry a Vietnamese bride and live in one of the villages. The Vietnamese live in Sapa, she replies, the minorities live in the valleys. They go to Sapa as guides or to sell local wares. Stepping off the public bus we were surrounded by vietnamese men offering transport by motorbike to our hotel. After politely refusing several times, we were next approached by old women and young girls wearing different traditional dresses selling jewellery, bags and clothes on foot. They have walked up from their valley homes to meet us and they’ve learnt their easily understood english from foreigners. We hear “buy shopping” from one and “buy from me, I give you cheap price” from a girl around 10 years old, pushing her handmade bracelets towards us.
Signs are up all over the town asking tourists not to buy from street vendors, not to take photos of minorities without asking as for some this goes against their beliefs and not to give children sweets. Yet numerous tourists, domestic and foreign, ignore this advice every day. In Sapa and the surrounding area the people have limited dental hygiene education we are told. A Vietnamese tourist gives a sweet smiling Hmong girl a lollipop and she promptly rips the wrapper off and let’s it go midair to float away on the wind stuffing the lolly in her mouth, her mother says nothing.
On a different day we walked through Catcat, another Hmong village, and witnessed a European tourist take numerous photos of children playing down a street. He stops at an old woman sitting next to her stall and asks to take her photo, pointing at his impressive camera. Please buy something, she replies with a point to her wares. He doesn’t want to buy anything, he says with a smile and takes her photo anyway.
The town is Vietnamese and the advice is to buy from the shops, but does that mean the money stays with the shop owners? They buy the handmade items from the women to prevent them selling on the streets, but do they buy at a fair price? I have no idea. An article from 4 years ago says how the money never makes it to the villages, has it changed? Perhaps the women can’t be blamed for wanting to walk miles uphill and sending their girls to sell goods instead of sending them to school as they see it as the only way to bring money down from the town. We booked our guided tour through the tourist information office and bought souvenirs from the Sapa Museum, having read that was the ethical thing to do. Yet, we don’t know how much our guide received and how much went to the makers of the gifts. Did we do the right thing?
We left Sapa after three full days of walking through mesmerising landscapes. The nice family running our hostel helped us to enjoy our time there and it truly was one of the most beautiful places I have seen and probably will see in my lifetime. Mixed feelings is all I can say. And I don’t mean to write this to tell you not to go, just maybe that we as tourists should be more aware of our impact in choosing where we visit. After a few more years of construction in the name of tourism, it’ll be a very different place.