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.

 

Complete Photos

9 thoughts on “Sapa: Extreme Tourism

  1. It’s funny, Sapa was also the very first place we went on our flightless round the world trip that felt so overwhelmed by tourism. And the first place we visited in Vietnam, after arriving on the train to Hanoi from Nanning, and changing straight to Lao Cai. I had very similar feelings about it, though it was winter and probably much quieter.

    When we went back to Hanoi after a few days we decided to buy bicycles and cycle down the country. I’d been wanting to try cycle touring for a while, and it seemed like a good way to get away from the intensity of the backpacker trail. We found suddenly being surrounded by so many other backpackers, and the intense industry that springs up around them, overwhelming. And a bit sad, after the first few months on roads a little less travelled. I hope you can find some corners of the country that are a little less overrun. We totally fell in love with Vietnam in the end, and ended up spending two months. There’s just an atmosphere of life there that sucks you in. I’m kind of envious of you guys being there!

    1. Thanks for reading! I completely agree with your sentiment about being overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of tourists and backpackers everywhere, definitely a shock at first. I am learning to enjoy Vietnam but sometimes I struggle to know at times what is real Vietnam and what is tourist-driven. I think your way of viewing the country by cycling sounds like a good way to understand it, to see the less trodden parts at a slow pace. Unfortunately, due to timings with visa appointments and attempting to get a cargoship to the US, our time in Vietnam is a little rushed. I’m envious you got to spend two months here and see it properly!

        1. Ahh, I just read your next post and comment on it. I will wait to hear! Fingers crossed for you! We had fun with visas and the vagaries of cargo ship travel in Hanoi too. (By fun I mean crying outside the Chinese embassy.)

          1. Haha yes, there’s always a next time/rtw trip! Thank you 🙂 Embassies do like to make things difficult, plenty of hoops to jump through. And yes, Chinese bureaucracy is a real nightmare, I was close to tears just trying to top up our phone the first time.

  2. Hi Rosanna & Mischa. We’ve really enjoyed reading about your travels & remembering a lot of the places we’ve also been to. Try not to be too negative though, it’s all experiences & it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to see the not so good bits as well as the good – it all adds to your experiences. Enjoy!

    1. Hi John and Christine, thanks for reading the blog! Oh yes I agree, learning from bad experiences is part of travelling and life in general. I just think it doesn’t matter whether it was good or bad for us, what’s more important is the effect on the lives of the locals. It’s important to us that we tread as lightly as possible!

    1. Yep! So many international tourists here, most we’ve spoken to are on a couple of weeks holiday. It’s a bit intense how touristy it is, everyone wants us to go on their tour or rent their motorbike.

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