The fog clung hard to the hills as we made our way out of Lao Cai and towards Sapa, Northern Vietnam’s prime destination for those after hilly treks and tribal encounters. Having not managed to reach this town and its surrounding villages on my last visit to Vietnam nine years ago, I was excited and intrigued to take in the views and see how the people dealt with an endless influx of tourists.
It became clear very quickly that the answer to the last question would be both complex and leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. Both about how this area has been affected by the hundreds of tourists who take the overnight train here from Hanoi every day and the agencies which arrange these trips. As our bus made its first stop, it was surrounded by local women, dressed in a mix of ethnic headgear and counterfeit sportswear. They smiled as they shouted, “Looking, shopping,” at the tired and bewildered batch of foreigners on board.
This kind of hawking was hardly revelatory. We’d been followed 8km along the Great Wall of China at Jinshanling in the heavy snow a week previously. But it was hard, even at this early stage of the trip, to shake the feeling that this was indicative of a wider issue, where the area has become so dependent on tourists that it has ceased to function as a distinct entity.
The town of Sapa itself is awash with ‘western bars’, stalls and shops selling knock-off North Face jackets and seemingly endless accommodation options. But it wasn’t until we began our first ‘trek’ that I realised the true impact my trip was having on the local community. CatCat village, our first destination, was a valley path awash with stalls shifting local goods, a Disneyfied version of what local culture here would have been like years ago. While this was not to my taste though, I could at least assuage my (tedious) liberal guilt by telling myself that the money spent was making a difference.
Except, was it? CatCat was teeming with children under he age of ten, desperately trying to sell handicrafts. What made this especially hard to bear was the fact that these kids were often carrying young babies on their backs. It was self-evident that these children, who should have been playing, were instead spending their Sunday being forced to sell crafts to the stream of tourists working their way through a village which seemed to house nothing but shops.
This was rammed home even harder that evening when we walked around Sapa and were tailed by a girl of no more than eight, desperate to sell us something, anything. What made this especially tough was that it was dark, late and visibility was very poor. Where were her parents and why were the guides, hotel owners and tour operators we asked about this nonplussed when we mentioned it?
The following day’s walk through nearby Lao Chai was perhaps more chastening still. Kids who should have been attending the local school were out selling again, many of them dirty and dressed in clothes which were falling apart. When we asked Pang, our guide, why they didn’t go to school, she told us that there families needed them out selling, earning money. The government do not force the parents to send their kids to school here. Pang claimed the locals liked having so many people come and visit, but it doesn’t appear to be having any affect in changing their lives for the better.
It’s clear that Sapa and the villages around it are riven by poverty and that the tourist industry is a vital source of income for the people here. But at what cost? Their way of life is being eroded by the development of new shops throughout the area and unscrupulous tour operators are said to be paying as little as $2 a day to guides. This pile them in and sell it cheap philosophy cannot last. I’m very much aware that in going, I haven’t made this problem any better. But surely something needs to be done to stop this area losing its appeal, while actually helping those here lift themselves out of poverty properly.
If you’re planning a trip to Sapa, my advice would be steer well clear of Sinh Cafe and ther Hanoi operators and pay more to get a private tour, ideally one where you know exactly how your money is being spent. Sapa has taught me a valuable lesson about tourism in Vietnam and shown that this country cannot continue on this unsustainable path.