Sapa – First Impressions


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Even in winter, Sapa’s landscape dazzles with its rolling hills and terraced rice fields. The villages and people are just as unique. It’s like a portal to another world.

Walking into the Valley - Sapa
Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa Kids and Conversation

Su was our trusty Black Hmong guide dressed in a dark indigo top and skirt with brightly embroidered trim, velvet strips wrapped around her legs and comfortable sneakers. Within moments of leaving the hotel, we were surrounded by a gaggle of (giggling) girls who came only to hip level and danced around us calling out “what’s your name?” “how old are you?” “do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Audrey and Sue
Girl in Sapa, Vietnam

The longer we walked with the girls by our side, the more we heard “you buy from me later.” They may be young, but they have a shrewd business sense. They walk with you in expectation that there will be a sale at the end of the day. Understandable, but frustrating. But the girls do get points for their clever and creative banter and selling techniques.

Sapa: Walking Through Past and Present

Walking in Sapa is like walking through a time warp. Women with bright red headdresses and clothing covered in colorful embroidery walk by with babies and wicker basket backpacks on their backs. Girls are miniature versions or their mothers, learning how to embroider (and sell) at an early age. Boys play in the fields and tend to the water buffalos. Houses are simple structures with dirt floors, often without electricity or running water.

Black Hmong Girl - Sapa
Black Hmong Girl in Sapa, Vietnam

The second day of trekking took us through deeper valleys and muddier paths into villages of other ethnic groups. Children and women with heavy loads on their backs flitted over the hills and steep paths with simple sandals, while tourists in sturdy hiking boots were falling all over each other trying to stay balanced. The simplicity, scope and beauty of the surrounding terraced rice fields was impressive.

Unsuccessful Attempts at Honest Business Communication

We had a long walk ahead of us and weren't interested in buying any souvenirs. We were waiting for the shopping opportunities at Bac Ha market. At one of the resting points, a Red Dao woman latched onto me. Acutely aware of her befriend-and-sell strategy, I told her straight away that we weren't shopping that day. The woman laughed and continued to walk with us.

More Goods on Offer - Sapa
Crafts Vendor in Sapa, Vietnam

As our journey continued, I tried to communicate honestly and firmly in order to help her avoid disappointment. The one-way expectation is: I walk with you and keep you entertained, whether you like it or not, and in return, you buy something from me. The woman repeatedly referred to me as her friend. At one point, I asked if I would be her friend if I didn’t buy anything, and she said “no.” I explained that in my country we referred to this relationship as business, not friendship. I knew my message wasn’t getting through so I tried giving her some business advice. I pointed to another group of tourists and said that her chances for making a sale there were higher than if she stayed with me. Eventually, the point sank in she left us for another group on the trail.

I may sound cheap, but it’s not the money that bothers me about this situation. I would have given money to the woman to get a motorbike home from the end of the trek or for food. What I don’t like is the approach of guilting tourists into buying things they don’t want. Stories of guilt-driven selling on the Sapa trails are rife and often end in scenes and feigned crying fits or screams.

If I had seen something I liked, I would have bought it. But the quality of the designs and work was less than what I had seen elsewhere and it appeared to me as if the women kept the best stuff for themselves and peddled the cast-offs to tourists. These women relied on guilt and charity instead of focusing on offering a quality product. This reminded me of a nugget of wisdom that the director of Hanoi-based Craft Link had shared with just before our trip to Sapa – “charity is not sustainable.” Her point was that if you wanted to make a living from selling crafts in the long-term, you need to have high quality products that people really want.

Sapa Lasting Impressions

Sapa is like no other place we’ve visited. It is a visually spectacular, magical place – with its endless hills of terraced rice fields and concentration of hill tribe ethnic minorities whose colorful traditional clothing beautifully accent the landscape. It doesn’t feel like people are wearing traditional attire just to please tourists and their cameras – their dress is a matter of pride and identity.

Hills and Terraces of Sapa
Rice Terraces of Sapa, Vietnam

I wonder how life in the villages and people will change over the next few years. Already, children from the villages stay in town for several days at a time to accompany tourists and sell handicrafts. When I asked Su how tourism had changed her village, she replied that it hasn’t changed it too much yet, but that in 15 years it will be very different. I believe she's underestimating the pace of change.

Not all change is bad, of course – sometimes it brings a better standard of life with improved health care, education and nutrition. However, if Vietnam wants to preserve the uniqueness and cultures of its ethnic minorities, it will need to responsibly manage the tourism boom in places like Sapa. This is something it has yet to address.

For more information and tips on on how to travel responsibly in Sapa and how to respectfully engage with its people check out this brief Sapa responsible travel flyer (download here) from Action Solidarité Nord Vietnam working to improve the living conditions of ethnic minorities in the region.

Arranging a Tour of Sapa, Vietnam

  • How to get there: Tour companies on every corner of Hanoi sell tours to Sapa that normally include transport, hotel, and a guide. It’s also very easy to make arrangements on your own. Take an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Catch a minivan from Lao Cai to Sapa.
  • When to go: We were there in January, which means we benefited from mysterious mist and fog but we froze in our hotel rooms from winter’s chill. June and July would be good times to visit to see the hills radiating bright green before the rice harvest.
  • Where to stay: Guesthouses and hotels are popping up everywhere in Sapa, so there is no shortage of places to stay. We stayed at Cat Cat Hotel, which had great views of the mountains and valleys. Like other hotels, it lacked heat. Bundle up when heading to bed and make sure you turn on the electric blankets that are provided.
  • Where to eat: Cat Cat hotel has a good restaurant. We took refuge at Baguette & Chocolat, warming ourselves by the fireplace and indulging in a macaroni and cheese bake. Baguette & Chocolat restaurant also sells packed lunches to take trekking. We wish we had known about that beforehand…maybe we could have avoided the food poisoning we picked up from the lunch provided along our trek.
  • What to do: Trek with a local guide to nearby hill tribe villages. Home stays in the villages can also be arranged at any hotel or tour agency in Hanoi or Sapa. Visit Sapa’s market for handicrafts and remedial lesson in biology.
About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

10 thoughts on “Sapa – First Impressions”

  1. I was in Sapa in February 2008 with some Vietnamese speaking friends. We spoke about this problem of Western people wanting to see these ethnic minorities but are annoyed by their high pressure sales. Just by us being there, we are changing them. Western money will always win out over local culture, so who is at fault? There is no easy answer. But I left Sapa a little sad that I contributed to the profound changes that are coming. But as my Vietnamese friend said ” Westerners can always find a new travel thrill until that is used up” Something to think about!

    Reply
  2. Tim: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. There is no easy answer as tourism and development drags people and their landscape into the modern era.

    Your Vietnamese friend does have a point. But what are westerners looking for in a travel thrill? Perhaps they are looking for the primitive pastoral and living postcards of the days of yore? If so, they may just find that one day, there’s no more nostalgia left to go around.

    On the bright side: even in some heavily-touristed areas and large cities, it’s still possible to find veins of “the way it was” and pockets of authenticity.

    Reply
  3. This is a great read, thank you! I’m hoping to head to the region in the spring to do some work with our CBT Vietnam project, which is hoping to address a lot of those ‘hard -selling’ tactics in villages along the hiking routes. Hopefully we can make a positive change, and maintain the cultural authenticity of the region. I’m hoping I get to go and experience this beautiful land and people! Thanks, this article will help with my interview. Cheers!

    Reply
  4. @Cat: We have seen great CBT (community based tourism) projects in other countries that have really partnered with the local community so that people benefit economically, but do not lose their culture and social structures. It sounds like CBT Vietnam will be working closely with the villages along these lines. Good luck with your work there. Please report back to us on what you find and your experiences!

    Reply
  5. I stumbled across your blog as I was searching for the correct spelling of the Hmong tribe. The moment I saw and started to read my heart stopped for a fraction of a moment, and the longing to sit on those mountains returned. We just returned from South East Asia and people ask me, what was your favourite. I had to say Vietnam – namely Sa Pa, and Cambodia.
    We also had Su as our guide on our trek, she was a great guide and was also strategic in bringing her many friends to be our friends. I asked her directly why these women were following us, did they work with her? she was very upfront about what was happening. I appreciated her honesty, and continued to enjoy The trek – I wished I was a mountain goat. Walking their mountains/hills, (mountains that hid their tops in the mist, like they were some mysterious secret), was a stirring experience for me, one that I wont forget easily.

    I too experienced the clawing of the tribeswomen to buy their goods, and only bought the things that I liked and wanted, yup was a guilt buy on one count, but the bracelets I bought, while not high street goods, bring a summer warmth to my chest when I see them. I wear them often along with a ring I saw and liked on an elderly lady’s hand, she removed it and sold it to me very quickly- it was covered with Indigo Ink – I love that ring.

    In town Sa Pa I was disheartened by some of the tactics used to solicit a sale, (babies carrying babies in the late night), but felt responsible, I go to these places in search of something new, in my case, something old and unspoiled, because we tire of our daily grind, and to also grab shopping at ridiculous prices. Did I really think I was going to be an invisible, no impact tourist – I actually did think that – ignorant much!

    However like in all business models the vendor and supplier can choose how to spend earnings, and I can only hope the money I spent be it on their street food, clothing, tips and bike ride – when I left my GOPRO in CatCat and had to rush down and up before our ride back to train 1 hour, got to Cat Cat and shop vendor had it sitting there hoping we would come back ooo such refreshing honesty!!!! – goes on improving their lives in some shape or form.

    Despite the sadness, it is still one of my favourite experiences (better than Rome), and your blog and pics are a fantastic reminder of a place that has etched itself in my memory. an pricked my travel conscience.

    Thank you both for your memory trigger .!!!

    Reply
  6. Ivy, thanks so much for your comment and sharing your experiences in the SaPa area. So glad to hear that Su is still working as a tour guide and that you had good memories. Like you said, it’s impossible for places not to change due to tourism and foreigners, but that we tourists do have the power to spend money in places where we think it will stay local and benefit the people in the best ways. If local people are not rewarded by some of the sales tactics through having kids sell goods or kids carrying kids, then there’s a likelihood that these tactics will stop if they don’t create sales.

    So glad this piece brought back good memories!

    Reply
  7. I just returned from Sapa and have a somewhat different take on the sale of goods than Audrey does. Some women and children “latched onto” me and my daughter in Lao Chai and accompanied us on the path to Ta Van. I gladly bought some things from them at the end of the day and thought the work was pretty and fairly well done. One woman even told me to avoid some of her own wares because they were machine made. They warned me to watch my cash to avoid pickpockets. I learned a good deal from them and gladly accepted the offer to walk to their home for lunch in a more distant village the next day, fully intending to pay them for their guide service and the meal. At the end, they did mot ask to be paid for that service, but again offered goods for sale. The great grandmother of the house was sitting in the doorway doing the needlework while we ate and talked. I learned how they did not allow their daughters to go to Sapa because children are apparently kidnapped and sold there. The going rate for a little girl is about $5000. I felt that the money I spent was a good value. I got a guide, a meal, and some keepsakes and gifts for what I have often paid just for guide service.

    Everyone has something to sell – me, the women of Sapa, and even the author of this blog. Some people simply are more direct than others. When we worry that we are corrupting their culture buy buying items, it seems that we are really wanting to live with the comforts of the 21st century ourselves but keep others living in a 17th century world so we can go there and observe them, almost like a zoo.

    Reply
    • Evans, I’m really glad to hear that you had such a good experience in Sapa and were able to make a strong personal connection there to this family. While I am not against people selling things — as you rightly point out, we all need to make a living and take care of our family — I still do not like being viewed or treated as a dollar bill instead of a fellow human. And that was what I took issue with during our experience in Sapa. It sounds like you had a different experience during your visit, and I do hope that other visitors will have similar experiences where everyone has something to share and learn.

      Reply
  8. I am going to Hanoi then Sapa in February. What is the distance from village to village. We are in our early 70s and want make sure we can do the trip before starting out. We do alot of hiking,

    Reply
    • Ann, the distance will depend on which tour and villages you choose to visit as there are quite a few options. For our trip, it was a couple of hours of walking spread out over an afternoon – not very intense. There are also motorbikes around if you do decide you need a lift. If you do a lot of hiking already you should be OK, but just double check with the tour company/guide on the exact route, distance, and elevation.

      Reply

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