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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.