When you envision what Vietnam looks like, you probably wouldn't
picture Sapa. At least it's not what we would picture. When we think
Vietnam, we think rice patties, jungles and beaches. Sapa is very
different. Nestled into the mountains just south of the Chinese
border, Sapa reminded us of parts of Peru and also part of Nepal.
The towering green mountains shrouded in mist and fog makes for a
breathtaking setting. Just like Peru and Nepal, the locals wear
brightly colored clothing that look beautiful against the green
mountainous backdrop. The town itself is also very pretty. The
buildings seem to cling to the sides of the steep hills with narrow
winding roads. There is no surprise why tourists have flocked here for
years, Sapa is a lovely place.
it seems tourism has really made a negative impact on the community.
As tourists, we hate to see communities become so completely dependent
on tourists (us) that the soul of place seems to be lost. Vietnam is
the 40th country we've visited and we don't think we've seen a town
with a more desperate relationship with tourism, although we're sure
they're more out there.
As soon as we arrived town on the
bus, children and women, many with babies followed us wherever we went
trying to sell us anything they had. If we could, we would buy from
everyone, they certainly need the income, but this solution just isn't
possible. Even if all the visiting tourists bought a few things from
at least 2 or 3 woman, it wouldn't even come close to supporting all
the locals in need. We've seen this in other towns, but not at this
level. There were little girls sleeping outside the doors of the
hotels waiting for tourists to come out. At a restaurant for lunch
there were a dozen beautiful young faces pressed against the window
trying to sell handicrafts. Walking to dinner three drunk local woman
were hanging off Meggan's arms trying to sell her handmade handbags.
The next day we booked a village trek which was to
responsibly support the locals and the villages. In retrospect, we're
not sure any of our money went to the villages we walked through. It
seems all the tours do a similar route through these villages. Locals
were waiting for us at the start point and followed and begged us to
buy something for the entire 10 kilometers through the countryside.
All of this breaks our hearts, we wish we could directly help
everyone. By visiting Sapa, we are part of the problem. I think many
communities have this dilemma. Although tourism has the ability to
bring in a needed economy, it also has the ability to create a
dependence and strip places of what originally made them worth
visiting. If there were an easy solution, it would probably already
We really feel strongly about fair-trade and micro-finance and believe
this can be part of the solution. To learn about fair-trade and
micro-finance, go to WFTO, FTF and KIVA.
Sapa does export fair-trade products, but there is still not enough
demand. If demand around the world increases for products that
directly support local communities and artisans around the world, many
of the adults would be employed by fair-trade co-ops rather than having
to beg and their children would be in school. This would allow these
individuals to make enough to support themselves, while still retaining
their community's culture and lifestyle. Fair-trade is more than just
coffee, we have seen this model in action in many places; sugar-cane
farmers in Africa making sugar for fair-trade cola, an entire
restaurant staff of ex-street kids and orphans in Ho Chi Minh City,
the wives of inca-trail guides in Peru knitting alpaca hats for export,
Micro-finance allows entrepreneurs, like the ones we just mentioned in
developing countries to obtain small loans for their businesses. KIVA
is an amazing organization, we are currently loaning money to a
popsicle vender in Ecuador, a clothing retailer in Mongolia, a metal
fabricator in Kenya, and a group of woman distributing cooking charcoal
in Uganda. All our loans are nearly paid back in full, we will put
this money back into more loans for more entrepreneurs from countries
we've visited. KIVA as an organization has a 98.37% payback rate on
$72 million dollars of loans! Go to Kiva's website and invest in a
few businesses around the world for as little as the cost of a lunch.
So, we just went from a post on Sapa that somehow ended up on a
dissertation on fair-trade and micro-finance. Sapa is a beautiful
place with beautiful people and by no means are we suggesting not to
visit. If anyone out there has programs, tours or organizations that
directly support the community of Sapa, please let us and future
- In 2008 we (Meggan and Beau) set out to see the world and start a business. Since then we have visited 48 countries and we’re just getting started. Travel and design go hand in hand. Whether we’re on the other side of the planet, or down the street we always find things to inspire us.