Sapa, Vietnam: an example of how sometimes tourism is bad

Sapa, Vietnam. Little girls selling bracelets
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.Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa, Vietnam Textiles. Sapa, Vietnam
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.  Sapa Vietnam - Rice FieldsSapa, VietnamSapa, Vietnam 
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
fixed.  kids of Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa, Vietnam Sapa Vietnam Sapa Vietnam - village tourSapa, Vietnam
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,
and more. Sapa Vietnam - Village woman making textile
Sapa Vietnam - embroidered skirt
Sapa Vietnam - Sapa textiles
Sapa Vietnam - Village Kids 
Sapa Vietnam - Kid playing Tops
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.Sapa Vietnam Sapa Vietnam - Village boy with scare on his forhead from local medicine  Sapa Vietnam - Village Child
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
visitors know! Sapa Vietnam - Village kids enjoying their day

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14 Responses to Sapa, Vietnam: an example of how sometimes tourism is bad

  1. Xeliex says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts along with these fabulous pictures.
    Awareness is a start.

  2. Catherine says:

    Stunning. The photos, the writing, the message. You two rock!

  3. I loved the information on Kiva thank you, I’m researching right now who I can help lend a hand to. I will be re-posting today hopefully we can start to spread the word. Thanks again you two great work.

  4. On the flip side of that, would would the village look like if there were no tourists at all?
    Sometimes when you travel you want to help everyone and you can’t do it. Just not monetarily or physically possible. I thought Cambodia was like that too, maybe not to the extent that you describe here. Kids would follow you, offer to recite the capitals of the States and tell you who the President is.

  5. Thanks for your kind words, we really appreciate it.

  6. Awe, thanks Catherine.

  7. Thanks Sammy! Kiva rocks. Let us know who you end up loaning to, it’s really interesting seeing how loaning a little money can help people help themselves.

  8. First of all, great pictures. Second, you are right there is no easy solution.
    Truthfully, I wholeheartedly know about the challenges in Sapa and the contentious role tourism has played there.
    Fortunately, there are those out there that are trying to work with the Sapa locals to manage tourism. You will be happy to know that after talking with the locals their is an overall consensus that there is a problem. That being heard from the community level right up to the government.
    I am fortunate to be part of a team, created by Capilano University (North Vancouver, Canada) that is going into Sapa for a second time to deliver tourism training. Not the our number one priority when we were planning the trip, the street selling has become a primary issue that we hope some of our training will lighten its intensity.
    Please take some time to check out our blog. Ask questions, post comments, participate in healthy discussion.
    It appears that you have some interest in this area: be it tourism, sociology, economics. We welcome your input.

  9. Chris,
    Thank you so much for your comment and all the great information. We just visited your blog and it’s great. We have added it to our travel resource section of our links. Best of luck to you and your team in your efforts in sustainable tourism in Vietnam, a very important endeavor. We will definitely be following your blog. Thanks again for all the great information for us and our readers.

  10. Best of luck to you and your team in your efforts in sustainable tourism in Vietnam, a very important endeavor. These all are looking really great to know about it.

  11. virility ex says:

    In these blog there are several resources can be sustainable tourism that can be great to important for the efforts that can be great to know about it.

  12. Debts says:

    Nice thought sharing regarding Vietnam .It has become increasingly popular among travelers in recent years and has invested heavily to improve its tourist industry.The topography of Vietnam is a complex geography quarter with three mountains and ancient forest, a delta plain quarter.

  13. Antoine says:

    Thanks for your comments.
    But i strongly disagree with your point of view.
    First, i have to say that i am living in Sapa for the last three years, and i know quiet much the Hmong community in here as im going to get married with one h’mong from lao chai.
    You need to know: First, hmong people are farmers. It means they are producting their daily needs as rice, corm, herbs, vegetables, and animals, like chicken, pigs, buffalos. That means it is people that do not del with money. They don’t sell what they produce, they eat all and if they have too much they save for the next year. They only buy things like salt, generaly things that they cannot do by themselves.
    I disagree with you when you say they became 100% dependent on tourists. It is not true. As you may know, the work in the rice paddys is only a few special times a year: planting, and harvest. The rest of the time, they are not very busy.
    Secondly, you have to know that there is around 400000 tourist who come every year in Sapa. Do you see any hmong hotel, any hmong restaurant, any hmong agency. No. Everything belong to the kinh ( Vietnamese). So selling things in the street is just a way for them to catch a small small part of all the money that comes to the area, and that is not redistributed at all by authorities. The hmong cannot not officially become owner of his own land. Id a Vietnamese wants to come and to build an hotel, the hmong have to go.
    For sapa, i disagree when you say:has the ability to create a
    dependence and strip places of what originally made them worth
    visiting. It is a bit funny , that means if they were no tourist at all, their life would be different? I dont think so.
    You should come to Sapa during the harvest season you will not see many hmong selling in the street. And also: why do they sell things? : Beacause tourist buy things!
    You say: the soul of place seems to be lost.. Isn’t it an easy shortcut? Have ou bee to the villages around, even 15 mn from Sapa?
    For my part, i think that, s almost all the tourist coming here, you are blaming the girls selling in the street, but you should more blame on yourselves(ourselves). Because you think people try to sell you stuff you cannot “support it”. I am always amazed when i see tourist bergaining for something wich is between 1 and 1.5 Dollars. When we are at home we don’t care about paying 12 euro for taxi or 100 dollars for a pair of shoes. People here are POOr, and that is an image that you don’t want to see through the girls trying to sell stuff. Have you tried, instead of getting mad at it, to buy some fruits, for example, and to share them with those girls instead of buying something? Maybe you will find that they are not so hungry for money, and you will maybe be invited to have dinner in their family. Hmong people is maybe the most generous people i have ever met during my travels, and the tourism didn’t detroyed their soul as you may think.
    I really invite you to come back to Sapa soon and to spend some time here to think again.
    However, you have really nice pictures. You get my email if you want to come i will be glad to show you around.
    Ku pu ko i xxa

    • Beau says:

      Antoine, thank you for your comments. Your points are all well received. I want to be clear that in no way am I trying to diminish the H’mong people. We found them to be incredibly hospitable, friendly and generous. I agree with you, there is seemingly no (or very few) h’mong employed in hotels, restaurants and other businesses in town, which is an incredible shame. That is why I suggested things like fair trade and micro finance. For example, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia there is a restaurant called “Friends” that employes at-risk teens who lived on the streets. This restaurant employs, trains and educates these youth with the goal of furthering their future. We also went to a similar restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, so I know it must be possible to navigate around any Vietnamese government bureaucracy for this type of socially responsible business practice. We have also been to small village in Peru called Ccaccaccollo. This is a farming area, like Sapa… interestingly the two places look quite similar even though they’re on opposite sides of the planet. There is a program in this village that employees the women to knit alpaca goods in traditional techniques in the farming off-season, while the men are employed as sherpas and guides during the off-season. This program trains the women in basic business management skills to grow their craft business, while a school was developed for the children rather than putting them to work.

      I use these two examples because I feel that the H’mong in Sapa could really benefit from things like this. I would much rather see a situation like this rather than a young girl and her baby sibling sleeping outside the front door of a hotel waiting to beg and sell items to tourists. I fully understand why these girls are selling things, and like you, I hate seeing tourists bartering with people over such a small sum of money, something Meggan and I do not do if we do buy something. Yes, we often buy food for people rather than giving them money. Yes, we have been welcomed with open arms in many places for doing so. We strongly believe that giving money to people begging in tourist areas perpetuates a bad thing. In my honest opinion, helping people help themselves seems to be the most sustainable solution. As I stated at the end my post, any programs to help support the locals versus the large business owners, we’d love to hear about them. You’re right, I should not have said that the H’mong are 100% reliant on tourism. That was a blanket statement from our first impression of Sapa, something I retract based on your thoughtful comments. As we only had two days there, we did not get to travel outside the city and experience the areas not affected by tourism. This would certainly be something we’d love to experience. We will be back to Vietnam and if we make it back up to the north again, we’d love to take you up on your offer to show us around Sapa. Again thank you for your comments.