Anyone who has travelled to Sapa will be familiar with the onslaught of women and children dressed in traditional ethnic minority outfits ready to sell their ‘handmade’ souvenirs. Speaking English, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and even Italian in order to sell their souvenirs, anywhere tourists flock, aggressive hawkers are bound to follow.
With the influx of tourists coming to Sapa, the territory has become saturated with foreign influences. Head into town, and any real estate boasting the views of the rice terraces has all but been snatched up by foreign hotel, bar and restaurant owners. Villages such as the tourist-heavy settlement of Cat Cat are bordering on becoming glorified theme parks, where local ethnic minorities dress up and act a part, in order to greet the daily rush of tourists and sell souvenirs.
The result is that many ethnic minorities are losing their cultural heritage, the very heritage that many travellers to Sapa have come there to see.
An International Town?
“Cultural identity is being lost and foreign guests are becoming disillusioned,” says Phil Hoolihan, who co-founded the Sapa eco-tour group Ethos with his wife Hoa. “I conducted 366 surveys of people in Sapa Town and Ta Van Village in June. 71 percent of those interviewed were foreigners, of which 90 percent said litter was their biggest negative and 69 percent said they wouldn’t ever return to Sapa.”
As you stroll the main strip of Sapa Town from Huong Hoa to Fansipan Street, Phil’s words become apparent. The potholed streets are lined with bars, Italian pizzerias and nightclubs offering shisha and ‘funny’ balloons.
There are 9000+ hotel rooms currently under construction in Sapa. No property is too sacred. Even the tallest mountain in Vietnam — Fansipan — which lies on the outskirts of Sapa is not safe. In the past, scaling this once formidable mountain was a badge of honour for those willing to brave the two-day hike to the mountain’s summit. Now the peak can be reached via a 20-minute cable car ride (VND600,000) built by the Sun World Entertainment conglomerate.
At the top, you are rewarded with an observation deck, a Buddhist temple and a souvenir shop. To make things even easier, there are plans to build a railway, which will ferry tourists from the upcoming Sun World five-star hotel to the cable car station, plus a theme park and a golf course.
“Those facilities are aimed almost exclusively at Vietnamese and Chinese clients,” says Phil. “Most foreigners [who come to Sapa] seek culture and nature, but most Vietnamese seek cool air and entertainment.”
A Short Stay
With tourists often spending only two or three days in Sapa, a quick excursion before heading on elsewhere, it’s because of this fast turnaround that many companies have learned the art of making a quick buck.
“The development is short-sighted, with little thought to sustainability,” says Phil. “Growth is happening too quickly. In a town with no litter disposal, no checks on buildings and no water quality, the impacts on local villages have been huge.”
Knowing full well that cuteness sells, the allure of selling souvenirs to tourists has left many families pulling their children out of school to spend the days dressed up in traditional Hmong garb in hopes of enticing customers. This has led to an increase in illiteracy among minority children, and warnings by local authorities against buying souvenirs from children have gone unenforced.
With investors pouring billions of dollars into Lao Cai province, it is hoped that some of that money will trickle down to the people who live there.
“Tourism has made the town more noisy and dirty,” says Ly Thi My, one of the Hmong tour guides working at Ethos. “The road to Lao Cai used to be natural, but now there are buildings everywhere. I don’t like it because the views are being destroyed and there is more rubbish in the rivers.”
Seeing the condition of the roads, which are littered with potholes from the damage caused by the heavy trucks used for the large-scale construction projects, shows that not much of that money, if any, is going into infrastructure.
Sapa’s growth does have its pros. The increase in tourism has benefited those working in the travel, food and drink industry exponentially. For some, it is a welcome shot to the local economy.
“When I was young, my family didn’t have enough food to eat. We had no shoes or warm clothes. Tourism means I can buy the things I need and my children have a better life than I did,” says Giang Thi So, another one of Ethos’s tour guides.
Unfortunately, the hiring of local workers for service work is rare. Phil estimates close to 95 percent of the staff come from other parts of Vietnam.
As mega-corporations begin privatizing once-public land, and outside influence starts to have effect on the local ethnic minorities, Sapa is truly at a crossroads. With change coming so rapidly, little regard is given to the impact it will have on Sapa’s stunning landscape and the villagers that occupy it. There’s no stopping the construction from raging, but with all the progress, the future of Sapa and its resilient people remain uncertain.