Sapa is legendary on the South East Asian backpacking circuit. The central place for trekking in Vietnam, the town receives press on the blogosphere nearly every day, from raving reviews about its beauty to despairing tales of wasted money and pushy sales techniques. The town is so full of tourists that many of the cafes and restaurant are more expensive that in Hanoi, and the quality is no different. It’s not only the food that they’d like you to pay extra for. Attempts at independent travelling are challenged by tour operators, hostels and even the tourist information centre, all telling you that you must have a certified guide in order to enter the valley. From our observations we doubt this is true. You could even go so far as to call in an elaborate scam. Yes, you have to pay an entrance fee on passing a checkpoint on the road- the official entrance fee to visit the villages (this varies between 25000-50000 dong). When you take a tour, the guide does this for you. But once you’re in, you’re in. There are no checks, no questions and plenty of homestays and guesthouses to choose from, suggesting that you don’t need the guide to enter the area.
That said, we enjoyed our 2 day, “medium difficulty” stroll through Sapa’s rice paddies with Sapa O’Chau, a local business known for its charitable roots. While not at all challenging in the face of some of the other things we have put ourselves through, our guide confidently took the group along back-road paths, through fields and a bamboo forest. This allowed us up-close and personal views of water buffalo (which, we learned, are mute) and broad panoramic views down the valley. When the sun came out to reflect off of watery rice fields and yellow rice ready for harvest, plumes of smoke rising from empty fields, we had time to soak in the beautiful sight. Our guide Mo explained the process of indigo dying, the impact that tourism had on local schools and what opportunities youngsters have today. She also answered our very sophisticated questions, such as ‘Where are all the men?’ and told us about the rice production in the region. In case you were wondering, the men are all hard at work, mostly out of sight. For some reason in Vietnam it is the women (and children) who have the most contact with tourists and travellers, whom you remember selling trinkets on the sidewalk or walking through the fields with the conical hats. We saw people women constantly at work, whether completing traditional pursuits or hassling tourists, everyone tried to help make money and support their families.
And then you are back to money. The commercialism here is overwhelming. Sometimes, it is blatant, other times the individuals build up a relationship, help you on your walk, and only make their sales pitch when you sit down for lunch. Even the school has been turned into a fully functional donation mill, with all of the classrooms open and groups encouraged to stop and look inside, take pictures, and offer donations for the kids’ schooling. A sign outside reminded us that one of the buildings had been entirely paid for by tourist donations. I just wondered if I would have been able to learn with so many people walking past, and at what point the self-conscious would feel that we outsiders are partaking in some strange voyeuristic journey. And even with that in mind, surely it was better that the children had an expanded school, rather than joining the ranks of kids walking around selling bracelets, ignoring their schooling? Considering privacy, commercialisation of everyday life, and my role in perpetuating the idea that tourists come for the face value of traditional costumes, trinkets, and pretty pictures, not conversations and lessons, I followed Mo through up and down the hills.
And the hills were beautiful. The people we did talk to and the family we stayed with were lovely, serving massive portions of food and engaging in conversation. Our two day walk was, in a way, exactly what we expected from the online rants- a beautiful location where tourism might arguably be showing its worst face.