Backpackers weave their way across Vietnam for self-discovery. Others choose to settle here and enjoy free time exploring the incredible diversity the country offers. Whatever your motivation, Vietnam is a treasure trove for those seeking to explore and interact.
Exploratory travel is a form of consumerism and making the right choices is essential if human exchanges are to be rewarding for all parties. Package tours create human interactions with locals that are often nothing more than trivial. Sapa is no exception. With tourists typically spending only two days in the area, a generic trek is often quickly followed by an onward journey to the next destination. It is because of this fast turnaround that many companies choose to maximise profit, often to the detriment of local people. As you stroll the main strip of Sapa Town one understands this point of view. The potholed streets are lined with neon, nightclubs and bars offering happy hour drinks.
“Tourism is often short-sighted, with little thought to culture or sustainability. We should prioritise supporting the local community by providing opportunities for ethnic minorities who face adversity,“ said Hoa, cofounder of Ethos – Spirit of the Community, a socially minded tour company working with ethnic minorities in the Sapa area.
As you walk the streets, or drink and dine in Sapa, you will likely be approached by women or children asking you to buy souvenirs or to tip them for performing a “traditional” dance. You might have teens asking to take you trekking. Persistent, entrepreneurial ethnic minorities are selling everywhere. To some, this provides opportunities for interesting photos, but most find the overzealous approach irritating. These interactions with “street sellers” can be confronting yet are rarely mutually positive.
A child’s education is an investment in their future potential and paves the way to successful employment as adults. Knowing that cuteness pulls on the heart strings, the financial rewards of selling souvenirs to tourists encourages families to remove their children from school and instead spend time dressed up in replica tribal clothes in the hope of making a sale. This compounds the higher rates of illiteracy among minority children, and public notices from the authorities against buying souvenirs from children go unnoticed and unenforced.
“Selling earns a meagre wage now. Education opens up opportunities in the future,” Hoa said emphatically.
“Locals see tourists as money and most travellers’ only interaction with ethnic minorities is during the hard sell,” shesaid. “Selling is therefore symptomatic of poor management.”
“Local people deserve the right to meaningful employment but often find opportunities limited”.
Fortunately, Sapa also excels in providing community-based tourism for those seeking authenticity. Travellers searching for experiences that awaken the senses describe Sapa with fondness, often talking about it as the highlight of their Vietnam journey. Most that say as such share one thing in common; their respect and admiration for the Hmong and Dao people that make the area so culturally fascinating.
Quality tourism is encouraged by Giang Thi So, a team member from the Hmong ethnic minority who works with Ethos.
“When I was a child, my family didn’t have enough food. Tourism means I can buy everything needed, and my children have a better life than I did.”
Talking with So, it becomes evident how much pride she takes in her employment. “As a guide, I get to meet people from around the world. I enjoy showing people my culture and allowing them to see the real Sapa,” said said.
Visitors also take a great deal from a sustainable tourism approach. “I loved the immersion and the authenticity of this experience,” said Mike Levi, who visited Sapa with Ethos in January 2018.
Perceptions and attitudes can alter as a consequence of cross-cultural interactions facilitated through mindful tourism. Enjoying the journey itself and making connections with local practices and cultures form the core of any true Sapa experience. Comparing the genetic package tours and community based initiatives is not difficult.
“Don’t be afraid to ask where your money goes,” said Hoa, emphasising that “Ethos works hard on literacy and numeracy for our team. We train community leaders, who competent in first aid, health and hygiene and who care for their environment”.
Ethos have partnered with a small non-governmental organisation, Projet Humanitare Nord Vietnam (PHNV), to deliver health and hygiene seminars in villages throughout Sapa District. PHNV also produce the Booklet for Mindful Travellers, which educates guests about positive ethical practices. Crucially, the guide urges tourists to take any non-biodegradable waste back to town rather than leaving it at a homestay.
“The plastic issue is immense and it’s growing,” said Hoa.
“Visitors produce trash when trekking and put it in litter bins in the homestays. With no organised means of disposal, homestay owners tie up waste in bags and throw it into the river. Awareness among travellers is important for this reason,” she said.
Ethos treks are plastic free, utilising a network of drinking water tanks bought by the organisation and distributed across the district.
Guests are encouraged to refill and reuse water bottles and as such, the organisation reduced their use of plastic bottles dramatically. Such initiatives are going a long way to preserve, protect and empower this part of Vietnam.
Widespread poverty, exposure to human trafficking and environmental degradation are among the serious problems affecting the Hmong and Dao ethnic groups. A core number of companies want to eradicate these issues by providing education and employment through a range of ethical experiences.
Last year, 76 girls were reported as being trafficked from Sapa District. Most were aged 13 to 16 and belonged to ethnic groups. Ethos runs monthly anti-trafficking awareness workshops in collaboration with the Sapa District Women’s Union.
With a number of activity based learning exercises and all teaching done in ethnic minority languages by trained Ethos guides, these classes have the power to change lives.
“The approach Ethos takes makes a tangible difference. Activities are tailored to the age and interests of the vulnerable teenagers in attendance” said Luu Thi Ngan Ha, head of the Sapa Women’s Union.
Ly Thi My, a 17-year-old Hmong woman, describes the workshops as vitally important for her community.
“My mother was trafficked three years ago. My sister was also taken at 13 years old,” My said. “She was smuggled at night and sold on five times in the first few days after her disappearance.”
Transported over the border to China, My detailed how her sister eventually managed to run away after seven months held captive. She was eventually found by a policeman and brought to the Vietnamese border where she was collected by Ethos representatives. Such horrors spurred My to get involved with Ethos workshops to help educate younger girls on how best to protect themselves and their peers.
“When booking a tour, always ask for a minority guide with rich local knowledge and able to offer a genuine human experience,” Hoa said.
“Ethos goes beyond the superficial and aims to facilitate mutually beneficial exchanges between hosts and guests,” she said.
This differs from the package tours touted on every street corner in Hanoi’s old quarter, but knowing that tourism money can be spent wisely is comforting. Choosing an experience rather than merely a tour, especially one that benefits travellers and locals alike is therefore the only real way to see Sapa.