Ruminations on Sapa

, originally uploaded by Aaron Michael Brown.

Sapa is a remarkable gem of a town situated precariously in the mountains that form the northwestern border of Vietnam from neighboring China. An overnight train and an hour's van ride up a narrow, windy, almost nauseating one lane road leads us to the town advertised in every tourist book, shop and postcard they sell back in Hanoi. Even with all of the photos in my lonely planet book and my own level of familiarity with the small village town (I visited Sapa with my father on vacation three years ago, and eagerly organized a trip up on our IHP stay in Vietnam to share the experience with my friends) the small tourist getaway exudes an aura of distance and removal from the rest of the world; perhaps its that awkward border town of Lao Cai where you deboard the train, or perhaps its the psycological aspect of waking up at a god-awful early morning train station to catch a bus, but without exoticizing the town too much, the surrounding small villages around Sapa really do feel about as far as one can get into the "periphery" away from the world of the 21st century. While the village has hotels, ATMs, and amenities abound, and the town has seen rapid economic development as a result of the blossoming tourist destination (I definitely saw buildings and hotels that were not there when I last visited), you can't "develop" your way out of Sapa's freeing feeling of isolation and remoteness that comes from the stunning, terraced valleys that spread in all directions from the center of the small town. Sure, you may know that an hour's descent back to the railroad station might bring you back to the world, and Sapa is no stranger to internet cafes or the English language, but the sheer journey itself, the boundless mountains, the uncharacteristically cool air and the joy of putting as much physical and psychological distance as one can between their life (back in Hanoi, Europe, the US?) and their body (the Sapa trail to Lon Bac village) make the trip to Sapa one of the most memorable parts of my trip on IHP.

The bummer? I don't think that tourism is ultimately having a net positive impact on the Sapa community. The hills aroudn Sapa are dotted with villages and rice patties maintained by the legions of ethnic Vietnamese minorities (H'mong, Dzao, among many others) that live in the area, and many are understandibly becoming wise to the ways of European languages, bartering and sales. Unfortunately, the way that tourism is being conducted and the large-scale social structures that are perpetuated by tourism dollars may not be currently the best possible vehicle for economic and political empowerment for a largely disadvantaged, impoverished community. I staunchly hold the believe that tourism and travelling can be a force of good in the world (after all, I'm on IHP, I would have to be pretty self-hating or non-introspective if I hadn't cleared that with myself), and when one considers that each tourist spends anywhere between 20-60 bucks in the Sapa economy on meals, souvenirs, tours and hotel rooms, this is quite a lot of money to suddenly start flowing into a valley town that originally was just the largest market in the region for farmers to try and trade their goods. I couldn't get over how many women and children (all young girls) from age 40 to age 4 were ready to speak in fluent english to convince me to buy a scrap of fabric or souvenir; "you buy from me!" they plead, almost all wearing their traditional ethnic clothing with the dyed blue wool.

Here are some policy recommendations for making tourism in Sapa socially sustainable and responsible.
1) Get them kids in school. and pay them to be there. Kids are understandibly choosing to support their families and make their own money by acting as tour guides and taking tourists up and down the foothills to look at all of the villages. While the young girls are making money through this system, they are undoubtedly receiving much less than the tourists paid, since the money seeps through so many middlemen in the travel agency business, and more importantly, every day missed in a classroom context is another possible missed opportunity for economic and political empowerment. While children should obviously feel no pressure to leave their own culture and their own customs behind, and I am taking efforts to avoid romanticizing life in a small ethnic minority community up in the Vietnamese mountains, I do think that education provides the true opportunities for everything from better managing the family farm to finding ways to live a happier life. I feel that without education, these young girls at ages 8, 9 and 10 will in a few years suddenly be too old to give tours, stripped of their innocent cute demeanor that sells so well, and without education they face a bleak life of poverty with the only prospect of skimming a few dollars off of the tourists coming through the hills. The tourism agencies need to institute minimum ages for children to be giving tours, and the schools need to provide economic incentives to keep their kids in the classroom. This happened in the South Bronx, where The Point paid students to get good grades and get involved politically in their community, why couldn't extra tourism dollars fund that?
2) Destroy the gender barrier. This one is really simple in definition, yet difficult to fix. Until we were miles away from Sapa, we saw virtually no local men. While all of the local H'mong women had walked for literally two hours to get to Sapa before the sunrise to greet the vans and buses of tourists with their trinkets to sell, the men remain back at their houses. While it is understandibly problematic to interfere seriously with the gender roles that are largely vestiges of the H'mong tradition, many of the girls we talked to complained that their husbands/brothers weren't tending to the rice fields but instead were "being lazy" or drinking alcohol. There are unfortold reprocussions to this sort of world of gendered economic possiblity, not least of which the increase of sex tourism and kidnapping from across the Chinese border. Young girls need the same opportunities as young boys, and tourism in Sapa cannot expect to produce positive effects on the community if it is so reliant on creating a gendered division of labor.
3) Impose a two or three dollar surcharge per ticket on travel agents in Hanoi to go towards a general community development fund. This fund could go towards these new education programs, a microfinance program, a rainyday fund to help prepare for droughts or landslides in either rainfall or tourism, or could even be used to start H'mong and Dzao-owned tourism businesses. You could have the community elect a local council to ensure the efficient spending of these resources, not unlike Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting scheme. Plus, this could really help direct some funds towards roads and infrastructure (water) developments to make sure that farming remains a viable option for families throughout the province.
4) In Lao Cai or elsewhere, develop a student interchange program. I guess all of my policy proposals are really heavy on education, but perhaps thats what I get for spending so much of my weekend in Sapa with children under the age of 18. Some sortof exchange program to get kids out of the village into other educational programs could provide an interesting cultural exchange for all, and might encourage more scholarship or more attention towards the plight of the ethnic minority tribes.
5)A new, specific bureau of government affairs to manage tourism. I have read and heard complaints that the Vietnamese government is a bit slower to act to help the ethnic minorities who live up in the hills; many think that the H'mong are "backward" and the increasing urban/rural divide and pace of Vietnam's economy/globalization are surely not helping bridge this divide. I think that a specific entity of the Communist Party, similiar to the Women's League or the existing Minority League, that would specifically monitor and set goals for progressive tourism policy could be a large step forward.
6)Address the problem of mass-made tourism trinkets. When every single shop sells the exact same scarves and scraps of silk, it's obvious that there's no local entrepreneurship going on here. This is counterproductive to the notion of tourism as bringing up a local community; it merely means someone somewhere has found an object that tourists in Sapa are willing to buy, assuming its "authentic." Exploration should be made in finding ways to produce local trinkets on site in Sapa and pumping the money from unique, handcrafted cultural souvenirs back into the aforementioned fund.

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