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

When you envision what Vietnam looks like, you probably wouldn’t picture Sapa. At least it’s not what we would picture.When i think of my country as a tourist we have rice patties, jungles and beaches.  Sapa is very different.  Nestled into  the mountains just south of the Chinese border, Sapa reminded me of some parts in Vietnam that have the same problem  


Sapa town in 1992


Sapa village in 1992


A road to small village of sapa – 1992

The towering green mountains shrouded in mist and fog makes for a breathtaking setting.  Just like Tay Nguyen – Central highland of vietnam 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 foryears, Sapa is a lovely place.  

Unfortunately, it seems tourism has really made a negative impact on the community.  As a vietnamese local tourists, I hate to see communities become so completely dependent on tourists (us) that the soul of place seems to be lost.  Vietnam is the 4th country I’ve visited and i don’t think I’ve seen a town with a more desperate relationship with tourism, although I’m sure they’re more out there.   

Image result for children in sapa

 As soon as we “ Tourist ‘’  arrived town on the bus, children and women, many with babies followed us wherever we went trying to sell us anything they had.  If I could, I 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.  I’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 I booked a village trek which was to responsibly support the locals and the villages.  In retrospect, I’m not sure any of my money went to the villages I 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, I wish I could directly help everyone.  

By visiting Sapa, I’m 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.   

I 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, I have seen this model in action in many places; entire restaurant staff of ex-street kids and orphans in Ho Chi Minh City and more. Micro-finance allows entrepreneurs, like the ones I just mentioned in developing countries to obtain small loans for their businesses.  KIVA is an amazing organization.  All our loans are nearly paid back in full, we will put this money back into more loans for more entrepreneurs  from countries I’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. 

So, I 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 me and future visitors know! 

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