Viet Nam

society and culture

Xin Chào from Sa Pa in the far north of Việt Nam,

Who’d’ve thought that rich Europeans would willingly choose to venture high into the mountains of northern Việt Nam, walk long distances up and down steep slopes, stay in local homes in ethnic villages and pay for the privilege? But that’s what thousands of tourists do. Like lots of successful business models, the concept seems implausible before it’s actual implementation.

    The 54 ethnic groups in Việt Nam exist on the margins of the rapidly modernising society. How to bring them along with the transitioning majority without threatening their cherished culture? Whose responsibility is it? Should they be left to the vicissitudes of the callous market? 

   The Việtnamese government wants them to retain their cultures and not merely to attract western tourists like us to trek through the mountains from village to village. The government has electrified most villages, built roads and concrete motorbike tracks connecting villages. They’ve also built schools and maintained the rail link from Hà Nội. In the Mường Hoa Valley, Sa Pa is the focal point for most visitors to the mountains. The heavily terraced slopes are populated by several different ethnic groups such as the Hmong, Tay, Zhau and Thai people. These people face some difficult questions about their future in a modern Việt Nam. 

Linda learning to embroider

   Another partial solution is actually originating from the market (which is not quite so brutal and callous as it can be in the west). The Sapa Sisters is an organisation run on business principles, catering for trekkers and hikers wanting to immerse themselves in local cultures. In this organisation, the women act as guides. They know their way around and can speak the local dialects.

     The Sapa Sisters was started by Yiva Landoff Lindberg who saw such women “getting pathetically paid” and started the business so they could cut out the middlemen and “take all the money from tours for themselves”. This is what attracted us to this particular group. 

trafficking across the border

    The extra problem which faces these people is the trafficking of women across the border into China where there is a famous shortage of marriageable women. Our guide – of the Black Hmong group – was a very congenial woman called Ze. She told us that they’ve already lost many girls to the kidnappers. Yiva Landoff Lindberg says the work of the Sapa Sisters (the best paid guides in the valley) “provides a shield of self-confidence and a reason not to be lured over the border”. 

   We were pleased to patronise this business where the profits – if there are any – are ploughed back into the business for expansion (now 23 guides receiving a steady source of income) and the recipients are women. It’s good to know that business can sometimes provide a solution to a problem created by another business.
hẹn gặp lại from Sa Pa


Other photos from hereabouts

Sa Pa
Sa Pa
Sa Pa
Sa Pa

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