Ethnic minority tribes in northern Vietnam are finding it increasingly difficult to balance tradition and modernity as development continues to consume their once sleepy region of the country. Some are trying to maintain their time-tested cultural values while others have adopted a more financially focused lifestyle. It looks as though the latter may be winning.
By Max Efrein
Sapa, Vietnam – Imagine being swarmed by pushy car salesmen, except they’re Asian women dressed in colorful garments all yelling “buy from me!” as they stuff hand bags and cheap metal bracelets in your face.
This is now the standard greeting one gets from ethnic minority tribes when stepping foot in the beautiful mountain town of Sapa in northern Vietnam.
Eight ethnic minority groups inhabit the region. The largest among them are the Hmong, the Red Dao, the Tay and the Giay. These tribes have maintained much of their ancestral traditions over the centuries, such as their clothing, architecture and rituals, but that hasn’t prevented them from wanting to make a quick dollar. In fact, they’ve found that flaunting their traditions is actually a business.
There are only a few options once you are targeted as a potential buyer: quickly purchase an item and attempt to escape as more native women begin to rush at you; buy an item from everyone in the immediate area to make them leave you alone; or say you don’t want anything and risk the onslaught of guilt tactics scripted as, “Why you no buy from me?” “I poor.” “I need feed family.” “You rich.” “You should give me money.” “You bad person.”
Lynn Pedigo, a Vietnam War veteran from the U.S., recently visited Sapa on a travel tour through Southeast Asia. He had been to the town once before about 12 years ago and remembers a very different Sapa.
“I was never approached on the street to buy something before, and now you are just assaulted, you know, you feel assaulted sometimes,” Pedigo said.
His perception of the town has changed along with Vietnam’s quickly changing societal landscape. Since the country began to emerge out of international isolation in the early 1990’s, industrial development and foreign investment have gradually increased, transforming towns into cities and subsistence farmers into money-centric peddlers.
Small rural towns like Sapa were some of the last to experience this transformation, but now it is well ingrained.
“[Sapa] has become a complete tourist attraction,” Pedigo said. “There are now about 50 hotels, before maybe there were three.”
Nearly all of which are owned and operated by Vietnamese businessmen, who make up about 15 percent of the region’s population but almost 100 percent of the town’s residents. Many came up from Hanoi, the country’s capital and closest major city to Sapa more than 200 miles away. This migration picked up significant speed once it became clear in the early 2000’s that the small rural town possessed a lot of untapped business potential, according to Hoang Ha Van, a local tour guide in Sapa.
The natives have caught on to the action as well, seeing opportunity to occasionally get away from their primary occupation of farming by selling handcrafted products to curious tourists wandering the town’s central shopping district. Some of them have been in the game for about a quarter of a century, but the habit only really started picking up about 10 years ago, Hoang said. Before, the locals mostly sold to the few tourists that would pass through their villages on site-seeing expeditions.
“Instead of staying at home waiting for tourists to come to their village to sell, they bring it to Sapa to sell,” Hoang said.
Most of the natives have no form of transportation, so they walk to Sapa from their village, which sometimes takes hours, hoping to make out with something for their time and effort.
“Sometimes we earn $50 or $40. Sometimes $1. Sometimes $0,” said 26-year-old Lo Thi Mao, a Black Hmong woman who has been selling in Sapa for 9 years.
Lo – and most of the native women for that matter – can speak at least a little English, as well as several other languages, having picked up basic words and phrases from simply talking to thousands of tourists over the years.
“Me, zero school. No English, no Vietnamese, no Hmong. Just speaking,” Lo said.
Nowadays, however, tourists aren’t the only ones coming in large numbers. More weekenders from Hanoi looking to blow off steam and others from around Vietnam looking to settle down in the countryside have been flowing in, increasing the rate of development, but not adding much to the minority’s primary clientele.
“More people come, and less tourists,” said 21-year-old Ly Thi Ha, another Black Hmong woman who has experience selling in Sapa.
In addition, many of the Vietnamese-run businesses in town sell imitation versions of the goods peddled by the natives.
This general saturation of the market coupled with fewer visitors buying souvenirs has made the business competitive, resulting in aggressive sales tactics that leave many buyers feeling overwhelmed.
Lo said she tries not to be too persistent, but she doesn’t feel bad for tourists who complain that her people are too intrusive.
“They say ‘Go away, go away,'” Lo said. “I say ‘First you go, because we be living here.’ It’s my life, you know. We living whole life here. So first you go away, we go home.”
Aside from farming, selling their goods and giving guided tours of their villages are pretty much the only ways the natives know how to make a living.
Not all of them are satisfied with such few options, but young women like Ly don’t believe they can break away from the system, no matter how much they wish they could.
“We have no choice, only one choice, to follow tourists,” Ly said. “And you think I like following tourists? I don’t like, I’m very bored about that. One day I don’t sell anything, how can I give money for my parents and how can I have money to eat. I know money is not important, but if you don’t have money, how do you live? This question is very easy to answer.”
Ly said she wishes to get out of Sapa some day, but she’s not so sure if that will ever happen.
“My dream is to travel, but now, I am thinking my dream will never come true,” Ly said.
A new highway from Hanoi to Sapa is expected to be finished by November to help with the increasing flow of visitors. It is the longest highway to be built in Vietnam so far. It will cut the driving time between the two areas down to about 6 hours instead of the nearly 10 it takes today.