Tucked away in northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border, lies the small town of Sa Pa. What makes it so special, you ask? It is surrounded by beautiful mountains with terraced rice fields, which promise a unique trekking experience. No wonder many travellers come to Sa Pa for these hikes. But is Sa Pa really just a paradise full of natural wonders?
Because of its remote location (the closest city is Hanoi, over five hours away by car), I wasn’t expecting more than a little mountain town where luxury things like cafés, restaurants, drugstores or ATMs would be hard to come by.
As it turns out, this would be how Sa Pa looked a few years ago. When I arrived, I quickly realised the tourism industry had been growing rapidly in Sa Pa in recent years – and it has reflected on the town in the worst possible ways.
What, I imagine, used to be a lovely mountain village full of friendly locals working in the rice fields has turned into one big holiday resort where virtually everyone who lives here tries to make money off tourists.
On my first day in Sa Pa I go for a walk thinking how pretty and peaceful the town itself looks with the lake and mountains in the background. Things start to change as I get closer to the town centre.
I am passing more and more women and children in tribal clothing and with baskets on their backs – they are the local H’mong people known to be living in this area. Having already seen a few signs asking tourists not to buy anything from the street sellers, I decline all the products they are offering me.
Tourists Under Attack
As I keep walking, I see more and more of them – in fact, they seem to be everywhere I go. I do find these local tribes extremely interesting, but unfortunately they are constantly surrounding you with their “Buy from me!” and it becomes difficult to simply appreciate their unique clothes and appearances. And it’s not just them who gets in your way.
Just crossing the Sa Pa town square, I get offered five taxi and ten motorbike rides from aggressive drivers strategically waiting around the main square. And of course, there is even more harassment from the H’mong people. Here outside the church, the situation looks the worst by far. It is a depressing sight for me – and not just because the vendors won’t leave me alone.
I see many small children trying to sell on the street, a lot of them carrying even smaller babies on their backs. They should be in schools but as long as people buy from them, their parents will keep them on the streets. And people do buy from them.
I see tourists feeling sorry for these little souls and purchasing souvenirs and purses, probably thinking they are helping. Some are even taking photos of them or with them (often without asking), seemingly oblivious to the bigger issues here.
In the hopes of escaping these tiresome crowds, I head to the outskirts of town. I can see glimpses of the beautiful hills and decide to chase good views for some photos. Not even this is simple. There are huge constructions in progress everywhere with cranes blocking almost every nice view. It is now that I notice how many new hotels are being built around here.
Finally, I venture further out of town for a little hike. Not to worry though, the local women will find you even here. They start by asking where you are from and before you know it, you are stuck with them as they keep following you and attempting to give you a “cheaper” guided tour. (Many visitors pay for organised trekking in this area but it is perfectly fine to do it on your own.)
So… Should You Visit Sa Pa?
Try not to get discouraged, though. Despite these negatives, there is so much to see in the Sapa valley and it would be a shame to miss out! Eventually, I learnt the best way to enjoy Sa Pa: Ignore all the hawkers and keep off the beaten path. I even ended up having some nice experiences with the locals, such as a family dinner with my guesthouse owners.
Although this article might sound too negative, I still loved Sa Pa and always list it among my favourite places in Vietnam. I simply wanted to share the other side of this place, too. If you are expecting to have a peaceful stay in the middle of nature, you will be disappointed but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.
Travelling is not just about pretty experiences, it also means confronting some harsh realities. And the reality of Sa Pa is that tourism has taken over. If you are coming to Sa Pa, be prepared to face this reality.
Feature image: A local in Sa Pa Village – Michaela Ordosova