It has taken me some time to decide how to approach the topic of Sapa. My relationship with this Vietnamese city started over 3 years ago when I first visited on a backpacking trip through Asia. Currently, I am living and working 35 kilometers away from Sapa and have visited already 10+ times in the last few months. There are next to no foreigners in Lao Cai, the city in which I live, so visiting Sapa is a break from complete cultural submersion. Here, I see other foreigners that I can have conversations with in English, I have a selection of western cuisine to choose from, the mountainous landscape is magnificent, and I can sleep in a soft bed. I have created some connections with some really wonderful people in this city that have shared their knowledge and welcomed me in like family. At the end of the day, Sapa has treated me well.
Despite having created a positive relationship with the city, I have conflicted emotions about the massive transformation that it has underwent in the last few years.
When I first visited Sapa in 2014, tourism was already extremely present. I was, myself, a tourist. I bought the standard hiking and homestay package with a group of other travelers. It was nice. We hiked around the rice terraces and learned of the area from a local Hmong woman. Even at this time, there was no shortage of foreigners in the area. The local villages had already undergone a transformation with the introduction of tourism, with most homestays advertising high-speed wifi and food to suit western tastes.
Since then, it seems that the tourism industry has exploded. The Sapa I frequent today is much different than the Sapa that I saw in 2014.
The money goes where the tourism goes which is why there has been a boom in the development of hotels, restaurants and homestays. Every time that I visit Sapa (every 2 weeks or so) a new hotel that has sprouted up. A walk down one of the main roads is like navigating in a video game as you dodge construction, first time drivers (for many local people, it is their first motorbike), and women from the villages that have come up for the day to sell you their goods. The city is undergoing a metamorphosis.
The Sapa Church, an iconic symbol of the village, is now squished in between an ever growing number of hotels and flashy billboards. At night, the church glows from neon lights from the surrounding hustle bustle reflecting off of its stone walls. On the steps of the church, children adorned in beads and tassels that are barely old enough to walk sell their trinkets to passing tourists late into to the night, tasked with earning an income for the family early in life.
I am not against tourism. Tourism can be very good for a community as it can bring money into areas that are in need of it. However, it seems that tourism happened too quickly for the locals to keep up, many of whom never gotten a higher education or learned the skills to start a business. As a result, most of the businesses that are profiting from this surge in cash are owned by people from the big cities that have moved in with the prospect of new money.
It seems that Sapa’s long-term goal is to create a boutique-esque, french colonial atmosphere, but with an flare of local traditional art and culture. This makes it a unique area to visit in Vietnam, and I can see the potential in this tropical mountainous city. One day, the dust of construction will settle (although this doesn’t seem to be anytime in the near future), at which point it will be interesting to take a step back to compare the New Sapa to what it once was.