Countries Dao Guides Hmong Tribes Vietnam Vietnam

Survival Guide to Sapa: Preparation & Compassion for Hmong and Dao People in Sapa

things to do in sapa

The coach door opens, “Where you go?? Whats your name?? Where you from?? You buy from me?? Where you stay?? You remember me, ok?? Why you not buy from me?? You come my homestay?? I see you later?? You buy from me later??” 

You haven’t even collected your luggage from the undercarriage but you’ve already had a infinity of colorific bracelets, bags and babies thrust in your face, and these questions echo in a melody of 20 voices. 

Yesterday I recorded my arrival in Sapa for the vlog series I am currently making called 7 DAYS IN SAPA WITH ETHOS (see video below). This is my 4th visit to Sapa over 2 years and even I still find walking around the town a challenging and guilt ridden experience at times. Unfortunately many tourists do not have enough background knowledge and understanding to prevent themselves from feeling overwhelmed and defensive when engaging with the local hill tribe people in the city. 

Where does the problem stem from?

Sapa was a sleepy city until 20 or so years ago with a population of only 3000. Although hill tribe minorities have been living in the region for over 800 years it would be fair to say 99.9% of all legal business in Sapa are owned by Vietnamese people. The vast majority of hill tribe people do not read and write in Vietnamese and therefore cannot register their own businesses. With increased tourism and insufficient waste disposal the lands have become inhabitable for much fauna, and the depleted the natural eco system which hill tribe people once hunted and foraged in is practically gone. 

So why don’t they get jobs?

Hmong and Dao people from Sapa are very good at 2 things. Handicrafts (especially textiles) and working as local guides. However to operate a tour company in Vietnam requires a 4 year university degree with a top up in tourism. To register as a tour guide you must be able to speak, read and write Vietnamese. But because there is very little locally produced food, families often prioritise their children working over education in order to survive. Resulting down the line in very low employment rates as the majority did not attend school to learn to read and write. 

So what do they do instead??

They take to the streets to sell handicrafts and try to entice people to take tours with them. The problem is, the market of handmade traditional textiles is now exhausted. 

Because tourism dramatically increased, more and more women left their villages and started to sell their family heirlooms, which take months or years to create for excruciatingly low prices. But not every visitor wants to buy a blanket for $40 or bag for $10, and some tourists don’t want anything at all, but they are more likely to spend $1 to try and get a women to stop following them. $1 here and there and you have a pretty wrist-full of bracelets or a purse. 

BUT the women can’t make hand stitched bracelets for $1 because it takes to long, so they buy cheap crap from China because the margin is higher and they can spend more time selling instead of making. Thus a new generation of hill tribe girls and young women are no longer learning traditional textiles because there is simply no profit in it (but thats another article). 

So remember this cycle of poverty when you arrive in Sapa. Keep smiling and keep friendly. Considered that most of these women will only earn a few dollars per day and all they are trying to do is survive. 

  1. Have a map of where you are going, or use your google maps with the location prepared in advance.

  2. Smile

  3. Say Hello

  4. STOP and talk to them face to face like real people.

  5. Say Thank you but that you are NOT buying today. 

  6. Don’t make promises to buy later.

  7. Keep walking.

  8. If you are lost or confused head to a cafe and ask for directions or use wifi. 

Watch the video from 3:27 to see my arrival in Sapa town

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things to do in sapa

Have you been to Sapa? How was your experience meeting the Black Hmong and Red Dao people? Do you have any advice for our readers? Please add you comments below we would love to hear from you.

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