I’ve been back for 10 days, and keep returning to my photos from Vietnam hoping they will allow me to relive it all over again. I loved taking photos of Sapa, and witnessing the way people live in the mountains. It’s a life which embraces being different and yet is also submitted to change, and not necessarily for the better.
It’s obviously nice to tell you about all the wonderful things we saw when travelling. But every place has two sides: Parisian macarons hide a high rate of homelessness, Oxford’s beautiful libraries are hosts to numerous mental health issues. Vietnam is no exception to the rule.
One of the things that struck me the most when trekking in Sapa was the amount of plastic left to *never* decompose in nature. Plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, you name it. Maybe I’m too naive, but I couldn’t believe it. How could people step into such a majestic part of the world, and think it would be ok to literally trash it? I guess the answer lies in education (the answer always lies in education) but also decisions on a governmental level to protect, and enforce this protection of the environment and the community it hosts.
I wish I’d gone to Sapa 30 years ago, back when my grandfather would take incredible risks to venture in those mountains in order to meet isolated ethnic groups and to help them preserve their culture. Before tourism crept its way via train lines, concrete roads and motorways. Its impact is undeniable. Plastic trash found in rivers, on the side of paths and all around villages is a mere witness of this.
We trekked with women of the black hmong group who told us about their daily life, and who impressed us as they climbed up and down the steeped hills effortlessly in their simple rubber shoes whilst we required taking numerous breaks. They showed us the traditional and handmade items of clothing they wear based on the woven pattern that is unique to the black hmongs. The design and combination of colours of these patterns, paired up with the indigo dyed fabric is as sophisticated as many designs showcased in fashion weeks around the world. And I found such items all the more precious for the time and hardwork put into them; I understood why the black hmongs felt this craft, embedded in their marginal culture, was something worth preserving.
Later on, I learnt tourists could hire the traditional outfits of the black hmongs and other groups that have made Sapa their home for centuries. They then trek around, pretending to be black hmong, giáy or tay for the photos. For those who just fancy bringing back a souvenir, they can purchase traditional items of clothing, such as skirts, in the tourist shops some villages have been reconverted into.
I feel this is stating the obvious here, but all of this is quite problematic. Jumping on the cultural appropriation police bang wagon isn’t the point. It’s one thing that Vietnamese or Chinese tourists want to “dress up” like an ethnic group, the change it is causing within the culture of such ethnic group is another, and that’s what’s really at stake.
Let me explain: it would cost too much time and money to provide tourists with the real, handmade items. So the people living in Sapa have resorted to developing a business with factories in China to “counterfeit” the clothes. But purchasing fake black hmong skirts isn’t the same as purchasing a fake Louis Vuitton bag. What we noticed, and what our guide and the black hmong women we met confirmed, is that the children have started wearing the counterfeited traditional clothes themselves. After all, it’s cheaper and less time consuming than learning how to make it yourself. And this gets you wondering… “well what’s the point then?”. How real is this isolated life in the mountain where their culture is supposedly being preserved? People like to debate about the label “authentic”, but again, I don’t think it’s what really matters. What we should really ask is: what can benefit the people who choose to maintain a traditional life in the mountains as we make this area less and less isolated? Yes concrete pathways are not “authentic”, but they make the lives of the locals easier: imagine having to trek up and down these mountains in monsoon season? However, tourists encouraging a market that counterfeits major cultural aspects that changes the way ethnic groups relate to their own culture, to the point of making them turn away from it, is devastating.
Visiting Sapa wasn’t just an “in awe” experience, it was also a wake up call about how much we must work on teaching how to respect both nature and culture.
On that note, here are some more photos I took, including a few photos of children on their way home from school.