From six thousand miles away, reading about Sapa in the Lonely Planet guide and on the internet, I thought the city would be as advertised: a serene portal to the mountains of North Vietnam with access to tribal areas and trekking. Up close, in Sapa, this is pretty much a joke. As you can see in the photo, Sapa is a busy place.
I made this image using multiple captures at different exposures from the second-floor balcony of my hotel room. What you can’t see from the photo is the noise: for starters, motorcycles roaring and karaoke blasting from the hotel behind me, later as darkness fell a roaring street party and bar scene.
What you also can’t see in this image is the extent of new construction going on in Sapa, most of it pretty ugly.
True, there are some nice mountains nearby. And Sapa is where you catch the gondola up the highest mountain in southeast Asia. But the tribal villages nearby are pretty much dressed up tourist attractions. And the Hmong people on the streets of Sapa are thrown like lambs to the slaughter of the tourist cycle that devours all authenticity.
As I wrote in my previous story on Sapa, while I expected Sapa to be somewhat touristic, I didn’t expect the crazy cultural dissonance I found. There’s more construction going on here than anywhere I’ve seen recently, up to and including the west side of Manhattan. There’s a street party going on right now that could be Times Square. From one side the noise of the partying on the streets meets loud Karaoke coming from the other.
Meanwhile, the tribal Hmong people are reduced to a kind of side show of street vendors (like the beautiful “black” Hmong shown in the photo) and persistent hawking of ersatz crafts by Hmong young and old.
It’s hard to see the construction boom here as anything other than a bubble fueled by easy money, and it is hard to see all this as ending well for the Hmong and other ethnic Vietnamese minorities, and hard to see visitors who aren’t the Disneyland types anything but quite disappointed.