I had spent a considerable part of the second half of 2013 staring at pictures of the lush terraced fields in Sapa, Vietnam. I knew that this was the part of Vietnam that I wanted to get to know most. It seemed perfect because I had found a wonderful organization called Sapa O’Chau to volunteer with and there were plenty of opportunities to go trekking (and I love to trek). Having finalized my plans, I used my free time to research trekking options in Sapa. That’s when I started coming across accounts of harassment by local Hmong women who as it appeared often pursued tourists rather aggressively to buy from them or trek with them in exchange for money. Accounts such as this one and other stories of tourists being chased, yelled and mocked at made it seem like a rather unpleasant experience, one that was nurtured in an environment of greed.
I had done some research of my own on the local Black Hmong people because I was volunteering to teach them. The other volunteers and coordinators I spoke to told me that they were a disadvantaged ethnic minority in Vietnamese society. I was also told that they were friendly, kind and eager to learn. On the other hand, there were all these opinions on the internet about how one of the impacts of tourism was a sense of unfriendliness and hostility towards foreigners. I decided that I was going to make a conscious effort to experience Sapa for myself without any good or bad expectations.
Since my first day in Sapa, I was approached and often followed a short distance by the Black Hmong women who wanted me to buy something from them or hire them for treks in the nearby villages like Lao Chai or Cat Cat. They spoke good English and it was obvious that they’d been doing this a long time because they were skilled at it. They would usually begin the conversation by asking my name, where I was from and for how long I would be staying. Often, when they saw me walking by myself, they would ask if I was alone. Then they’d go on to talk about themselves briefly before declaring that we were now friends. If you’ve been to Sapa, then you know that “Friends” is usually followed by, “Now you buy from me.” When I’d say that I did not want to buy anything they would reply with, “No you buy” and persist or give up temporarily with, “Maybe later” , “Tomorrow you buy” to which I’d have to reply or nod to get them to leave. This was also sometimes followed by, “Pinky promise?” Talk about cheeky selling tactics!
Over time the women got used to seeing me walk around town every day, sometimes with other volunteers. Sapa is a small town and I assume they eventually found out that we were volunteering and would be staying longer than most other tourists. Slowly some of the women started smiling and waving at us everyday instead of chasing us to buy something. Some of them asked if we could teach them more English. Even when the others did follow us around to sell us their souvenirs, bracelets or jewelry, it could hardly be called harassment. Yes, there are times when it’s annoying to be accosted by a large group of women as is common when visiting Lao Chai or other villages but isn’t that understandable considering that selling to tourists is an important source of income?
The main occupation of the Black Hmong is farming and agriculture. The influx of tourists opened up other sources of income by selling to them or working as trekking guides. As a result of both of these additional sources of income, women became earners in the family, often solely shouldering the responsibilities of the household, even as they grew older. It’s not uncommon to see very old women selling to tourists or offering guide services. The Black Hmong and Red Dao women live in the villages around Sapa and walk several miles to the town every day for a livelihood. If they get customers who agree to go on treks, they spend the rest of the day covering longer distances, all remarkably in a pair of plastic flip flops.
The conditions of poverty in which their families live become quite obvious when you trek to their villages or live with them in a homestay. Their homes are equipped only with bare necessities. The family usually sleeps on hard floors with the only bed offered to homestay guests. The children look weak, frail and hungry. Sometimes they follow you muttering, “Money”, “Candy” or “Pen”. It is sad to see them begging and running behind tourist groups when they should really be in school. The younger generations don’t make it to school because they have to work in the fields, sell to tourists on the streets or find jobs in cafés, hotels or shops in Sapa town to supplement the family income.
Their desperation can easily be mistaken for greed, understandably because the main sources of income are seasonal. Competition is fierce as this is what most Hmong women do to make a living. They are taught to sew, weave and embroider fabrics and make bracelets and jewelry from a very young age so much that it has become a way of life for them. My students, all young women in the 16-21 age group would do this in their free time or the few minutes they would get in between classes, singing along merrily. It’s a common sight to see very old women with baskets strapped onto their backs, sitting down at a street corner or outside a shop for a rest, happily chatting away as their fingers continue to work swiftly with the needles. A very intricate patch of embroidery takes almost a year to complete as one of my students explained. Imagine that! Considering the amount of hard work that goes into creating some of the things, they’re literally sold for peanuts. How much would you pay for something like that in a kitschy boutique in London?
Obviously they try to rip tourists off, they quote ridiculous prices, sometimes use guilt tactics and they chase tourists pushing their bracelets into their faces, crowding around them with their colorful hats, wallets, purses and scarves. That’s because it’s not easy to make a living when everyone else is selling the same things to tourists who will easily walk away and approach the next vendor to save a few thousand Dong. As described very well here, isn’t persuasiveness a necessity in any business? Unfortunately, they don’t know better.
If you refuse nicely and politely, you will most likely be left alone. Obviously if you’re disrespectful you’re going to get some of that back. In my opinion, there’s nothing really evil about these women. They have no bad intentions and they’re a jolly, friendly bunch of women who will even help you out with directions if you ask nicely. Trekking with them is a wonderful experience because you get to see the villages from the eyes of an insider, meet their families and really know what their culture is like. It’s also reassuring to know that the money you spend in exchange for guide services or a homestay goes directly to them. Their only intention is to sell, survive and make a living for their families. They don’t have equal status in Vietnamese society, or easy access to jobs and education. So before you’re tempted to label them as ‘rude’, ‘greedy’ or ‘harassers’, just think about where they’re coming from and how different that world is from yours.
Further reading: My thoughts on the impact of tourism in Sapa.
If you like this post, please share it to Pinterest: