Sapa, in Vietnam’s far northwest, began its tourism life in the 1990s, as a remote outpost for trekkers and cultural travellers. They were drawn to the region’s stunning rice terraces, mountains and diverse ethnic minorities. In early 2016, all that changed forever. A new cable car, one of the world’s longest, now ferries tourists to the top of Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Getting to the top of Fansipan has become something of a patriotic rite for Vietnamese. Tourists from neighbouring China are also crossing the nearby border for the cable-car experience. Sapa is preparing for a mass tourism onslaught with new hotels and resorts under construction. The sleepy hillstation is forever gone. The crowds on weekends are already large. Cultural tourists and trekkers are still coming, but local hotels, restaurants and tour operators told me their numbers are falling. Mass tourism’s a funny thing though. A high percentage of the new Sapa tourists are uninterested in mountain walks and local cultures. They’re focused only on the cable car and the town. By squeezing out cultural tourists, the cable car tourists may be enabling a more enjoyable experience of the local villages and local life than was possible five years ago when there were more trekkers and culture seekers. At least that was what we found on our recent return. We took an afternoon walk around the village of Sin Chai, around 7 kms from town, and had it pretty much to ourselves. Sin Chai has been receiving tour groups for nearly twenty years. I was amazed how unspoiled the experience of exploring the area was, given how long it’s been in the tourism spotlight. I took this shot of a mother and daughter after buying some local fabric from them. They invited us in to their place too. The cable car was visible in the distance, in a village otherwise only marginally touched by modernity. I didn't expect such a delightful visit to the area, twenty years after my first visit. Unspoiled for travellers might mean poor and miserable to locals. But there was a good energy in this place. The school was busy and the kids were far more healthy looking than they were in the 90s. Still, even in the image, it’s clear that the Hmong traditions are eroding. The next generation probably won’t be wearing traditional garments.
Rusty Compass listings are always independent. We list the places we think are worth knowing about. Our Featured Listings allow a small selection of businesses already recommended by us, to pay a fee for a place at the top of our list. That’s it. Featured Listings have no impact on reviews, or on the curation and independence of our lists.