Sapa - travelling in ethnic minority areas - Rusty Compass travel blog

Sapa - travelling in ethnic minority areas

| 23 Jul 2009
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23 Jul 2009

There's plenty of ambivalence about the whole concept of "ethnic minority" tourism. The ethnic minority people are a huge part of the lure of Sapa and Vietnam's far north - yet you can't help but feel uneasy about the voyeurism and potential for exploitation.

The living conditions of Vietnam's minorities have improved very noticeably during the past decade - but grinding poverty remains the lot for most.

I wrote previously that one of the biggest changes in Sapa in recent years is the amount of interaction between the Black Hmong people - especially kids - and travellers. These days, many of the Hmong people speak very good English and much of this interaction seems to be very positive. Hopefully the development of language skills might see many young Hmong move from the disadvantage of street selling to a more central roll in the local economy - an economic role commensurate with the role the minority people play in attracting travellers and their dollars to Sapa and the far north.

Photo: Mark BowyerSwarming for a sale - Sapa's main street
The current situation is that most businesses in Sapa are owned by the small Vietnamese community while the minority peoples are consigned to selling on the streets or in a space in the central market. The Black Hmong make up over 50% of Sapa's population. Other minorities make up most of the balance while Vietnamese (known as Kinh people) are a small but growing minority.

The recent opening of the Chapa Garden Boutique Hotel marks a new direction for minority businesses. The hotel is owned by a local Black Hmong woman and her Danish husband and employs only local Hmong staff. In my view it's the nicest place to stay in Sapa - and its character as a hotel is matched by the integrity of its founding concept. It will be terrific if more such ventures can take root in Sapa. Unfortunately, the Chapa Garden Boutique Hotel only has four rooms.

Photo: Mark BowyerA great model - Ms Chai, owner of the Chapa Garden Boutique Hotel Sapa
As an Australian, I'm more than a little awkward commenting on the integration of indigenous minorities into tourism development. Australia's record is appalling. There has been a huge effort in recent years to develop a tourism industry in Australia's remote regions that integrates indigenous communities and creates opportunities for indigenous people. But while plenty of money and resources have been allocated to the task, it's hard to see much evidence of progress in most of Australia's iconic remote areas such as Uluru, the Kimberley and Kakadu. There are plenty of differences between the issues confronting indigenous Australians and the minorities of Vietnam's north - but the basic objective of creating a tourism industry that respects local cultures and shares economic spoils with indigenous stakeholders is common.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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