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Challenging Times for Sapa Vietnam
Challenging times for Sapa Vietnam , for years Sapa has been the gateway to Vietnam's northern mountainous regions and hill tribe communties, but tourism must be carefully developed to ensure the town's heritage is protected, says Karl D. John.

It reminded me of the many happy Christmas holidays that I had in the UK during my youth. I was fortunate enough to enjoy a traditional English Christmas lunch with turkey, stuffing, bread sauce, Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. It was expertly prepared by John, who runs an English pub in Sapa with his charming Vietnamese wife, Loan.

My company, the Vietnam Investment & Project Development Group (VIPD Group), is developing the Life Heritage Resort Sapa, a 115 unit, four star resort for Life Resorts, so while visiting Sapa every month, I have come to know the hilltop destination like the back of my hand.

Sapa Vietnam is an incredibly picturesque village, about 1,600 metres above sea level that is part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, 350 kilometres from Hanoi, near the Chinese border in North-Western Vietnam.

You can't miss seeing the hill tribe people, their villages, rice terraces, lush vegetation and then there's Fansipan, which at 3,143m is the highest peak in Vietnam and the last major peak in the Himalayan chain.

The total population of around 40,000 consists mostly of minority groups. Excluding the Kinh people (15 per cent) who make up the majority of the Vietnamese race, there are five main ethnic groups in Sapa: Hmong (52 per cent), Dao (25 per cent), Tay (5 per cent), Giay (2 per cent) and a small number of Xa Pho.

Approximately 7,000 people live in Sapa, the remaining 33,000 inhabitants being scattered in small communes throughout the district. Most of the ethnic minority people work their paddy fields on sloping terraces dotted around the hills.

The French discovered Sapa, or Chapa as the French called it, in the late 1880's. With its attractive continental climate, health authorities believed the site had potential. By 1912, a military sanatorium for ailing military officers had been erected along with a fully fledged military garrison. Then, from the 1920's onwards, several wealthy professionals with financial capital also had a number of private villas built in the vicinity.

After the end of the Second World War, a long period of hostilities began that was to last until 1954. In the process, nearly all of the 200 or so colonial buildings in or around Sapa were destroyed in the late 1940's or in the early 1950's.

The vast majority of the Vietnamese population fled for their lives, and the former town entered a prolonged sleep. In the early 1960's, the authorities encouraged migration to the area and new inhabitants from the lowlands came to the region. In 1993, when Vietnam opened up the world, Sapa emerged as a tourist destination.

There are forty-four hotels mainly catering to backpackers, with eighteen hotels in the centre of town. The four star Victoria Hotel opened in March 1998, as new developments take shape, it will face serious competition and will find it hard to maintain its position as market leader.

The way ahead

Sadly, as tourism develops, there are positive and negative effects on a community. Whilst the infrastructure is improved, jobs are created and the standard of living is enhanced, the seedy side can also creep in. The minorities walk the streets of Sapa peddling their trinkets and traditional fabrics. It is not uncommon for a tourist to be harassed.

Michael Gray authored an interesting photo essay titled Cloud over Sapa in 2002 that describes the impact of tourism on the Hmong community, particularly young girls.

One of the main tourist attractions is the Love market, which takes place every Saturday, where Hmong and Dao youths meet in the hope of finding a suitable partner and court each other through traditional music, songs and games. Whilst it is desirable to have such rare cultural attractions, care must be taken in how it is presented.

All stakeholders have a responsibility and part to play, to ensure that tourism develops in a sustainable and sensible way, be they local authorities, residents, businesses or tourists.

Efforts should be made to involve the community in the development of tourism and in the participation of activities, to get their buy-in. Developers should incorporate the local culture and architecture in the design. There are plenty of examples, how not to develop and lessons should be learnt from these.

Delivery of the product and quality of service are critical areas that need careful attention. Training is a must, even in cities where people are more sophisticated. Therefore, in Sapa, local authorities need to facilitate the development of training efforts by providing facilities (free of charge) that can be refurbished to an acceptable standard by trainers.

From my dealings with the People's Committee of Sapa and in particular the Vice-Chairman, I know that there is a strong desire to assist the development of tourism in Sapa. This enthusiasm should be supported by central authorities, namely the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Sapa is a beautiful location that has great potential as a tourist destination. It offers what many locations in Vietnam cannot offer. It would be a crying shame if all stakeholders do not meet the challenge of developing Sapa as a credible alternative to other destinations within Asia. Let Sapa be the Cameron Highlands of Vietnam.
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