I’ve been in Southeast Asia now for over 5 months and haven’t had the opportunity to do some kind of trekking among indigenous tribes, something common in the north part of the region, specially in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Close to complete 1 month backpacking in Vietnam I had the opportunity to go to Sapa, known region among travellers for its lush green rice paddies but also for being home for different indigenous minorities.
Surprised I was when I was greet by Si, a 21 year-old Black H’mong that would be our guide. I must say, from what I’ve seen so far in SE Asia, tourism can walk in a fine line between ruining a destination and impacting tremendously at the way people live or in some cases, truly help to develop a community and a tourism destination. This is what has happened in Sapa. The place is full of tourists, which can be a bit annoying sometimes, also because it was high season and the rice paddies were greenest ever.
The trekking would be 2 days, 1 night in a local’s home stay, walking over 16 km! So gladly I had plenty of time to talk with Si and also the other ladies that follow and help us along the way (hoping to sell us some of their beautiful crafts by the end of the journey). Si spoke very good english, something learnt with the tourists and that made her eligible to work as a tour guide for over 3 years now. With 2 young children (the baby was carried by her and friends along the 16 km) her husband took care of their family rice field while she worked with the tourists.
The first tourists arrived in their village a bit over 30 years, from what Si said, and from that time the village has improved with more money coming in and people are happy to show their culture and habits. Recently their village just had built a new small hydropower station that now brings energy to many villages. A lot more can be done, since their local school has no high school, the families cannot afford sending their child to Sapa city to study, so they stay home helping their parents in the fields.
Despite that, their sense of community is amazing, one helping the other and while choosing among their handmade craftsmanship they would say: buy one from and onde from her. Their crafts, maid from hemp fiber that becomes a fabric that is tinted in dark blue by a local plant, is the livelihoods of many of the older population that are too debilitate to work in the field and or as a guide. In many ways tourism has become the source of income of a great part of the H’mong people, since their agriculture is mainly and only for family consumption. My hope is that they maintain their traditions and that tourism may continue to help this community as they should.