Tucked away in the hills of Vietnam just south of the Chinese border sits an iconic region covered in sweeping rice paddies, early morning mist, and cool mountain air. The vibrant traditional clothing of the village tribes stands out against the rich, green backdrops of the hills.
In my month touring Vietnam, no other destination provided views as near breathtaking as the rice paddies spanning across the horizon.
I wasn’t the only tourist attracted to the stunning village. This region draws countless foreigners looking for a retreat from the heat sweeping through the coastal region. Chinese tourists arrive by the busloads from the north to experience the charming ambiance. Western tourists take the pilgrimage from Hanoi as part of their Vietnam tour.
The influx of tourists doesn’t come without the costs to the community.
Shortly after you arrive, you start to realize the toll tourism takes on this picturesque town. Local women flock to you in hopes you’ll buy their wares. Small girls carry siblings on their back, attending to them while their mothers sell items. Even younger girls present bracelets for purchase.
This community is dependent on tourism.
As a socially conscious tourist, this will wear on you. The continual requests to “buy from me” echo throughout your day. Groups follow you around presenting bags, jewelry and more.
Sapa offers a bright side.
In addition to wares, one other activity provides income to local women: trekking. Luckily, it is also one of the most popular, as well as most enjoyable, experiences in the village. Local guides take hikers on trails through the different local communities, giving a glimpse into village life. Each trek comes with lunch, which can be shared in your host’s home. If you want to take the experience even further, you can opt for a homestay.
It will be an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience connecting with your guide, learning about her culture and sharing a meal together.
That is, as long as you use your experience to empower.
Many tour companies and hotels take advantage of local guides, offering a small fraction of the rate you pay. As a responsible tourist, you have the ability to sidestep this practice by taking advantage of a tour run by sustainability-driven companies.
Shu Tan, a young single mother from the Black Hmong tribe, founded Sapa Chau in order to create a fair alternative for local women of all tribes. Rather than forcing a divide, she wanted to use tourism to create ripples of change throughout the villages. The core principals focus on tackling illiteracy, teaching employment skills and paying a fair wages.
“Our mission is to promote learning, provide sustainable employment, and empower our community.”
Proof of their impact covers the walls of their office. Local tribeswomen write along the wall the goals they are currently working to achieve. Yes, groups formerly without the ability to read or write transcribe their dreams for all to see.
Hikers can choose from a multitude of different one-day hikes or multi-day homestay and trekking options. Visitors foregoing trekking can also browse through their handicraft store, savor a cup of coffee on the porch or enjoy a scrumptious lunch from the café. Regardless of the choice, you can rest easy knowing your purchases are being invested back into the community.
Sapa Sisters Trekking Adventures
Sapa Sisters Trekking Adventures was founded by six Hmong women focused on paying fair wages to all guides. They celebrate having the best-paid guides in the area, highlighting that, “Paying well is what companies should do.”
Even more inspiring, it’s owned entirely by women.
In addition to trekking and homestays, this adventure company also offers tours to the local markets, cooking classes and rice harvesting excursions.
Alternative: Booking Directly with Your Guide
In addition to booking through one of the responsible tour companies, there is one other route you can go to ensure that your fee goes to support your guide. That’s booking directly with your guide.
I will warn you though, it’s a daunting experience going out into the village in search of a single guide. Groups of women will try to encourage you to book with them or purchase something since you’re not trekking with them.
This was the route I chose because there was one tenacious entrepreneur who won my attention again and again during our stay.
Meet Mang, the tenacious 17-year old who eagerly reaches out to tourists, freely jumps into conversations and doesn’t let you forget if you told her you would consider purchasing something. Language isn’t an issue either. She fluently speaks five languages while attempting a sixth.
I couldn’t have found a better guide. Her outgoing nature kept conversations going the entire hike. We explored differences in culture and comparing different views, and she shared her resolute position that she would not get married until after finishing school. She also added in a quick round of grilling my husband and me on why we didn’t have kids. (I personally believe she did my grandkid-seeking parents proud.)
Opting for lunch in her home added a bounce to her step the entire hike as she exclaimed how her mother would put together a great meal. You could see the pride on her face. The meal did not disappoint! In fact, it was one of the best meals we had in the mountain town.
While the meal was delicious and the views stunning, at the end of the day it was getting to experience such a vibrant culture in a unique and intimate way that made trekking in Sapa the most memorable excursion in Vietnam.
Alexandra Black-Paulick is constant wanderer and social enterprise enthusiast. As the host of the Positive Impact Podcast, she highlights compelling stories of conscious business around the globe. Tackling a variety of issues from India to Haiti to Rwanda and even enterprises addressing issues at home, this show inspires everyday do gooders to continue their unique mission to make a positive mark on the world. These days she is traveling Asia, experience the rich cultures, flavorful cuisines and dynamic scenery this side of the world has to offer.