Travel Fails and the State of Sapa

Sapa, Northern Vietnam. The very words conjure images for me of green-yellow tiers of rice, towering peaks, buffaloes wallowing in mud pools, Hmong women in brightly-patterned headscarves and the smell of fresh alpine air. However, in the two years since we last visited Sapa, the town has transformed into a giant construction site. Diggers crowd the streets and the air is filled with dust and the sound of drilling and hammering. What’s more, during our visit last week, Sapa was cloaked in freezing fog so thick we couldn’t make out a single mountain view. The trip was a total travel fail.

Sapa, Vietnam in the fog

Foggy Sapa, 2017

Travel fails

If you’re a Brit who was born in the 80s like us, you’ll probably have childhood memories of soggy camping holidays on the coast. Remember wiping the condensation off the inside of a caravan window as rain drummed on the roof? How about shivering on the beach, watching your feet turn blue while you searched rock pools for crabs and the wind whipped sand into your sandwiches?

Buffloes and children in rice fields of Sapa in Vietnam

Sunny Sapa in 2015

Yep, weather-related travel fails happen to us all, but living in Asia where the climate is reliably better than the UK makes you complacent. That’s why we were bewildered last week to find ourselves trapped in our Sapa hotel room by a thick blanket of mist that refused to lift. Almost exactly two years earlier, we’d been in that very hotel looking out at the jagged silhouettes of mountains. We’d been trekking with friends through rice fields, tiny villages and bamboo forests.

Sapa in the Fog, Vietnam

A cold, misty night in Sapa

Maybe tomorrow the weather will be better,” we kept telling each other, only to awaken to apocalyptic white haze. Every time we ventured outside we’d be coated in a thin, cold drizzle. Since visibility was so bad we cancelled our day trek and instead, paid $20 to spend a morning at a resort pool, steaming ourselves in the sauna to warm up. Aside from that, we’d trudge around town to find a restaurant with a fire or spend hours tucked into our heated hotel bed drinking tea.

Construction work in Sapa, Vietnam

This is what Sapa town is like now

To make matters worse, the road outside our hotel was being demolished. The diggers would arrive (usually at 8am) to churn up the path for a few hours; a pile of bricks would be dumped in the middle of the street and workmen clad in motorbike helmets would bash things with sledgehammers. Every time we went out we’d have to walk along a shaky wooden plank, pirate-style, and then pick our way through thick mud. There was no respite from the construction in town, either. The Sapa we used to love has been swallowed into a chasm of tourism-fuelled development.

Travel Planning in the Hill Station Restaurant in Sapa, Vietnam

Retreating from the fog to travel plan in a cosy restaurant

Bad tourism

Tourism can bring money and jobs to communities, but it can also tip over into carnivalesque proportions and irretrievably alter landscapes and cultures. Picture Asian beaches that were once deserted save for local fishermen but are now littered with high-rise hotels, half-naked tourists and jet skis. In Luang Prabang, Laos, we witnessed bad tourism at its worst. Every morning a parade of orange-robed monks padded barefoot through the streets at dawn, collecting alms while doggedly trying to ignore the hordes of camera-happy tourists snapping pictures in their faces.

People taking pictures of monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

Monks being papped in Luang Prabang

However responsible I try to be, I know that as a traveller, I am part of the problem. Our curiosity fuels this kind of unhealthy destruction and it’s a vicious cycle that can’t be broken. We travel to see ‘authentic’ local life, yet we automatically mar it just by being there. This is a quandary I’ve struggled with since we began travelling and I still have no answer but to try and travel as independently and respectfully as possible, avoiding places that have become Disney-fied caricatures of their former selves.

Our trekking guide with her baby in Sapa, Vietnam

Our Sapa trekking guide in 2015

In Vietnam, we’ve seen this tourism-gone-too-far phenomenon before. During our visit to Halong Bay in 2013 we were saddened to find the area’s natural beauty scarred. Many tour boats flooded the bay, pumping music late into the night, pollution dirtied the water and we were shunted from one attraction to the next with huge groups of tourists to crowded viewpoints and caves that had been tackily decorated with bright lights. Halong Bay is a UNESCO site, yet we couldn’t help but compare it unfavourably to the serene, eco-friendly boat trip we took in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands and feel that Halong just wasn’t protected well enough.

Boats on Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay and a handful of its tourist boats

The sad state of Sapa

Unfortunately, it seems like Sapa has gone the same way. When we first visited in 2015 we made the journey by overnight train to Lao Cai and then took a mini-bus up spiralling roads to the town. Back then, the Noi Bai – Lao Cai expressway, which cut the travel time from Hanoi to Sapa in half, had only just opened. Sapa still felt mildly touristy, especially when compared to deserted hiking trips we’d taken in the north of the Philippines, but we loved it so much that we returned a few months later, this time by brand new Sapa Express Bus. The journey took just five hours and although the town was busier, the charm was still there.

Sapa rice fields in the summer, Vietnam

How I like to remember Sapa

Fast forward two years and tourism has spiralled out of control. The town has been ripped apart by new hotel and restaurant construction, developers are carving away at the mountain and the roads are choked with beeping taxis and industrial vehicles. “Sapa is very bad right now,” a Vietnamese waitress told us, “Come back in two years, when the building has finished and it will be nice again but now, the air is very bad…it’s very noisy.” I hope that this is true and Sapa does regain some of its serenity, but I doubt it will ever return to the peaceful mountain haven we have such fond memories of.

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10 thoughts on “Travel Fails and the State of Sapa

  1. This is so sad to see happen. I have been hearing a lot of mixed reviews about Sapa (stories of villagers being exploited by tourism etc.) so really unsure if we want to venture there. Maybe not the best time of year to re-visit the region!
    Frances recently posted..SENARA VILLA | Canggu, BaliMy Profile

    • Hi Frances, yes, we couldn’t believe how much Sapa had changed for the worst in the two years since we last visited. Weather-wise, we previously visited at exactly the same time of year and had good (if a little hazy) weather. So, I think we were either very lucky first time around or very unlucky this time! We’ve also visited in summer and it’s much nicer and greener. I hope Sapa can recover some of its charm over time, I don’t think we’ll be heading back there in a hurry though.

  2. We travel to see ‘authentic’ local life, yet we automatically mar it just by being there. ~ such true words Amy. I can’t help feel a bit of guilt seeing the change tourism has brought, all while also knowing that in some cases it has helped. It’s a sad blight that eco-tourism isn’t the key everywhere. I guess mostly I consider myself fortunate to have seen some of these places before things turned ugly.
    Rhonda recently posted..Lessons Learned ~ 426 days on the road and where to next?My Profile

    • Yes, you’re right Rhonda, I feel lucky to have seen Sapa and the Philippines especially before they became too touristy. It’s a sad problem.

  3. Sapa was a huge travel fail for us too, we were there in March 2015 and we had rain and thick mist all the time. We stayed in the panoramic hotel and for about 30 seconds glimpsed the mountains. Ate disappointing tourist food and cancelled our treks as seemed pointless. Really didn’t like the town, just feel it had already been ruined by tourism and poor planning at that stage (big derelict hotel in a really prime position!). It’s really sad to see once beautiful places like this ruined by poor planning and tourism and we saw it so much on our travels, particularly in Vietnam and China. (Returned from two and a half years away last year – back to work in the UK. We really found your blog useful on our travels. Do you think you’ll ever come home? We were both ready to when we did.)

    • Oh and Angkor Wat at sunrise, that’s probably another one of our travel fails. Yes, of course it’s a wonderful thing to see those towers emerge behind the lake… But with thousands of other people jostling for the perfect photo and selfie sticks being thrust in your face plus a ridiculously early start with no caffeine…

      • Yes! We had a sunset fail at Angkor too, so true about the crowds. We actually found that Bagan in Burma was a bit better than Angkor, but again, who knows how much that’s changed since we visited in 2014.

    • Hi Liz, sorry to hear you had a similar experience too. We must have been super-lucky in Feb 2015 to get clear weather. Yes, the food in Sapa isn’t great either. We stayed off the main tourist street which was great the first couple of times, not so much this time with the road being dug up! It’s interesting that you also saw this problem in China. I’m really glad you found our blog useful for your travels and thanks for following. How did you settle back into life in the UK? At the moment we have no plans to stop travelling/living abroad but we do love visiting the UK for 2-3 months each summer. One day we’d love to have a dog and a home base in the UK but continue to spend part of the year away, we’ll see what happens!

  4. Oh no. How awful!

    I don’t believe that I’ve been to Sapa. I went to Vietnam for the first time in 2007, and I’m very glad that I did as I had the feeling even then, that we were the last of the “Let’s go to Vietnam. Oh my goodness, isn’t it a communist state” set! At the time, it was just shaking off that imagine and trying to reach out as a destination worthy of visiting.

    Let’s put it this way, in order for me to fly there at the time, I had to go via Aeroflot (the Russian airline), as that from Berlin (€670) was the cheapest! And even though I spent 30 days in Vietnam travelling all around the country, I flew to Bangkok for “a break” and to get some luxury!

    http://thebritishberliner.com

    • Hi Victoria, it sounds like you saw Vietnam at a really interesting, pivotal time. I think next time we go back we’ll push out to some much less-visited areas to try and find some more tranquil spots.

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