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.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When was your last travel fail?