An ancient civilization collides with modern tourism

20 07 2011

The last couple of days have been such a blur that I’m finally now only catching my breath on the train on the way back to Ha Noi. I can’t begin to tell you how absolutely surreal it was to visit and walk among two very different and very ancient cultures. I’m uploading all the photos from my camera and it’s only beginning to slowly hit me now. These pictures tell so much, yet so much more needs to be explained to appreciate the ancient cultures that I was able to visit. I also learned firsthand how the effects of tourism and technological advances can be a negative impact on an entire way of life. Allow me to expound and I promise you’ll see why I am so eager to share, yet rather inexplicably speechless at the same time.

Geographically speaking, after returning to Ha Noi from Ha Long Bay, our group took an overnight train to Lao Cai, a smaller city that sits directly on the Vietnam-China border. Upon exiting the train station, I could literally look across the river and see China. From there, we drove out to another small city in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam called Sa Pa (in the province of Lao Cai). Now, Sa Pa is a unique little town for many reasons. First, it sits over 1500m above sea level. This fact is important because it explains why there is such a heavy French influence in the town. Back when France ‘won’ the right to colonize Vietnam after the allies bailed them out in WWII, the French government wanted to find the area in Vietnam that most resembled the weather in France. Because Sa Pa is so high up on a hill/plateau, the climate is temperate, and there actually exists four seasons, with snow occurring every few years or so. Why is this such a big deal? Because Vietnam as a country is mostly subtropical and tropical. Its temperatures usually range from 22 degrees Celsius to about 35 degrees on hot days. The humidity is often in the mid to upper 80 percentile. There are monsoon rains three months out of the year, and the other nine months are just plain hot. As you can see, anyone (including the French and me as a tourist) would find a climate like Sapa’s to be highly sought after.

An even more obvious reason as to why Sa Pa is such a popular tourist destination is the fact that the town is the de facto social border between modern civilization and a number of ancient peoples that live in the surrounding hills. If you walk the streets in the early morning, you will find them lined with people (mostly women and children) from the H’mong (Mien) and Dao (Dzao) cultures. These are ancient peoples that have been known to exist over 2000 years ago, and have migrated their way south from what is now present day China into the hills and mountains of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. The H’mong-Mien are easily identified by the indigo dyed turbans on the head of women. And because the indigo dye they use is natural and comes from a plant, many of the H’mong-Mien have permanently stained blue hands. The Dao people can be identified by the red cloth they wear on their heads. The interesting thing about both cultures it that not only do they speak their own indigenous dialect, they can speak a variety of other languages, with Vietnamese not always being the strongest. Many of them speak English and French very well. The reason for this is because Vietnam has historically played host to the French for many years, and with this new wave of tourism, many of these visitors have fallen in love –or more accurately, lust with the young women and have ended up fathering offspring. I saw a little girl who had blonde hair, blue eyes, and Asian facial features. It was fascinating and sad at the same time.

Tourism, in my humble opinion, has created a difficult situation in towns like Sa Pa. On one hand, tourism has brought a new awareness to this ancient and fascinating culture that has existed for thousands of years. The money that tourism brings in helps to foster growth in a poor and rural area such as Sa Pa (Lao Cai). The caveat here, though, is that many of the H’mong are starting to choose a Western or more modern lifestyle because it is becoming more and more appealing. Also, much of the money that is being poured into the H’mong peoples is not the direct purchase of their handmade goods (which is acceptable and appropriate), but rather, many foreigners feel sad to see the children live in such poor conditions that they outright hand out money to the little ones. This has taught the H’mong to send their children into the streets begging for money and could potentially wreck an entire generation of H’mong and Dao tradition and heritage.

I found this dilemma weighing heavily on me as I visited a small Dao village. As the bus pulled up into the center of town, the Dao women and children gathered around the tour bus, mobbing all of us trying to get off the bus. They were very cordial, greeting us and asking us who we were, where we were from, and if we were enjoying our vacation. They even invited us to walk further into their village and visit their homes, which we agreed to. On the walk, they covered our heads with umbrellas to avoid the hot sun, and inquired about our families and what we did for a living, basically small talk. It was very pleasant. As we visited the home and began our trek back out to the bus, the women started begging that we buy some of their handicraft. This, in and of itself, was a dilemma. You see, if you purchase something from one woman, the rest of the village would know that you are willing and all the women begin to flock to you asking why you aren’t buying from them. On the other hand, if you tell them you’re not interested, they guilt trip you with their hospitality. If you continue to deny their requests, they actually start cursing you. Interestingly enough, they choose to curse at you in the language that you were speaking so that you may understand them perfectly. Needless to say, getting back to the bus was quite an adventure.

As a Catholic and fake sociologist, I found myself in a particularly difficult situation morally. On one hand, the price of their wares and the generous soul in me reminded me that even a small amount of money could go a very long way for them and their families. At the same time, I didn’t want to reinforce this behavior of poaching off of tourists and helping to create a new tradition of begging for money from tourists. Simply put:  I wanted to help them without damaging their livelihoods. In the end, visiting them for one and half hours was simply not enough time to accomplish both of those goals. I left without buying anything, and felt sick to my stomach on the bumpy ride back up the mountain.

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