North Vietnam. The good and the bad of mass tourism

We spent a day or two exploring Hue – the citadel really is very impressive, and there are ongoing restoration projects to try to repair the near complete destruction left over from the bombing and fighting in the American War. Time was however, not on our side and, with the tourist Meccas of Halong Bay and Sapa still to come, we pushed on up to Hanoi. It was here that Agoda sprung it’s latest surprise. There are Halong Bay tours on Agoda! Heavy discounted and last minute, and really nice! Essentially, we got a 4 star, two night, three day tour for the price of the cheapest tour you could get. It was on the Heritage Line Ginger boat, and it was superb. The food was outstanding. As in, 5 course meals kind of outstanding. Our only complaint was with the price of the alcohol, which was ludicrous, but fortunately we had predicted that and came prepared! I’ll now stop gloating about it, and let the pictures say the rest.
 A new(ish) direct overnight bus from Bai Chay to Sapa meant that we could avoid splitting up the next stage of travel in Hanoi. It even went all the way to Sapa proper, which used to be impossible in a big bus. They must have improved the roads, although you could never tell! 

The town of Sapa is, to be brutally honest, a bit of a dive. It’s heartbreaking really, as it is simply an example of tourism ruining a place. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’d go back in a heartbeat, as the surrounding scenery is stunning, but that’s in spite of the town itself, which is loud, a bit dirty and full of all the bad bits of tourism: hundreds of touts, constant hassle, lots of cheap knock off shops, and a large number of fairly average restaurants that all offer the same thing. 

The reason why Sapa is so popular is due to the trekking opportunities in the surrounding hills. Day trips are simple and rewarding; home stays in the nearby villages are easy to arrange; and the mountain of Fansipan is there for the hardcore. I do however, feel that tourism has gone too far here, and will soon ruin the very reasons why Sapa became so popular in the first place. A large number of women from the local villages follow you around all day, desperately trying to get you to buy their wares as souvenirs, or insisting on acting as guides to take you to their house in the village. The problem is that a stunningly beautiful dyed tablecloth just isn’t vastly practical for a backpacker, and what about if you wanted to not be bundled into a group and escorted along a road into the next village? Or even, heaven forbid, do some exploring on your own?? Even the challenge of Fansipan is no longer the same, as the world’s longest cable car can now take you straight to the top! I’d imagine that would take some of the elation out of a hard two day slog. 

We did, however, manage to throw off the ladies, and escape into the hills on our own for a couple of truly beautiful day treks. It was wonderful, if a little steep at points!! 

 Keep it on your list, but pray for Myanmar – I hope somewhere like Hsipaw doesn’t go the same way.


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