Sa Pa, the beauty that has turned beast

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 Street vendors hassle foreign tourists in Sa Pa. Photos credit: Lao Dong

A trip to Sa Pa, a popular resort town in the northern highlands province of Lao Cai, after Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, on February 19 gave us (and perhaps many other tourists) nothing but huge disappointment.
Breathtakingly beautiful mountains and valleys were infested by new fancy hotels, and the pure mountain air was filled with exhaust fumes.
We were continuously stuck in traffic jams which we thought we had left behind in Hanoi when visiting the town that is situated more than 1,500 meters above sea level.
Worse, while we were getting stuck, we had to suffer from the unpleasant odor of garbage trucks from which slime was oozing constantly. Looking around, we saw many foreigners covering their noses, patiently waiting to get out of the mess. Many locals were obviously annoyed too.
Some people blamed the mess on the fact that it was the peak season, and that more and more Vietnamese traveled by car these days, due to improved living standards and cheaper fuel prices.
Better infrastructure like the Noi Bai – Lao Cai Highway also encouraged people to travel by their personal vehicles more, they said.
On the other hand, the central town of Hoi An, which is more famous and attracts many more tourists, does not subject their guests to such misery.
Sa Pa’s problems are in fact caused by the failure of its tourism authorities.

 Even at a height of over 1,500 meters above sea level, Sa Pa has terrible traffic jams.

Taking the town’s traffic for instance, we never spotted police officers or even members of the local urban management team during our stay. Instead, traffic was regulated by tour guides and hotel staff, and the self-managed system inevitably ended up causing many problems.
At many hotels, every ten minutes a 45-seat bus would come to pick up or drop off tourists. Since the streets are narrow, congestion would ensue whenever two large buses showed up at the same time.
Even when there was only one bus, traffic would come to a halt since hotel staff would “order” smaller vehicles to stay off so that the bus could do its job. After finishing its job, more often than not, the bus would have to make a U-turn to leave the street, a process that could take more than 10 minutes.
At hotels that cannot afford decent parking lots, their vehicles and guests’ would be parked on the street outside day and night, taking up half the space, leaving almost no space for vehicles to pass by.

 Motorbikes and cars parked in the street

In fact, we discovered in Sa Pa that people can park their vehicles anywhere and anytime, without worrying about having to deal with police or any other law enforcement. Or, the fact that their illegal parking could cause traffic jams or, worse, fatal accidents.
We can never forget mornings that were haunted by hour-long traffic jams on Cau May Street. Since the narrow street is located next to a deep canyon, because of the heavy traffic some vehicles would occasionally be pushed to the edge.
It can be argued that unlawful parking and messy traffic have a lot to do with vehicle users’ awareness, but given such a giant scale of the chaos, local authorities need to be held responsible.
However, sadly, Sa Pa authorities have inexcusably altogether failed their job, ignoring tourists’ safety though tourism is one of the town’s main revenue earners.
All is bad

 Garbage trucks operate during the day when streets are crowded

Besides the insufferable traffic, Sa Pa’s tourism also faces many other major problems.
Many people accuse local hotel staff of being either poor – giving them wrong street directions, for instance -- or dishonest, taking their booking but giving their rooms to others who offer higher prices.
At many construction sites, water from unknown sources is all over the street, while tourists often have to suffer from a lack of clean water.
In other parts of the town, people stand along streets and mountain passes, offering tourists roasted, almost blackened, wild animal carcasses without heads. It is not unusual to see people selling even live snakes.
A few years ago local authorities canceled around half of 17 proposed hydropower plants here, following media criticism. But the remaining ones are ravaging a town with once beautiful forests and springs, both of which are gone. Homestay services at ethnic villages have been killed as well, because who is interested in seeing dying lands?
At tourist villages that are still functional, like Hau Thao and Ban Den, ticket booths have been established, charging visitors VND50,000 each. Once the money is paid, no one cares about what tourists do and so vehicles are once again parked everywhere.
It is not that Sa Pa authorities do not do anything to improve tourism.

 Souvenir vendors have taken over this observation deck

They built concrete pads on canyon edges as observation decks. But unfortunately the sites have such ugly designs that they do not bring any value, merely act as a blot on the natural beauty.
Moreover, the decks are often occupied by souvenir vendors who aggressively hassle tourists. And kids lie around naked as if to elicit sympathy from tourists and make them part with some money.
It will come as no surprise if foreign tourists, if asked, name the harassment by vendors and beggars as the worst aspect of Sa Pa besides the traffic.
The list of Sa Pa’s problems go on and on, and all of them should not be dismissed as trivial, because they have undeniably affected tourists’ impression on the town that relies so much on their spending.
If the problems continue, we will definitely not return to Sa Pa.
But maybe our and many other visitors’ decision to give up on the town does not matter to local authorities because so far they have shown no inkling that they care about the disturbing situation.
Original Vietnamese story can be found here on Lao Dong news website

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