Mekong Region: Tourism and Indigenous Peoples

For this Clearinghouse issue, we have prepared documents that draw attention to tourism-related issues concerning indigenous peoples in the Southeast Asian Mekong subregion, comprising Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan province in southern China.

We first present an essay ‘Nature is the Ultimate Nationality’ about the magnificent natural and cultural diversity and the impacts of the formation of nation states on tribal societies in the lands of the upper Mekong and Salween rivers. Then we have two reports on Thailand. Ethnic people living in Thailand’s hill and mountain areas are suffering from rampant discrimination in terms of rights, land tenure, culture, citizenship and lack of access to services, which makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation by the tourist industry. Particularly condemnable examples are the “model villages” near the Burmese border in Mae Hong Son, where Kayan (“long-neck”) women from Burma are virtually kept like prisoners in a “human zoo” for tourist consumption. Another case study on Cambodia and Vietnam highlights increasing encroachments on indigenous peoples’ lands in relation to the rapid expansion of resource extraction industries, tourism and other development projects, so it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for communities to maintain their traditional livelihoods and culture. The last article describing tourism impacts on Hmong girls in Sapa in the mountain area of northern Vietnam, illustrates how deeply tourism culture that is primarily economically determined can impinge on indigenous people’s identities and change their ways of life.

Notably, most tourism to ethnic areas in the region is today being promoted and sold as “ecotourism”, from low-budget trekking tours to stays in luxury resorts located in attractive natural settings. Even motor rallies and caravans organized to open up new tourist routes often have an “eco” label attached. The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) economic cooperation scheme led by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has become the prime mover for regional tourism development,  has reinforced this trend, by vowing to turn the entire area into “one of the world’s most important ecotourism and cultural tourism destinations” for millions of international visitors “to experience the rich, natural, historical and the diverse cultural heritage of the peoples and places along and adjacent to the Mekong/Lancang River.”

The ADB believes that for the sake of nature conservation and development, highland communities should abandon their traditional lifestyles and economic activities and embrace ecotourism as an alternative source of income. In 1996, the ADB introduced a giant project for conservation management in watershed areas, which aims to resettle not less than 60 million highlanders in the GMS and to “compensate” them by offering tourism jobs. Recently, the ADB has declared this conservation-cum-tourism policy as part of its “poverty alleviation” strategy. But if the plan goes ahead, indigenous peoples will be effectively impeded from proceeding with their own forms of development consistent with their values, needs and interests, and that ultimately means the extinction of their societies and cultures.

As long as national governments, supranational agencies and strong business forces militate against people’s rights and local control, culturally sustainable tourism is nothing but a pipedream. Unless indigenous communities are empowered to defend their territorial integrity and to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural life, there can be no sustainable development and cultural diversity is destroyed.

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia


Nature is the Ultimate Nationality

Mountain ranges and river runs are nature’s way of reminding us that the world is truly borderless. From up in the Himalayas in Tibet, the Salween and the Mae Khong (Mekong) begin their long journey from iced-tipped mountains above Lhasa town into valleys. They join thousands of large rivers and small streams from virgin tropical forests and drift down south to unite with the land, the woods and the ocean.

The earth, trees, rivers, seas, mountain ranges, wild animals and tribal communities came before the borders and the power of the state. Previously, in the lands of the Khong and Salween, there was no Burma, Thailand, Laos or China. Land was not divided. Mountain ranges and river ways did not serve as border lines. Man, plants and animals, in the water and on the ground, were inextricably linked as one.

Living creatures and lifeless forms all inhabited one world, both physically and spiritually. All beings and tribes were brothers and sisters born from a common origin  not Burmese, not Thai, not Lao, not Chinese. Nature is the ultimate nationality. Everyone is a child of Mother Earth, bound in blood and soul.

The rivers and mountains in the lands of Khong-Salween are one. From Everest, the Himalayas, Tibet to the tropical forsts of Indochina. This is the birthplace for many lives and species. The tropical world is richer in animals and plants than any other region: kouprey, elephants, tigers, bears, deer, gibbons, monkeys, peacocks, hornbills, all kinds of birds and fish.

Between these majestic mountains and rivers are communities of two-legged animals called man. They were as rich and diverse as other animals: the Lua, Lao, Mon, Khmer, Palaung, Padaung, Kham, Siam, Tai, Lue, Yone, Yong, Pakakyor, Phloe, Baew, Malpri, Pa-o, Intha, Mal, Mien, Hmong, Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Karen, Kachin, and so on. These small tribes settled themselves all over the hills and streams, living with other plants and animals like brothers and sisters. They never thought of creating an empire.

But the small tribes’ natural way of life has been disrupted and destroyed because the bigger tribes - namely the Burmese, Chinese, Thai and Lao - have expanded their territory. The lives of the people who live naturally among the beauty of the Khong and Salween are bullied by politically driven cultures who are more powerful. The nationalism of these bigger nations is also destroying the mountains, rivers, forests and wildlife for endless consumption.

The tribes of Khong-Salween have suffered since the border lines were drawn. They separated brother-sister tribes into different countries. The land and rivers, which were the lines of communication, were blocked by the power of laws and weapons. The Pakakyor and Phloe were divided between Thailand and Burma. The Lua, Palaung (Dara-ang) and Akha were divided between Burma and China. The Khmu were divided between China and Laos.

Burmese nationalism set the stage for post-colonial wars in the upper Salween basin. These wars have been going on for over half a century and there is no sign of true peace. The woods of the Salween basin form a huge expanse of teak, deciduous and primal forests. The best teak wood in this valley has been cut down since the British took over Burma.

While the tribes living in the mountains of Burma are made homeless by the ethnic wars, the hill tribes in Thailand are being rent asunder by “development". It seems bullets and bahts [the Thai currency] have similar roles in killing off the hill tribes. Today, the complex natural world of Khong-Salween is under siege from what is called “the economic quadrangle project”  a cooperative venture between Burma, China, Thailand and Laos. It is no exaggeration to call this the last war against nature and the hill tribes in the upper Khong-Salween basins. The power of money and its technology will destroy the natural world and the ancient tribes in exchange for waste and pollution as has happened in other parts of the world.

This essay by Kheun Yangderm, a writer from northern Thailand, was published in The Nation (15.4.1994).

Lack of Rights Fuelling Exploitation of Indigenous Peoples

Government tourism campaigns have promoted northern Thailand as the “land of the hill tribes” for decades. While ethnic people are put on display in model tourist villages, trucked to cities to perform at cultural shows, and gleefully used in advertisements by tourism agencies, indigenous peoples’ organizations and advocacy groups have been battling the proliferation of touristic “human zoos” and the persistent discrimination of ethnic people by national authorities.

Over the last century, hill peoples fleeing wars and hardship in Burma and Laos have sought refuge on Thai soil. The main groups are Karen, Hmong, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Lau, Tin and Kamuk, comprising 78 per cent of the tribal population. Other groups are Shan, Kayan (Palaung), Tong Su, Thai Lue and Chinese Haw. Due to their movements across national borders, they have been portrayed by authorities as a threat to national security and as forest-destroyers. Being powerless, the hill peoples have been used as major scapegoats for governments’ failure in development policy, including the failure to conserve forests and watershed areas. It seems, the only positive image of indigenous peoples is when national and international tourism bodies promote their “exotic” culture to lure foreign tourists and their money.

In May 1999, thousands of tribal villagers camped outside Chiang Mai City Hall to demand equal citizenship and to protest the wide-spread evictions of people from their homes and land by forestry officials. Following weeks of peaceful demonstration, more than 1,000 police and forestry officials were sent in to forcefully disperse the ethnic protesters. The violent crackdown raised fundamental questions about the treatment of marginalized highlanders and the extent civil society  a core principle in Thailand’s new Constitution  is being practiced.

Meeju Morlaekoo, a 31-year-old Akha woman from Chiang Rai fighting for indigenous rights, described the situation of hill peoples as “no different from keeping animals in zoo cages.” Before joining the demonstrations of tribal villagers in Chiang Mai City, Meeju and other women from her home village had been taken to Bangkok to perform at a cultural festival organized by the TAT.  “It was so confusing,” she said. “One month, the TAT is telling me I should feel proud of being Akha and inviting me to show off our customs and traditions. The next month, another government body is saying my relatives must move out for the same reason - for being Akha.”

Thailand ranks behind its neighbours China, Laos and Vietnam in terms of providing its highland populations with equal rights. There are an estimated 900,000 highlanders living in the northern part of the country, of whom less than 240,000 have been granted citizenship since 1974, leaving the majority ripe for exploitation by more than just tacky tourism campaigns.

“Our research has shown that the single greatest risk for a hill tribe minority girl in Thailand of being trafficked or exploited is lack of citizenship,” said David Feingold, Bangkok-based coordinator of human trafficking projects under UNESCO, adding, “Almost everything else follows from that - education, job opportunities.”

Without Thai citizenship, ethnic people are not eligible to vote and cannot get school-leaving certificates and hence proper employment. They also easily become victims of local officials’ harassment and extortion. “Often, after a long day of work, officials take away our money,” Meeju explained. “If there is 100 baht [Bt45 = 1US$], they take it. If there is 1,000 baht, they take it. If there is more, that person is likely to be branded a drug pusher and put into jail.”

Official and business-oriented agencies concerned with tourism generally turn a blind eye to the powerless situation of indigenous peoples. A 1998 study by the environment committee of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), called ‘Guidelines for Interaction between the Tourism Industry and Northern Thailand’s Mountain Peoples’ is a case in point. Its main goal is to ensure convenience, pleasure and adventure for the tourists. To rearrange hill tribe tourism in a way that it not only attracts unpretentious backpackers but also fulfills the demands of up-market consumers, the study suggests that ethnic people have to adjust. It includes a list outlining what hill people, “the hosts”, should do to become viable tourism actors. It says, for example, “Certain standards must be developed and adhered to if the tours are to be successful. Quality control is essential, and should come from you.” The section on education and training reads, “Having certified guides from your village would be ideal. Speaking Thai and the language of some of your visitors would also be very much to your advantage. You may be able to negotiate with the tour companies to provide funding for training and education.”

But how can these guidelines be implemented if the majority of ethnic people are considered as “illegals” who have no work permits and no right to education? Furthermore, the guidelines recommend that village committees should “make suggestions for ecological conservation and development, in conjunction with tour companies”, without any consideration of the fact that authorities constantly discriminate tribal villagers as environmental villains and use force to remove them from the forested hills.  

Whether PATA can provide the right assistance to mitigate the environmental and cultural impacts of tourism in ethnic areas is also highly questionable given tales like the following. In relation to a tour organized as part of PATA’s 1999 Adventure and Ecotourism Conference in Chiang Mai in cooperation with the TAT, a foreign lodge owner reported, “They packed delegates into seven large coaches that rushed in great speed through outlying villages, scattering the locals, sending dogs for cover, frightening children and shattering the tranquility they came to experience. They disembarked at a so-called ‘elephant nature park’ to watch these beautiful beasts, the country’s national symbol, stand on their heads, kick footballs and play tunes on mouth organs.”

A journalist of the Thai-language newspaper Krung Thep Turakid strongly criticized the same tour, saying the organizers made women of various ethnic groups dress up and pose for a touristic “fake” show at the elephant camp, while the real life and culture of the hill peoples was blurred. She cited the example of a group of young girls from the Dara-ang (Padaung) village Pang Daeng who were brought in to show off their beautiful faces and traditional costumes at the performance. They had to smile for the tourists, even though they felt very miserable because all men in their village had been arrested shortly before by state officials for alleged encroachment and destruction of a nearby forest.

“One must not talk about the protection of human rights, if tourism culture prescribes that the locals are nothing but commodities and servants to fulfill the desires of consumers, knowing well they have to unconditionally accept their fate because of their poverty, ignorance and powerlessness,” the article in Krung Thep Turakit concluded.

Notably, PATA and the TAT are planning to organize a similar conference under the eco- and adventure tourism theme in Ubol Ratchathani, northeastern Thailand next year to particularly celebrate the ‘International Year of Ecotourism 2002’.

Sources: New Frontiers 5[4], 1999; Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), 28.6.2001; PATA 1998.

Ethnic People from Burma Under “Village Arrest”

The world-famous Kayan women (also known as Palaung) have been under “village arrest” for many years. In Thailand, where they have become of one the North’s biggest tourist attractions, they are often referred to as the “long-necks”. The women wear neck coils and wrist and leg rings as a part of their traditional dress.

“Sometimes when tourist take pictures of me, I am proud that they want to make my picture. But at the same time, they make me feel like an animal. I have to pose in awkward positions. I have to be there, ready to do whatever they want me to do. We have no freedom here. We are just like animals in a zoo. I truly feel like this is a zoo,” said Ma Noe of her life in the tourist village.

Ma Noe, three other women and their families were taken from their village by members of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in 1984 in Demawso township, Burma. The women were brought to the border area controlled by KNPP forces, which is close to Mae Hong Son, a tourist centre in Thailand. Tourists were encouraged to take a boat across the border, where they could see the women for a fee.

They were there for more than two years when reportedly Thai businessmen and the Governor’s office made an agreement with some members of the KNPP to set up an ethnic village as a tourist site on the Pai River in Mae Hong Son. Since trekking to existing villages was already popular, the establishment of an even more “exotic” made-to-order village must have appeared a sure money-maker. Meanwhile, there are three such tourist model villages: Huay Phu Keng, Nai Soi and Huay Sua Tao. Each tourist, who wants to visit a Kayan village, must purchase an entrance pass for 250 baht (US$5.50). To reach Huay Phu Keng, tourists must also pay the boat fare down the river to the local tour operators.

Ma Phoe has lived in all three villages. “At the first two villages, I received neither money nor rice from the authorities. I had to depend on my family who had come before me to survive. Nai Soi was the worst village to live in,” she said. Now she gets 1000 baht (US$22) per month, but this is not really enough to cover the costs of buying all food and necessities.

The difficulties of surviving under SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council, the illegitimate Burmese military regime that now calls itself State Peace and Development Council) made Ma Phoe and others leave Burma. Arrangements with the KNPP made the journey easier. But a dirtied page of village regulations posted at Huay Phu Keng forbids any discussion of politics or culture with visitors.

One woman reportedly left Nai Soi and returned to Burma. She was brought back to Thailand (“They came and fetched me,” she said) on the grounds that she had registered at the Nai Soi village and should stay there. When others were asked if they would like to return to Burma, the answer was an unanimous yes, if the conditions that now exist under the military regime were to change. However, to think of going back now is not within the realm of a possibility. “If any of us tried to return we would be shot dead by the SLORC soldiers. We will only go back one day if all of us go back together,” one villager said.

As “guests” in Thailand, the villagers, who are traditionally paddy farmers, cannot cultivate more than small kitchen gardens, and except for receiving visitors, they have little to occupy their time. The Kayan men living in the villages said they were depressed by their life here, with only a few opportunities to work in illegal seasonal labour, and no license to farm. It is also hard for the men to adjust to visitors taking pictures of their wives. “It’s demeaning,” Lada said angrily. “We feel exploited. We have never been accustomed to it, because we know our wives suffer even more than we do.”

It is unlikely that the situation will change for the better. The Kayan women have become the symbol of Mae Hong Son and of trekking in northern Thailand. If anything, “ethnic zoos” are likely to spread as tour operators are going to great lengths to maintain their hegemony, with little consideration for the people who are the source of their profit.

As competition for the tourist dollars becomes fiercer, new “attractions” are being added. Kayaw women, who wear clutches of heavy silver earrings that stretch their ear-lobes, are now also brought from Burma to live with the Kayan in the villages in Thailand.

Taking a page from the Thai “success story”, the SLORC also began constructing their own facsimiles of Mae Hong Son’s ethnic villages for 'Visit Myanmar (Burma) Year 1996'. Whether in Mae Hong Son or Burma, the ethical questions raised by the existence of these villages differ little. Do the villagers stay there voluntarily or are they prisoners, by decree or circumstances? Is this preservation of “culture” or outright profiteering from others’ misery? Could there not be a better way to keep this culture alive, than by forcing people to be captive models? And are cultures preserved or destroyed when people are uprooted from their traditional land holdings and made to abandon the livelihoods from which their customs and traditions have arisen? The answer of the latter perhaps lies in how one defines “culture”: as the desiccated remains of moribund lifestyles that are the mainstay of museums, or as people’s expressions of their lives and their understanding of their worlds.

This article is edited from a paper contributed by Wimin W., an environmental and human rights activist working on the Thai-Burmese border.

Aggravating Land Conflicts in Cambodia and Vietnam

Indigenous communities in Cambodia’s northeastern provinces and Vietnam’s Central Highlands are facing mounting pressure from a massive influx of lowlanders seeking vacant land for resource extraction and development, including logging, mining, plantations and tourism.

In Cambodia, ethnic groups, such as the Tampoen, Brao, Jarai and Kreung in the remote province of Ratanakiri have long practiced a form of swidden agriculture on communally owned lands, sufficiently protected from encroachment by traditions that strictly forbid villagers from land sales. But in the decade that followed Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989, lowland Khmer, Vietnamese, powerful officials and wealthy businessmen increasingly turned their sights on the resource-rich lands in the area. Traditional land use practices that clash with those of the free market economy, an absence of consistent land law, and some of the country’s lowest rates of education created fertile ground for insatiable land hunters and developers.

“The weak always lose here when there is a land dispute,” said Heng Vong Bunchhat, President of the Judiciary Council and one of the initiators of a new land law. “The poor and uneducated people who don’t understand the land laws always lose.”

As a result, “Now the villages are falling apart and people are scattered,” complained Phouy Bun Nyok, a Tampoen woman from a village near Ban Lung, the provincial capital of Ratanakiri. “Those few people who still have swiddens have them far out from Ban Lung town and are almost encroaching onto the land of other villages and other ethnic groups because their own land is almost gone. People who are still in the villages are living together in cramped conditions and can no longer practice swiddens.”

In an effort to reverse this trend, tribal villagers recently brought a landmark case to court, in which a powerful military general was accused of cheating nearly 1000 Jarai and Tampoen out of their land. Unscrupulous middlemen had pressured and tricked them into fingerprinting documents that effectively turned over 1,200 hectares of the villagers’ communal land to the general in exchange for just two kilograms of salt.

But the ethnic people ultimately lost the case and are now waiting for an appeal. Rights groups, such as the US-based Human Rights Watch that monitored the court case, blame the defeat on misperceptions and the close relationship between local authorities, judiciary and businessmen. They are hoping that intensive efforts, which include organization, letter-writing, peaceful protests and legal battles by local indigenous peoples will help stave off encroachments while attitudes are changed through improved education.

“If they don’t protect the rights of indigenous communities, they’ll have social problems at best, and serious political problems at worst,” said Janet King, in-country director for the University of San Francisco’s Cambodia Law and Democracy Project.

In Vietnam, encroachment on indigenous peoples' ancestral lands by developers and bureaucrats already sparked the country’s worst unrest in years last February. Police temporarily closed off large areas in the Central Highlands to outsiders, and ensuing crackdown drove hundreds of ethnic hill people, or Montagnards, across the border to Cambodia, where they are now languishing in UN camps. Unlike in Cambodia, Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minority groups, totalling roughly 11 million people, have virtually no grassroots organizations to defend their rights.

Lowland Vietnamese, or Khin, aggressively strike out toward the highlands to grab lands for setting up coffee plantations and other businesses, threatening one of the most diverse ethnic configurations in all of Southeast Asia.

In a forested hill area some 40 southwest of Hanoi, which is predominantly inhabited by the Muong minority, a growing number of rich Vietnamese urbanites are eager to buy up rapidly disappearing land around the capital.

“You here to buy land,” Ngo Thi Chich, an old Muong woman suspiciously asked strangers who showed up in front of her home. Chich and her family live a few hundred meters from Suoi Ngoc Vua Ba, a leafy tourist refuge complete with water slides, hiking trails, a nine-tier “waterfall of dreams” and, according to a glossy brochure, Muong and Tay minorities ready to charm visitors.

However, most of the ethnic peasants here have been driven out by local cadres who leased the land to park developers. When local Muong protested the lease in the late 1990s, they were detained for two years. “We used to farm on terraced fields …,” said Chich, tilting her chin towards the park. “ But the tourist area took the land from us, so have no [more] land to cultivate our crops.”

Sources: dpa, 28.6.2001; Human Rights Watch Press Release, 30.3.2001; Watershed 6[1], 2000

Cultural Impacts of Tourism on Hmong Girls in Sapa, Vietnam

High atop a beautiful valley near the border with China, Sapa town is one of northern Vietnam’s most popular destinations for both domestic and international tourists. It is the centre of a mountain district of 40,000 people, almost half of whom are Hmong, followed by Dao, Vietnamese, and a small number of Giay. The Giay and Dao (pronounced ‘Zao’) are also highland minority groups, who like the Hmong have languages and cultures very different from the Vietnamese majority living in the lowlands.

French colonialists built Sapa in the 1920s to be a resort. After 70 years of revolution and war, tourists again began to make the arduous journey to Sapa in the early 1990s, and in less than ten years the small market town has boomed into a major draw for travellers.

Travellers are welcomed first by the steep valley and its rows of high, terraced rice fields. Then, after arriving in Sapa, they are greeted by two groups of people: the Vietnamese owners of guesthouses, jostling for customers; and young Hmong girls looking to make “friends” -  their term for the tourists who will buy their trinkets, listen to their stories, and maybe even visit their villages.

Without question, the carefree life of travellers is a far cry from growing up in a poor village. As the girls learn to enjoy the freedom tourists have, they are pulled farther away from their families. In town, the girls are surrounded by people who look down on them  older Hmong, other minority groups, and the Vietnamese  and this only makes them more confused and isolated from their community.

Some have all but abandoned their villages, and on the cold, cloudy streets of Sapa they fall victim to abuse from foreigners and Vietnamese alike. No supervision has led to late nights of drinking and partying with tourists , and this has led to sexual abuse and even prostitution.

The Vietnamese are generally not concerned with this plight. Many view the girls as obnoxious and unruly, necessary only to attract tourist dollars. The authorities also appear ambivalent, concerned with the spread of "social evils" but unwilling to take steps that might damage Sapa’s tourism-based economy.

Rapid economic growth has had a huge impact on the lives of people in Sapa town, and even the surrounding district. Families initially liked the extra income their daughters brought back from Sapa, but they did not foresee other consequences. Older Hmong are at a loss when faced with children who don’t respect their own culture.

Hmong society is very unforgiving to young women who break social rules, and at least one of the girls has been banished permanently from her village after being accused of sleeping with a foreigner. While individual parents may be very hurt by what has happened to their daughters, these feelings are not expressed outside the family or village.

Lowland communities remain largely ignorant of Hmong culture, and simple misunderstandings have exacerbated prejudices, some of which have contributed to the problems in Sapa. One major misunderstanding surrounds the Hmong and Dao "love markets", where young boys and girls court each other through traditional music, songs, and games.

In the past, courtship among the Hmong began during New Year’s celebrations, when boys and girls dressed in their best clothes would form lines to play catch. Girls threw a ball to the boy of their choice, who, if they didn’t catch the ball, would have to forfeit a small possession. This item would be reclaimed later, providing an opportunity for the young couple to meet again.

While traditional games like this are not often seen in Sapa any more, the market place was always a location where Hmong and Dao youths met in the hope of finding a suitable partner. This was dubbed a "love market" by the Vietnamese, who sold the idea to tourists wanting to witness minority culture first hand.

The result was too much attention from outsiders, and the youths went elsewhere. In some cases, there may have been more insidious reasons for tourists searching out young Hmong girls. “The love market was ruined because Vietnamese people and some tourists went looking for the girls - looking for sex - and the Hmong got scared,” says one American who worked for several months in Sapa town.

Ignorant of this fact, many tour companies and books still speak of Sapa’s "love market" and the innocent minority children who sing to each other. The reality is much less endearing, and those who have looked have found reference to Sapa’s new love market on paedophile websites.

There has been a market in Sapa - the normal kind - for many generations. Young girls have always accompanied their mothers into town for the weekend market, where women sell handicrafts and agricultural produce, as well as gossip and exchange news of distant communities. People from even the most remote parts of the district come to Sapa at least once a month, some walking for two days.

When tourists began to arrive in the early 1990s, some Hmong women started selling handicrafts, mainly clothing and small items of jewellery like bracelets. The women noticed that the tourists were enamoured with young babies and girls  who were then used as bait to make more sales. The young daughters were initially very shy, but this changed when the girls received from tourists two things they were not accustomed to: emotional attention, and money.

In Sapa, Hmong girls found tourists who were only too willing to lather them with attention, and even better, buy things for them or give them a little money. It is not only their young minds that are vulnerable. On the streets late at night, or sitting in bars with groups of foreigners, the girls are exposed to situations they cannot control.

While no one knows how common sexual abuse and prostitution have become, these problems are more than just rumours. One guesthouse owner said she knows several girls who have slept with foreigners for money, and she thinks prostitution will continue unless someone steps in to help.

However bad things may seem in Sapa, Vietnam is not Thailand or Cambodia. While prostitution is rampant in the cities, there are no streets lined with brothels full of children. Many feel that with Vietnam’s strict laws and the support of top officials, action can be taken before the situation declines further.

But the underlying problem, as it is in other countries, is poverty. Vietnam is poorer than many other countries in the region, and the highlands are the poorest areas of all. On top of poverty, the Hmong let their daughters run free at a young age, which is not the case for the Dao and other ethnic groups. While the Dao call this neglect, such a harsh judgement comes from long-held prejudices. After all, young people in many countries would find such freedom liberating. The problem is that, in Sapa today, the freedom given to Hmong girls is pulling them away from their culture, towards a new identity they have no ability to shape.

While tourism continues to grow in Sapa, some travellers already are looking towards other spots. Sapa is seen as too crowded or “spoiled by tourism” for those who want the experience of interacting with highland, ethnic minority cultures.

Many people now journey to Bac Ha town, to the east of Sapa. Tour operators and guide books already promote Bac Ha as a “more traditional” location, where trips can be arranged for overnight stays in nearby villages.

Bac Ha town itself does not have the splendid scenery of Sapa, but the surrounding countryside is every bit as stunning, and many of the people here wear the colourful clothes of the Flower Hmong  even more photogenic then their Black Hmong cousins.

It remains to be seen whether the same problems that exist in Sapa will surface in Bac Ha. Most likely, they will. The situation is very similar to Sapa a few years ago, and the government has not stepped forward with a plan for ecologically or socially sustainable tourism.

This is a shortened version of an  article by  Michael L. Gray, who is based in Hanoi.