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Slide Ta Van, Vietnam

Written by: Taylor Mallaber, creator of No Trace Travel

Introduction to Tourism in Ta Van

Along the quiet terraced rice fields of Ta Van, Vietnam, the local communities are navigating the shifting impacts of tourism. The nearby city of Sa Pa’s growing popularity has brought a wave of change to Ta Van, with increasing numbers of tourists seeking authentic experiences. While this transition has shifted the way of life in the quaint valley, the Black H’mong women are embracing opportunities and leading in community based tourism in Ta Van.

For the Black H’mong women, this surge has opened up new avenues for economic empowerment and cultural exchange. Yet, it has also raised questions about the sustainability of this growth and its impact on their cultural heritage and way of life, as they adapt their practices and culture to fit within the needs of their foreign visitors.

This article dives into the recent transition in Ta Van, exploring the ways tourism is reshaping the lives of the Black H’mong women, and their cultural integrity. We will uncover the economic benefits, cultural shifts, and environmental considerations that come with this evolving landscape.

Group of Black H’mong women leading a rice terrace trekking tour

Sa Pa’s Tourism Transformation

Sa Pa has been a popular mountain destination of Northern Vietnam since the French occupation in the early 1900’s. Following a period of decline due to global conflicts, Sa Pa re-emerged as a tourist hotspot in the 1990’s thanks in part to Vietnam’s economic reforms. Travelers flocked to trek its iconic rice terraces, ascend the clouded peak of Mount Fansipan, and immerse themselves among the unique ethnic minority cultures.

Sa Pa’s popularity has surged exponentially in recent years. “The City in the Mist” now welcomes over 3 million visitors each year, drawn to its mountain views and natural way of life. However, this rapid growth has come at a cost. The flashing lights, large hotels, and seasonal overtourism of Sa Pa are threatening to erode the cultural charm that draws travelers to begin with.

The tourism industry in and around Sa Pa is largely influenced by the various ethnic groups that have lived among the mountainous terrain for hundreds of years. The largest minority group are the Hmong people, who fled from China during conflicts with the Han Dynasty throughout the 19th century. Today over 12 million Hmong people can be found in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, the USA, and Northern Vietnam. The ethnic minorities including the Hmong people, Red Dao (“Zao”), Tay, Giay, and many more are adapting to the unique changes from the growing tourism industry. From leading treks, hosting homestays, and selling handicrafts, the ethnic communities are leaders in community based tourism in Sa Pa and the surrounding mountainous region.

This shift has led many travelers to venture further outside of Sa Pa’s groomed city-center, seeking more secluded and genuine experiences in neighboring villages like Ta Van. As we’ll see, the Black H’mong women of Ta Van are navigating this new landscape with resilience and resourcefulness, creating their own path that builds upon their heritage while embracing the opportunities that tourism presents.

Large hotels and shopping centers in Sa Pa City center.
Large hotels and shopping centers in Sa Pa City center.

Emergence of Tourism in Ta Van, Vietnam

Ta Van is a small village in the valley just 10 kilometers from Sa Pa. It is home to the Black H’mong people, recognized for their vibrant indigo-dyed clothing and intricate handicrafts. With the rise of tourism, this lush and untouched land faces a sudden shift as these resourceful women adapt to the tourism industry. They have embraced the influx of tourism, eagerly greeting foreigners with an open invitation for a trekking tour or to buy their handmade items.

This shift has empowered the women economically and revitalized their cultural heritage. Their role as homemakers has shifted to being ones of financial providers as they redefine their contributions within their community. For decades the western influence was negligible in the region, and now they are adapting to the influx of tourism and taking ownership for their business ventures.

However, it also raises important questions about the balance between preserving traditions and adapting to the demands of a shifting tourism industry. As we explore the lives of these remarkable women, we’ll uncover the complex realities of this transformation and explore the benefits and risks that Black H’mong people face with their engagement in community based tourism in Ta Van.

Black H’mong elder named Lumi, showcasing her vibrant crafts
Black H’mong elder named Lumi, showcasing her vibrant crafts

Economic Impact

The recent rise of tourism in Ta Van, especially over the past 35 years, has created new opportunities for Hmong women to monetize their skills, swiftly transitioning from subsistence farming to community based tourism practices. While the men primarily work in the fields harvesting rice, maize, bamboo, and hemp, or grazing buffalo in the terraced fields, the women find additional opportunity for work in between harvest seasons. The additional income made from tourism can be used to send more children to secondary school, a local cost of 20 million Vietnamese Dong ($785 USD) , or purchase improvements for  their homes.

Although the increase in available income leads to growth for a developing region, the local economy’s rapid change presents new challenges. Adaptation is harder for smaller communities that have generations centered around farming. This is especially true for mountain communities, as it has been found that “tourism has a significant role in destination development, particularly in rural regions”. The increased reliance on tourism can be problematic, as the industry is susceptible to fluctuations caused by external factors like economic downturns or global events. The region is particularly affected by landslides during the rainy summer months, often cutting off road access and bringing less tourists to the smaller villages outside of Sa Pa.

“Some days when no tourist come I have to walk back up to my village to work in the fields. If there is no work then I go to Sa Pa to try to sell what I make” – Sah, 36

Local Black H’mong woman leading a rice trekking tour
Local Black H’mong woman leading a rice trekking tour

Cultural Impact

The colorful textiles and intricate embroidery of the Black H’mong women have long been a symbol of their cultural identity and a testament to their artistic expression. With the rise of tourism in Ta Van, these traditional crafts have taken on a new significance, becoming a bridge between the Hmong community and the outside world.

Tourism has opened doors to cultural exchange, allowing the Hmong women to share their stories, customs, and traditions with visitors from all corners of the globe. Tourists are drawn to the vibrant markets, where they can witness firsthand the meticulous process of crafting hemp textiles and the distinct embroidery. The large influence from tourists on the ethnic community provides external feedback to improve the process of the local people leading to greater economic success.

Today, travelers can participate in workshops to make the unique handicrafts, called Batik, as well as take cooking classes using local ingredients. The Black H’mong women are curious and excited to learn from and teach the willing travelers that visit.

“50 years ago, we only did trekking and maybe a class to teach tourists to make these [indigo dyed fabric and woven textiles]. A tourist said we should sell them for people to buy. Now we always have work” – Sue

This hand-made product took 4 months to embroider
This hand-made product took 4 months to embroider

However, the increased demand for Hmong crafts has also raised concerns about cultural commodification. Some worry that the pressure to cater to tourist preferences might lead to the dilution of traditional designs and techniques, or worse, the exploitation of cultural symbols for profit. More often embroidered souvenirs are made with machines, and profit can take priority over quality.

What has historically been a 6-month intensive process of creating their distinct handicrafts can now be done in a few days with the use of machines and centralized production centers. The traditional process includes harvesting and drying the hemp, spinning the stalks into thread, weaving the thread into fabric, dyeing the fabric with indigo, stitching intricate embroidered designs (which alone can take 6 months), and sewing the material into a final product. The local women were intimately attuned to their environment and the natural materials they depended on. However, with less people wearing the traditional clothing, and more souvenirs being mass-produced, this artful skill is on the decline within the H’mong community.

Rice terraced landscape around Ta Van
Rice terraced landscape around Ta Van

Community Impact

As more visitors come, there is more attention on the infrastructure and investment in the region. In the greater Sa Pa region, sustainable ventures are supported by the government, and their vision to develop Sa Pa into a “green, clean, and beautiful destination”, according to city leaders in July 2023.

However, the Hmong people must also navigate the challenges of rapid change within their community. As tourism grows, exposure to external influence through travel has led to some people deviating from their traditional ties. Ethnic people are marrying into different cultures, finding more flexibility in their clothing choice, and adopting alternative perspectives. Additionally, the lure of job opportunities elsewhere has caused some to leave the village for the first time in generations, impacting family units and the preservation of Hmong language and customs.

 

The risk to villages like Ta Van is the same reason why more people are avoiding Sa Pa; because the charm that brought people to begin with is replaced with manicured experiences with an intent for profit. The local women in Ta Van are beginning to see a change among the younger ethnic generations who openly accept a rapid adoption of Western styles and values.

“We see less people wearing traditional clothes. They’re too hot. Now more young girls go to school, so less time home learning to sew” – Lumi

Unfortunately the rate of growth in the region is only expected to increase with the ongoing construction of an international airport just 35km from Sa Pa. While the economic benefits are undeniable, the Hmong people must carefully navigate the path between progress and preservation to ensure their unique cultural identity thrives amidst the evolving landscape of tourism.

A house within the Black H’mong community in Ta Van
A house within the Black H’mong community in Ta Van

Conclusion

The shifting tourism industry in Ta Van is a defined example of both the opportunities and challenges that come with development. While the influx of visitors has undoubtedly brought economic benefits and increased cultural exchange, it has also placed a strain on the traditional Hmong way of life and authentic experience.

Community based tourism in Ta Van offers a path forward, empowering the Black H’mong women to take control of their narrative and shape a tourism model that aligns with their values and aspirations. Through their entrepreneurial ventures, these women have demonstrated the power of harnessing cultural heritage to create sustainable livelihoods and nurture a deeper connection between visitors and the local community.

However, the journey towards a truly equitable and regenerative tourism model is ongoing. It requires a collective effort from all stakeholders – the H’mong people, tour operators, government agencies, and travelers – to prioritize fair practices. We can support and enforce actions of community based tourism in Ta Van that promote cultural preservation and respectful relationships.

Storefronts are opening with local hand-made items from various ethnic communities
Storefronts are opening with local hand-made items from various ethnic communities

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