Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game in Sapa

At some point in our lives, we all participate in the capitalist game. For example, my brother mowed people’s lawn for $5 an hour. He’s 10. My sister goes door to door during Girl Scout cookie season to sell as many boxes as possible. I also used to have a snow cone stand when I was their age.

But the difference between a successful kid who will inevitably be a successful business person is persistence. I just didn’t care to sell snow cones. My sister only wanted to win a bike. My brother gave up on his gardening business when summer arrived. But you should’ve seen them sell: not taking “no” for an answer, being adorable and helpful. It works. They played the game and they played it well.

My brother and sister are as cute as this pup. How can you say no that? My brother and sister are as cute as this pup. How can you say “no” that?

So is there such thing as being too persistent?

I don’t think so.

Meet Sapa.

Sapa Sapa A waterfall in Sapa A waterfall in Sapa

Sapa is a region in the northernmost part of Vietnam. For all intents and purposes, Sapa’s beauty is really owed to its functionality. People eat rice. Rice is cultivated on steppes. The rice steppes are beautiful. Therefore, Sapa is beautiful.

Hmong have lived there for generations. Most Hmong live in villages beyond the rice terrains. Some Hmong host homestay houses among the rice paddies.

Visits to Sapa are often guided by one or two Hmong ladies. Our guide walks seven miles every morning to get to her job of being our guide. She speaks three languages: one of the Hmong languages, Vietnamese and English. She spends practically all day with us and then walks back to her home seven miles away to tuck her kids in at night. She does this EVERY DAY: meeting brand new people, making friends with travelers and introducing us to a region she knows like the back of her hand.

The pay must be good enough for her to keep doing this every day.

Or maybe the pay is a necessary evil. After all, for some reason, Sapa has become a tourist spot. I have no idea how it got this way, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d think it was some traveler who “found” Sapa and spread the word to his friends until it became part of the capitalism “game.”

Every walking tour is accompanied with at least five more Hmong women. At every stop along the walk, they will ask you to buy their handmade goods (really, they’re handmade, I saw them make it). They’re downright persistent, as in plant-their-goods-two-inches-from-your-eyeline-and-tell-you-“buy from me”-persistent.

Hmong ladies accompanying us on our walk. Hmong ladies accompanying us on our walk. Look, they even made us horsies out of grass. Look, they even made us horsies out of grass.

A lot of tourists are put off by these ladies’ persistence. But, I ask you: Why?

Persistence is such an inherently westernized concept. It’s so westernized, it’s even written in the Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I can’t blame them for wanting to make a little money. It’s going to a good cause (to support their families). At least the Hmong ladies can take “no” for an answer. If you say “no thanks,” they will understand, because it’s all just business. I don’t even take “no” for an answer. Seriously, anyone tells me no and I end up just trying harder to get what I want.

Maybe it’s because Hmong haven’t discovered the usefulness of Etsy or eBay, or even a flagship storefront, which would be a more appropriate way to harass Westerners when they shop (it also makes us feel a little safer purchasing your products if you have 24/7 online customer support and preferably a great return policy).

But, at the end of the day, Sapa does not represent the downside to tourism. And, I still cherish the bracelet my husband bought me from a nice Hmong lady for 25 cents (and then was asked by other Hmong ladies to buy from them for about three minutes after). Instead, it represents the downside of capitalism. When in Sapa, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Sapa, shouldn’t be missed.


Does persistence pay off? What’s the coolest souvenir you’ve ever bought on your travels?

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6 responses

  • I bought a glass bracelet – not the touristy ones – from a shop in Venice. Unfortunately it was stolen but it was something I would wear on special occasions. On the downside in Italy there were many people trying to scam you like a gypsy woman who carries around an image of a little boy she claims is her son but looks suspiciously like the other gypsy lady’s son. Or the man thrusting a half dead flower into my hand unexpectedly and won’t take it back unless we pay 7 euros for it. We learned fast how to avoid these tourist traps (literally).

    The women from Sapa seem to be tying to make a small living however necessary – who knows how far the women had to walk in hopes of selling 25 cent bracelets let alone your guide. 14 miles a day is unfathomable and I really want to give her my bike.


    • Hi Murissa,

      We too, had the dead rose guy in Venice. I was crossing my arms as we walked and homeboy stuck the flower in the cross of my arm. I was like, “husband, please remove this, this guy’s feisty,” to which Frank took the rose and placed in the ground and said, “No.” He was probably the most feisty guy we met.

      We were also surprised that our guide said she walked 7 miles. The conversation went like this: “7 miles?” “Yes.” “One way?” “yes.” “Every day?!!” “Yes.” “Seh ven? as in seven?” “Yes.” Wow. I find that a little admirable.

  • We really enjoyed our time in Sapa, though it’s certainly true that it’s about as squarely on the beaten-track as any destination in Vietnam can be. While I did find the vendors there to be quite persistent, I never found them pushy, and I think that’s really important. I can appreciate someone who is diligent about trying to sell their wares, but I don’t like when people become aggressive or rude about it. It was a bit overwhelming when we went on our trek and at lunch had 8 different ladies surrounding us shoving items at us, but I always appreciated that they had a smile and chatted us up rather than just demanding we buy something. The ladies in town similarly always made us laugh when they were trying to sell us something, which counts for a lot in my book. I really respected how determined the women we encountered in Sapa were, but I also found that they were respectful of us as well—when I told a few people that we simply couldn’t buy anything because we had enough already, they were really gracious and kind about it.

    • Hey Steph,

      Before I wrote this post, I read quite a few other blogs about Sapa about people who were turned off by the persistence, as in they would never visit because it’s a downside to tourism. So I wrote this one in response to it. In my opinion, you can’t hate on someone who’s trying to make a living. Because we’re all doing that in one way or another. It may be different for everyone, but we’re all human with the same goals of taking care of our loved ones and living life. =) And, yes, these ladies in Sapa were really kind about being told no, thanks.

  • I recently went on a trip to Vietnam + we didn’t have time for Sapa (or the northern region in general)–and so to ease my pain I’ve been reading all about it. gorgeous photos! I agree with your assessment of persistent vendors–although I encountered a lot more of in Vietnam than I did in my home country of Taipei, I agree that they’re just trying to make a living; and some of the vendors that accosted us throughout our trip turned out to be the funniest people we met!

    p.s. really like the fact that you both have professional day jobs and are an example that having such a job doesn’t stop you from travelling! will show your blog to my friends currently moaning and groaning in the 9-5 grind :)

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