The Ethical Dilemma of Ethnic Tourism in Vietnam
Their faces speak to another time and place. Some ancient, lines so deeply engraved in their skin that they’ve become a map of their hard-working years. Other faces unmarked by age and geographical area, youthful and grinning as if caught mid-play. They are the H’Mong, and Ha Nhi, Cao Lan and La Chi among others, the tribes that populate the minority regions of Vietnam captured through the lens of Réhahn, a photographer who has made it his life’s work to shoot all 54 of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam.
Image source: vietnamtravelblog.info
Most of these tribes speak their own dialects rather than Vietnamese and do not read or write the national language. As a result of this and a complicated history with French colonialism, the American war and current discrimination, people from these tribes have historically remained disconnected from the rest of Vietnam. Minority areas have a high degree of poverty and illiteracy, yet despite their daily struggles they maintain their rich cultural identity, which attracts tourists seeking experiential travel.
Heritage = High Yield
Sapa is the hub of this type of tourism and travellers flock there at sometimes alarming rates for the otherworldly vistas, the chance to have an experience in Vietnam that feels ‘authentic’, and the Fansipan Legend cable car. The Sapa Statistical Office reports that in 2017, close to 1 million tourists visited Sapa, while the number of official residents in Sapa District comes in at just under 60,000. Ethnic minorities from six hill tribes make up around 82 percent of that number.
However, it is important to note that the vast majority of these tourists are domestic travellers who are more interested in the cable car than trekking to visit minority cultures. Visitors who do come for cultural tourism coalesce in four main villages while the other 89 hardly get any footfall at all.
According to a study by Dr. Keith Nurse of the University of the West Indies:
“Heritage tourists are one of the highest yield tourism groups.” They tend to spend 38 percent more per day than traditional travellers. In addition, they stay longer.
As a result of this profitability the minority regions around Sapa in northern Vietnam have exploded with packaged tours. Yet, a debate about ethics arose when it became apparent that the major beneficiaries of these tours are the companies, and that the minorities are often badly paid or, in the case of homestays, not paid at all.
At the time this article was written, Réhahn had photographed and documented 49 tribes. Réhahn’s images manage to depict not just the faces but also the spirit of the people and their heritage.
The subjects dressed in their handmade finery, their hands often stained with the deep indigo colour they use to dye their garments, gaze out from the prints as if inviting the viewer to come and get to know them, to experience a different style of life through them.
Image source: dulichmucangchai.com.vn
Réhahn recently opened the Precious Heritage Museum in Hoi An, which displays his photographic work as well as the traditional costumes and intangible histories of each tribe. For Réhahn the museum is a way to both pay homage to his subjects as well as to bring awareness of their cultural identity before their ancient traditions are effaced by modern society. Réhahn has been published in every major international photography and travel journal but he says that photography is not his real obsession.
“I’m not interested in talking about what type of camera I use because it is just a tool”, Réhahn said. “What brought me to this project is that I love people. I love culture. I love history and I want to understand. Photography is just a means to be able to approach [the minority tribes].”
Réhahn is not the only one to have this compulsion to connect with these rapidly disappearing cultures. Travellers come to Vietnam from all over the world to make the trek up into Sapa to see the H’Mong and the Red Dao, in particular, and to marvel at the intricate embroidery, tassels and colours of their traditional dress. Réhahn says that tourists are often looking for an experience with ‘the exotic’. When they go into a village and see people living in wooden houses, wearing beautiful costumes or silver jewellery made from French coins, they are able to witness something new.
“It is maybe a cliche”, Réhahn says, “but they seem to be happy. Happy with less. So I think tourists are trying to find some adrenaline, some type of emotion. They are trying to find out if they’re on the right path.”
Image source: rehahnphotographer.com
Cultural Curiosities and Human Zoos
Ethnic, cultural, minority or heritage tourism has gained in popularity since the 1970s, when tourism marketers realized that some people sought out travel experiences primarily so that they could gain a deeper comprehension of cultures dissimilar to their own. Yet, in all actuality, people have been attracted to the ‘other’ since the dawn of nationalism. In 1493, Christopher Columbus sailed back from the Americas with indigenous peoples to show them to the Spanish court. By the 1800s, ‘human zoos’ were à la mode across Europe and people were removed from their home countries to be presented in what were called “ethnographic museums”, a name that was chosen to give these exhibitions intellectual weight.
‘Native’ villages were reconstructed at World Fairs and populated with actual people whose humanity blurred into specimen. Visitors came to gape at what were then considered ‘primitive cultures’ by the thousands.
This dark history is at the source of the ethical debate about minority tourism. Phrases such as cultural appropriation and cultural voyeurism sprang from the guilt associated with this past and are often used to disparage businesses that are seen to profit from people’s inherent interest in people from different cultures.
New Hope and Tourism with Dignity
According to the South Dakota State Historical Society, a governmental organisation dedicated to preserving cultural heritage in the US, heritage tourism done well “creates jobs, new business opportunities, and strengthens local economies. It protects natural and cultural resources, which improve the quality of life for residents and travellers who participate in the services and attractions.”
This is the ideology behind Ethos - Spirit of the Community, a “social enterprise that strives to offer experiential adventures”. Ethos is located in Sapa town, which is the starting point for most ethnic tourism in Vietnam. Ethos mainly employs people from the H’Mong tribe to act as tour guides as well as offering homestays, textile and cooking classes and trekking.
Video source: ETHOS - Spirit of the Community
Phil Hoolihan, the managing director of Ethos, said that “all trips work on real conversations. I feel that any ethical experiences should be about positive exchanges. We all learn from each other. What that means is guests and local minority people discuss and converse dynamically.”
Hoolihan said that locals who are employed in standard tours are often paid a pittance and are unable to continue their traditional way of life. Full time guides have no time for rice planting, farming, embroidering or any of their other traditional daily life tasks. There is irony in the fact that in order to create income and attempt to preserve their cultural heritage these guides must completely remove themselves from their culture. Ethos’ team is bigger than necessary so that each guide can continue his/her regular way of life alongside receiving compensation for their work. The money that Ethos receives from tours is then returned to the communities by way of projects achieved in unison with the Sapa District Women’s Union that are centred around healthcare, education and literacy, human trafficking prevention and health and hygiene.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the US: “The keys to a successful cultural heritage program include five principals:
2) Find the fit between a community and tourism
3) Make sites and programs come alive
4) Focus on quality and authenticity
5) Preserve and protect resources.”
Unfortunately, the current state of tourism in Sapa is far from these ideals. Package tours guide travellers towards prefabricated ‘handicraft’ shops in which crafts traditional to the region are copied and sold at much cheaper rates. There is no comparison for a hand-stitched H’Mong blanket that may have taken one year to make, but tourists that are uneducated about the difference and the damage that buying knock-offs can have for the local population can easily fall into the trap. To make matters worse, authorities have posted signs asking tourists not to buy from the villages and to buy from the shops in Sapa town instead.
As a result, though the villages around Sapa are crowded with tourists, the locals make very little money from the influx. Hoolihan puts it this way: “When you are simply surviving, you can’t dream. Most people here are going through the motions and unless they gain specifically from tourism, they get the inconveniences—litter in the villages, cameras in their faces etc., without the positives.”
Artists like Réhahn who try to bring awareness, respect and preservation to the minority cultures, and companies like Ethos, Sapa O Chau, and Sapa Sisters whose aim is less financial than social, are scarce but there is hope in the fact that they are out there trying to shift the status quo.
“If there was no tourism [in Sapa] the culture might have disappeared already”, Réhahn said. “Villagers might have to send their kids to Sapa town and become a housekeeper in a hotel or home there. Tourism can help to build up the village rather than dispersing the people to other towns to get income.”
Ker, a young H’Mong woman who works as a guide for Ethos, talked about the opportunities properly managed tourism have brought to her, “Tourism is good for me because it helps me a lot for the future. I can have a better house and a better shower room and it has also allowed me to travel.”
Image source: assets.community.lomography.com
The experience for her has been mutual. She said that she enjoys working as a guide because it gives her the opportunity to learn about other people’s cultures in the same way that they learn about hers.
Both Hoolihan and Réhahn emphasise that despite the influx of tourism Sapa is still a magical place for those interested in stepping off the beaten path and experiencing genuine cultural tourism.
For more information about the diverse minorities residing in Vietnam, download the Precious Heritage app, which includes Réhahn’s photographs, the story of each tribe and recordings of their traditional music. Or go to Ethos’ website to learn more about the history of Sapa.
Video source: Hachi8Media
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