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While Vietnam weighs up declaring the country COVID-19-free after more than a month without community transmission, the declaration will come as little comfort to the hill tribes of Sapa who solely rely on international tourism for their income. (writes Taylor Edgar in Hanoi)

Without the resumption of international flights into Vietnam, the five ethnic groups living in the mountainous Lào Cai province bordering China faces a very uncertain future. The pandemic that barely touched this remote region has caused a vortex of problems for the entire community.

Lý Thị Cở, a member of the Hmong tribe and a trekking guide for the social enterprise company, ETHOS - Spirit of the Community, says the dramatic downturn in tourist numbers has impacted the entire community. And will leave people struggling with potential food shortages later in the year.

Explains Cở: “There are six people who live in our house, myself and my husband, his two younger brothers and my two children. Although we built our own house and grow our food, my income from tourism is the only money coming into the house. This income is necessary to help buy any additional food as well as essential farming materials such as fertiliser. Tourism money also supports us with buying clothes and other essentials.”

Tourism to this breathtaking mountain province stopped abruptly in March as the world finally woke up to the scale of the coronavirus.

Says Cở: “Tourism stopped abruptly in March. Tourism had been slowing slightly before that, but we went from having some travellers to none overnight. Not only did my income disappear, but all the homestays and host families lost their income too. For some people, this has been terrible. My cousin needs an eye operation, but nobody in the family had any money to pay. Fortunately, ETHOS has been helping with that and others in most need.”

The impact of the worldwide coronavirus shutdown has been dramatic in many fundamental ways in the Sapa region, not least what ends up in food bowls.

“We used to buy tofu or fish from the market a few times a week, but that isn’t an option anymore. Instead, we eat rice with vegetables we grow. Sometimes I’ll go to the forest and collect mushrooms, bamboo shoots or ferns. Many people are doing the same, so it’s getting harder and harder to find these things to eat,” comments Cở.

The experience of Cở is a microcosm of what is occurring across this entire region. With no international tourists at the moment and none for the foreseeable future, the local economy is evaporating, and not just for those people directly involved in the tourism industry. The wider fabric of life has also been affected by families choosing to stay at home rather than interact as they would typically do.

Revealing her fears for the future, Cở says: “I really miss meeting travellers and worry about many people in my community in the long term. While the disease seems to be in control in Vietnam, many many people have lost all their income. Most families here don’t have enough rice to last a full year, so as rice slowly runs out, buying more will become necessary. I worry about food shortages in the coming months.”

Even the little income generated by selling vegetables has been curtailed as tourist restaurants have closed their doors, and there’s simply no demand.

Asked when she thinks Sapa will recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cở expresses a mixture of trepidation and hope. While she has been saddened and surprised at the death toll overseas - Vietnam has yet to record a single COVID-19 death - and keen to see tourists return, Cở is apprehensive. International tourists could, she fears, unwittingly bring the virus with them as well.

The last few months have been hard going, but a more protracted shutdown of the tourism industry in this mountain province will spell real hardship ahead.

The Hmong tribe is one of 57 ethnic minorities in Vietnam. They have clung onto their lifestyle and beliefs in the face of the country’s rapid modernisation. Tourism in the Sapa area has been a mainstay of the local economy since the late 19th century. French colonists would flock to this mountain town to escape the oppressive summer heat of the capital, Hanoi.

Subsistence farming, though, growing rice and vegetables remains unchanged as do the traditional Hmong beliefs.

Comments Cở: “Many people here believe that evil spirits cause all sicknesses. In the beginning, many people came to see my father [ a shaman ] asking for his advice and protection. He gave many people necklaces to ward away bad spirits, but he also told people that this disease is different. Most people don’t fully understand it, and that’s what makes it so scary. My community doesn’t know who to ask for more information.”

With the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, the Hmong are taking some solace from their traditional way of life that has remained unchanged. They plant corn in March, rice in May, and forage for food in the spring.

“This part of our lives has stayed the same, and to have something familiar has made things more bearable,” remarks Cở.

Phil Hoolihan, of ETHOS, the social community enterprise, says they have been able to support 56 families with a small $100 monthly stipend, funded mainly by previous trekking customers. However, he warns that this support can only be sustained until September. Unless there is an upturn in fortunes, the organization that has done so much to help Hmong women like Cở out of poverty will have to shut their doors too.

A day in the life of Cở before COVID-19

Cở (pronounced Ku?) has been a guide since she was very young, learning her English selling handicrafts to passing tourists on the streets of Sapa.

With the help of ETHOS, she trained to become a trekking guide and teach visitors about the Hmong culture, food, culture, and way of life.

Cở says she describes herself as a mother and farmer first, and a tour guide second.

“My life is structured around our farm, and my day to day life changes with the seasons — rainfall and temperature influence when I can plant and harvest my corn and rice. When I am not farming, I enjoy guiding people.

“For most of the year, I will guide three or four days a week. When I’m guiding, I wake up around 5 am and feed my pigs and chickens. I then cook breakfast and make my way from my village into Sapa town. The journey takes about an hour.

“I work for ETHOS, and I meet my guests at our community centres. We introduce the area first, and then I take the guests to the Sapa market to buy food ready for their adventure. Treks are always different, and I change the route and level of challenge based on the guests, their age, and their fitness. Many people like to learn along the way, so we talk. I often show people how to forage for food or explain how we make our traditional clothes from hemp and using indigo dye.

“Lunch is always with a local family, and this is a good way we help to share income in our community. I visit different host families, and they are supported financially and with good, wholesome food for hosting us.

“Homestays are always in local homes. My parents enjoy having guests stay as it’s a great way for them to earn a little money too. My mother is a herbalist, and my father is a shaman. Travellers love to hear about our beliefs and experiencing ceremonies when we have them.”

Find out more about ETHOS and Sapa in this video.