At 5pm the government’s megaphone blared out messages of the day. “Propaganda!” our Vietnamese guide mused, as we stared across the rice fields. A spike in the grass, the speaker was hoisted atop dark juts of metal – a stark contrast to the beauty that surrounded it.

Mom has always been an adventurer and I have always been a willing tagalong. Born in Vietnam in 1991, adopted at 3 days and in Ireland at 6 weeks, it was somewhat natural to have “travel” in my blood. But without my Mom, there would be no traveller.

When the megaphone sang out its tune of propaganda, we were in SaPa, a mountainous region in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border.

Back in 2010, like many intrepid tourists, we took too many photos but behind the clicks of our cameras were women that stood out to us. Vivacious, entrepreneurial women, 2016 was our third time back in Vietnam together and Mom was on a mission to seek them out, to deliver promises of photos that we had kept over the years.

Noreen and Una-Minh in Sapa

What we soon discovered is that the ethnic minority groups have become more worn, poorer and feistier over the years, something that the government has forced them to do.

The food and handicraft market has been turfed 1km outside of the town’s centre to a multi-purpose concrete building, and though still a hive of colourful activity, SaPa has a firm stamp of government control.

Officials police the streets, moving traders along when they loiter perimeters and the speaker sits firmly staunch for all to hear (imagine having the Taoiseach’s voice bleating out over megaphone every day for two hours!)

To our surprise, it was at the market that we re-encountered our SaPa women. Every inch of the building was covered in the vibrant colours of the Red Dzao, Flower Hmong and Hmong tribes, the home-dyed indigo and hemp clothing dominating inside like a veil. The women’s eyes held the same strength of character that we remembered six years previously, but the strain of control had changed them.

Handing over photographs, and an old pair of my Grandad’s glasses, more and more women started to mill around us red-faced tourists and it soon became apparent to them that we were people who seemed to have money.

Noreen and Una-Minh with a Red Dzao woman in Vietnam

Many guidebooks for Vietnam advise turning a blind eye to hagglers, but it’s hard to ignore them when you realise that you’re probably some the richest people to ever set foot in their town.

The once fun element of haggling for handicraft and exchanging pleasantries has become aggressive and uncomfortable in SaPa. Every single dollar we had was worth a full meal to them, every $10 would feed their family twice over.

How can we blame them for haggling, when we have so much more?

We collected a new set of photographs with intentions of coming back in a few years, but our visit left us filled with an intense sadness for SaPa, something we’re not sure that we want to experience again…


Adapted from our adventures in Vietnam in June 2016, you can read more about our experiences here… I wrote this piece for the Irish Times Travel Writing Competition, unfortunately, it wasn’t selected but I still wanted to share this story with you.

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