Sa Pa, Vietnam



This research critically analyzes the ongoing expansion of tourism in Sa Pa Town and Sa Pa District, in Lào Cai Province, northern Vietnam. Officials in Hanoi and the provincial capital of Lào Cai have had an eye on the tourism potential of Sa Pa region for a while. It began with the opening up of the uplands to foreign visitors in 1993, which had been heavily restricted since the First Indochina War broke out in 1946. As a moderate-sized French colonial hill station, though largely destroyed during decades of war, Sa Pa still had ‘a name’ in the early 1990s. This, along with the local climate, mountain landscape, and ‘colorful’ local ethnic minority residents, helped it to re-surface as a tourist destination. From 1993, the growth of the town’s tourism industry was slow but steady. Then, in 1998, the provincial authorities engaged in a large tourism planning scheme designed to lay the foundation for the long-term expansion of tourism in the whole province and in particular in the star district of Sa Pa. Between 1995 and 2014, annual tourism numbers rose from 4860 to 826,000 and – after the inauguration of a cable car to the top of Mt Fansipan and a new highway from Hanoi – topped 1 million in 2016. What does this all mean for local Kinh residents, for local ethnic minority residents, for the state officials overseeing these changes, for investors, and for international and domestic tourists? This research seeks to find out…


Research Projects

Itinerant Livelihoods: Street Vending-scapes and the Politics of Mobility in Upland Socialist Vietnam 

Sarah Turner & Natalie Oswin, 2015

This paper explores the politics of mobility for a group of rural inhabitants attempting to diversify their livelihoods in an especially prescribed environment, namely ethnic minority street vendors living and working in upland socialist Vietnam. These Hmong, Yao and Giày individuals face a political environment where access and trade rights shift on a near-daily basis because of the impulses of state officials, and where ethnicity is central to determining who gets to be mobile and how. We analyse three groups of itinerant vendors– those vending on the streets of an upland tourist town, the mobile minority wholesalers who supply them and other traders, and vendors who trek with Western tourists– to reveal the nature of this trade environment, while also highlighting the ways in which ethnic minority vendors negotiate, work around and contest vending restrictions in numerous innovative ways. We find that this focus on the micro-geographies and everyday politics of mobility is essential to understanding how rural Global South livelihoods are fashioned and diversified, in this case revealing specific relationships and negotiations regarding resources access, ethnicity, state authority and livelihood strategies.

Turner, S. and N. Oswin, 2015: Itinerant livelihoods: Street vending-scapes and the politics of mobility in upland socialist Vietnam. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 36 (3), 394-410.



Reaching new heights. State Legiblity in Sapa, a Vietnam Hill Station

Jean Michaud & Sarah Turner, 2017

In this paper we analyze the recent acceleration of tourism in the historical hill station of Sa Pa Town and District, in Lào Cai Province, northern Vietnam. The article builds on debates concerning state efforts to increase legibility in a frontier area, modernity at the state’s margins, and critiques of mass tourism in socialist Vietnam. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork since 1995, we examine the state’s modernist project for Sa Pa, exploring the roles of corporate entities and local state agents, and interpreting the impacts of recent tourism plans and policies on ethnic minority communities and Kinh residents. We reveal an underlying project among state officials and entrepreneurs to harness this marginal space on the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands regardless of cultural distinctions.

Michaud, J. and S. Turner, 2015: Reaching new heights. State legibility in Sa Pa, a Vietnam hill stationAnnals of Tourism Research. 66: 37-48



Contending Visions of a Hill-Station in Vietnam

Jean Michaud & Sarah Turner, 2006

This paper examines a situation of national and international tourism development in post-socialist Vietnam, as it unfolds in the small northern hill-station town of Sa Pa. It investigates to what extent tourism dynamics today can be seen to be mirroring the French colonial scene of the past and suggests similarities and distinctions between these two eras. Revealing the current day contending representations of tourism in this town, the paper emphasizes the competition among multiple actors. These include the economic victors (Vietnamese and international tourists, local state authorities, Vietnamese and overseas entrepreneurs), and those largely left behind, the ethnic minorities. Keywords: Vietnam, hill-station, colonial tourism, post-socialist tourism, Sa Pa.

Michaud, J., and S. Turner. 2006. Contending visions of a hill-station in Vietnam. Annals of Tourism Research 33 (3):785-808.

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