2009, I was working with a video project about human trafficking in northern Vietnam. The project collapsed when my partner suddenly passed away, but instead it became Sapa Sisters, an ethnic minority Hmong trekking group.
Sapa Sisters was started in 2009 by six friends: Radek Stypczynski, a painter and visual artist from Poland/Sweden, Ylva Landoff Lindberg, also an artist, with four Hmong women Lang Yan, Lang Do, Cho, and Zao. Radek, having seen and heard first hand the difficulties of young Hmong women, in particular, finding decent jobs and wages in Sapa began collaborating with the Girls on a venture that could be self-sustaining and operated almost entirely independent of outsider assistance. The idea was simple: a Trekking company operated by the girls with no middle-man i.e. tourist operators or hotels; Radek would set up a website that could connect travelers with their guides as well as help communication between travelers and guides as the the girls cannot read or write English (although their spoken English is excellent)...
Once connected in Sapa, the guides work directly with travelers to choose custom itineraries around special interests and/or fitness levels from Sapa through the picturesque valley. Whether one day treks or multi-night adventures with home-stay accommodations, travelers experience one on one tours with their guides exploring indigenous hill tribes and the stunning landscapes that is the Sapa Valley. Sapa Sisters welcomes individuals, couples and honeymooner’s, small groups, family with young kids trips, and students on educational field trips.
The Sapa Sisters experience is genuinely unique and has been met with great success as evidenced by their glowing reviews in Trip Advisor and inclusion in Lonely Planet and Petit Fute. Sapa Sisters now employs up to 19 guides during peak season and is owned by the Hmong guides and Ylva.
Radek passed away tragically in 2011 but his vision and mission along with the founders of Sapa Sisters remains; a Hmong owned business that empowers and facilitates a safe place for the Sisters to work and live in a self-sustained operation. Since Radek's passing Ylva Landoff Lindberg has taken the role of connecting travelers and the Sisters via the Sapa Sisters website.
Why Sapa Sisters is Important
To explain more about why it is important for Hmong women to have their own business, in Hmong society in Asia, males tend to hold more public and social power than females. From birth, Hmong females are seen as ‘belonging to their husband’s families’ because when women get married they must leave their birth family to live the rest of their lives with their husbands and in-laws and join his ancestral clan and derive her identity from that. Therefore, Hmong girls and women in Sapa face a number of hardships and setbacks just because of their gender. According to custom, only men can inherit precious farm land from their parents, so women’s right to land depends heavily on their marital status. Girls are often discouraged over boys from completing primary or secondary schooling and have very high rates of illiteracy. Yet, even so, many Hmong girls like those at Sapa Sisters have taught themselves near-fluent English, besides many other languages.
While declining, the custom of forced or arranged marriage still does take place – while this is a very complex issue and is not always so clear-cut. There is also still wide-spread acceptance of spousal abuse and women are discriminated upon for divorcing or separating from their husbands, which means many women will continue to stay in abusive or unfulfilling relationships. Moreover, over the last 10 years there has been an increasing, ongoing level of female trafficking to China - for the purposes of sold marriages and prostitution. Some of our own guides are survivors of this exploitation, and some have managed to return to us, often bravely escaping on their own accord, and are now rebuilding their lives. Despite all of these negative societal experiences and pressures that Hmong girls and women face, they are making positive changes on their own initiative, with Sapa Sisters being a very important example of this.
The Sapa Sisters initiative has enabled these Hmong women to earn far more than they or their families ever had before. At the family level, it has allowed them to do things that used to be very difficult, like save money for their children’s future, buying farm land and renovate their families’ homes from bamboo to more permanent wood and tiled roof buildings. Importantly, many husbands of the Sapa Sisters also see the economic benefits of their wives work, and now support it by taking over the caring of the children and the home while their spouses are working. In a society, where men have traditionally been the main providers while women are expected to stay in the home, this is an important level of empowerment for these women, from which their daughters and future community will also benefit one day.
Indeed, at the community level, Sapa Sisters keeps business ‘Hmong’ and keeps business local. It enables Hmong to continue with their most valued customary livelihood activity – living off the land to farm rice to feed their families – while still earning a fair income to enable further material enrichment and expansion. This helps the economic benefits stay in the community and prevents it from leaking out to the bigger Vietnamese-run businesses that already command the lion’s share of the tourism industry.