Nick Boulos, The Daily Telegraph, March 28, 2014
From the porch of their simple home with its hardened mud floor, Duy Hung and Thi Lau Doan looked out at their crops of cabbage and turnips. Backed by misty mountaintops, the view has remained unchanged for centuries: steep hillsides terraced to create waves of emerald ripples across deep valleys.
But big change threatens the sleepy hill station of Sapa in Vietnam’s northwestern Lao Cai province. Work has begun on what will be the world’s longest and highest cable car, which will connect this ethnic enclave close to the Chinese border to the top of Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s tallest peak.
The controversial £126 million project will cut the arduous three-day trek to the 3,143m summit to just 15 minutes. The cable car will have the capacity to shuttle up to 2,000 people per hour up the mountain – the same number that stood at the top during the whole of 2013.
Among those directly affected will be the Doan family and the other residents of Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, who live just a few hundred metres from the cable car’s proposed starting point. “We don’t know if we will have to move, the authorities are still discussing it,” said Duy Hung. He remained hopeful that they could stay and was unfazed by the thought of 20,000 people shuffling past his home each day. “The more, the better,” he beamed. “We will sell water, open a restaurant or a guesthouse. The cable car is good news for Sapa.”
It’s a view shared by many others in this isolated community, established by the French in 1922 and easily reached via an overnight train from the capital, Hanoi. Fast emerging as a destination in its own right, ethnically diverse Sapa offers some of Vietnam’s best trekking and cultural experiences.
“Sapa has much to offer but it needs to develop,” Ngoc Do Minh told me over a cup of strong green tea. “The only industry here when I was a boy was farming. We were self-sufficient but there was a lot of hardship. Tourism has brought many benefits and the cable car will bring even more.”
A local medicine man, Ngyeu Van Tan, had another reason to welcome the new attraction. “The climb to the top of Fansipan is too difficult, so I’m looking forward to finally seeing the views after 60 years of living in its shadow,” he said.
But with an entertainment complex and plush five-star hotel also planned, not everyone is on cloud nine about the cable car - set to open on Vietnam’s National Day, September 2, next year.
Deep in the hushed hillsides away from Sapa town is Y Linh Ho village, home to the dominant Hmong tribe. There, hunched old ladies in traditional embroidered clothes saunter about, clutching large weaved baskets, their earlobes dangling low towards their shoulders, while piglets squabble in courtyards shaded by tall bamboo.
Sitting among them was Phing Thai, the tribe’s shaman. “I’ve never seen a cable car and can’t imagine what it will be like, hanging in the air like that,” he said, looking pensively at the mountain, believed to be the spirit of a Hmong girl who died of a broken heart. “I just worry how it will impact on our culture.
“The younger generations are already influenced by the modern world too much. They want Western clothes and mobile phones.” With each of the ethnic groups here already struggling to preserve their traditions, in terms of everything from their distinctive dress and language to their methods of weaving and farming, there’s a lot at stake.