Nestled at a breathtaking altitude of 3,143 meters above sea level, Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest summit, allures adventurers and nature enthusiasts worldwide. This formidable peak is tackled by a legion of ethnic Hmong, who have found employment as porters and trekking guides. Despite their laborious efforts and the inherent risks of high-altitude work, these porters are ill-equipped and receive meager compensation, earning just $8 a day. Many rely solely on porterage for income due to limited education and arable land.
Scheduled for completion in 2016, a $200 million cable car project is underway, poised to link Sapa town to the summit of Mount Fansipan. This ambitious endeavor aims to condense the grueling 2-3 day trek into a mere 15-minute ride. Alongside the cable car, an entertainment complex featuring resorts and religious sites is planned, with expectations to accommodate up to 20,000 tourists daily. This transformative development could potentially redefine the serene mountain as a bustling tourist destination.
While engaging in tourism offers a means for these porters to alleviate poverty and forge new livelihoods amidst dwindling agricultural opportunities, the impending implementation of the cable car project poses a dilemma, potentially jeopardizing their means of income.
This long-term project aims to document the lives of ethnic porters amidst the rapid urbanization of Fansipan, as well as the impact of modern tourism on the local ecosystem.
Our Mother The Mountain
Vang A San, 28, navigates through a gap in the trees along the challenging Cat Cat route, the longest of the three popular paths up Mount Fansipan, alongside Tram Ton and Sin Chai.
A massive forest fire in early 2010 ravaged 3,000 hectares of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, taking thousands of firefighters, rangers, police, and local residents two weeks to extinguish.
Hmong porters load their baskets with weights of up to 40kg at the 2,200m campsite.
Porters take a cigarette break, covering their baskets with plastic bags to shield them from impending rain.
Tourists ascend the newly cleared path to Mount Fansipan's summit, once dense tropical forest, now repurposed for the cable car project.
Porters pause for a brief respite amidst the activity as tourists celebrate at the summit on a crowded day.
Hang A Dau, 15, gathers wood for a campfire at the 2,800m campsite.
A Hmong woman collects herbs at a landfill site in Sapa, where local and tourist waste is stored.
Ma A Di, 34, leader of a porter group, works with his extended family during the harvesting season.
The extended family of Hang A Linh gathers to admire the new television he brought home that day.
A Hmong porter takes a rest en route to the 2,200m campsite.
A worker collects rainwater from catchment tanks outside the 3,000m campsite, where approximately 100 workers reside permanently for cable car construction.
Hang A Dau, 15, wraps himself in a blanket to stave off the cold at the 2,800m campsite, a common sight for young Hmong porters beginning work at 14-15 years old.
Vang A Ma, 30, searches for the trail to the summit at 3,000m on the Cat Cat route.
Hmong porters gather in the center of Sapa, awaiting tourists before embarking on their climb up Mount Fansipan.
A vast expanse of mountains is cleared for the cable car project.
Sunday service at Lao Chai Protestant Church, reflecting the Christian faith of many Hmong people in Lao Cai.
Locals turn to prayer and traditional treatments at Lao Chai Protestant Church to save the daughter of a Hmong porter, after she was deemed incurable by the local hospital.
Ma A Di retrieves his nephew from the rice fields, highlighting agriculture as the primary occupation for most minorities in Vietnam's northern mountains.
Hang A Sa, 22, takes a brief nap while awaiting tourists along the trail.
Ma A Di returns home after days of work on the mountain.
City guards chat on a quiet night at the city hall, anticipating a surge in tourism from the cable car project, set to revitalize the once-sleepy town of Sapa.