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Monday, August 20, 2012

The Hmong Women: Lessons in Sales, Sapa, Vietnam

Guest Blog and Photo by Frances F. Denny

  
Sapa, in the mountains of Northwest Vietnam, draws native Vietnamese and foreign travellers alike to its cool temperatures and pristine landscapes.  The many so-called “hill tribes” native to the region, like the H’mong and Red Zhao, have adapted to the surge of visitors like savvy capitalists. 
 
In their traditional garb of indigo-dyed hemp and neon embroidery, the H’mong women are striking in appearance. As you arrive in town, they quickly engage visitors in workable English.  "Where are you from?" and "How long you stay?"  They answer all of your questions with ease and humor. The attention and seeming authenticity of the conversation is flattering. However, as soon as they've established a rapport, the H’mong women begin unpacking the baskets strapped to their backs, and display hand-woven pillowcases, purses, and blankets. You might buy a trinket from one of the girls as they follow you around town, and the others will frown and say, "You promise to buy from me, too?" The items for sale are pretty, but ubiquitous.  Offloading as many of these items as possible to any customer is the goal. 
 
A trek into Sapa's valley of terraced rice paddies will inevitably be attended by three or four H’mong girls, hopping nimbly over mud puddles and stones, as visitors scramble and splosh.  The women chat about families, their work, their cuisine.  In a few hours, your guide will declare lunch, at which the point the baskets are opened and the wares arrayed again.  The implication is, "I trekked with you, now you buy from me."  
 
Once a visitor is marked, every departure from a hotel activates the sales force whose faces soon become familiar.  Every detail gleaned from earlier sales forays will be remembered by all: the visitor’s name and itinerary, the number of sisters in the family; the mother who might like a pair of silver earrings. Exactly what price their friend sold a belt an hour earlier will also be known. They frown and pout upon hearing, "No, thank you." A smile appears when they are asked if a purchase will end all the attention. This is the dance, too and the H’mong are expert hagglers. They know a potential buyer must be worn down; that guilt can drive a purchase as much as fatigue; that a tourist will pay 500,000 Dong for some peace. When the sale is done, the H’mong women tie a woven bracelet to their customer’s wrist, and the selling stops - though it is hard not to wonder if the gift is also marking you a sucker to the rest of the tribe.
 
The H’mong women would excel in any MBA program. They identify their customer, make a personal connection, offer something free - but of value (trekking guidance; cultural information) - for the chance to solicit, leveraging their ethnic authenticity with modern psychology.  It is a cold visitor who does not succumb to such marketing.  It's the price of admission to Sapa.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 08/20/12 at 12:00 PM
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Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk.

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