(The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, School of Cultural and Social Studies,
Vietnam, Sa Pa, ethnic minority, peddling, tourism, reciprocity
This paper focuses on the peddling activities of ethnic minority women in the town of Sa Pa, a northern hill-station of Vietnam.
Hmong and Dao minority women in Sa Pa peddle ethnic handicrafts to tourists as souvenirs in the streets of Sa Pa. These women employ various selling strategies in order to encourage tourists to purchase the handicrafts. Some of their peddling practices have been criticized by outsiders as too aggressive, and have been depicted in the media as the result of commercialization under the influence of officially promoted tourism development. In addition to such criticism, their street peddling practices have been subjected to the regulation by the local government.
However, from the emic perspective of the Hmong women themselves, street peddling is not only a supplemental income source for their living, but also an occasion to be freed from the daily tasks in their village life and to enjoy interacting with tourists in the town. Thus, for the Hmong women of Sa Pa, street peddling has the aspects of both economic activity and leisure activity, affording them an opportunity to enjoy socializing with friends and tourists in the town. Such street peddling practices sometimes create an intimate relationship between Hmong women and international tourists that goes beyond the transient economic seller-buyer relationship.
By elucidating the nature of peddling practices of ethnic minority women, this article aims to examine the validity of the “commercialization” discourse imposed on the ethnic minority peddlers, as well as to explore the nature of relationship generated between the ethnic minority women and international tourists through the street peddling practices.
Drawing on the theoretical framework of “primitive exchange” elaborated by Marshall Sahlins, this article presents two conclusions. First, the street peddling practices of ethnic minority women are not mainly based on the utilitarian contrivance to gain economic profit, but are based more on the moral and reciprocal scheme of exchange. Second, the selling strategies employed by the peddlers are not products of “commercialization” of their nature under the influence of tourism development, but rather they result from the peddlers’ application of the moral scheme of primitive exchange, as depicted by Sahlins, to the economic transactions with tourists.