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Published: October 26th 2009
We thought it was about time to catch you up on a few side trips we took when we first hit Hanoi way back in July. Wow- that seems like a life-time ago! Our first excursion out of the city was a 4-day jaunt, by overnight train, to Sapa in northwestern Vietnam. Not knowing any better, we purchased a finely organized but over-priced tour from our hotel. Our journey started at the train station at 9 p.m. where we jumped off platforms and walked through open railroad tracks to get to our train - chuckling all the way about how the concept of personal injury law is non-existent in Vietnam. Joe managed to immediately piss off our first tour companions - an Eastern European mother and her 14 year old daughter - by telling a bad joke to the seemingly humorless pair on the tail end of their bad day. It was a little awkward and embarrassing when the joke fell flat, but the woman and daughter were in a better mood the next day and we ultimately became good friends. We had better luck with our bunkmates in the sleeper train - a very friendly young couple from Spain who
worked as physical therapists. We drank a little beer together and went to bed fairly early, but I don’t think anyone slept while the train shook and roared for the next eight hours. We arrived at the train station in Lao Cai around 5 a.m. and proceeded by bus through the steep and windy roads leading up to the enchanting town of Sapa, a former French hill station built in 1922 and home to numerous ethnic minority tribes, including the Black H'mong and Red Dzao.
We were fairly tired and a little cranky when we arrived at our hotel - the Sapa Global, which featured great views and a friendly staff, but probably the worst restaurant in all of Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, our tour required us to eat all of our meals in the hotel restaurant which came complete with soiled tablecloths and napkins, incompetent wait staff, and a chef that was on the verge of being fired. We ate breakfast (and every other meal) under the watchful eye of a large group of Black H’mong women and children waiting to sell their purses, clothes, jewelry, and other wares to the newly arrived tourists.
Black H'mong women in Sapa
Women and children from the Black H'mong tribe in Sapa make their living by selling their trademark indigo purses, clothing, and jewerly to tourists visting the city. Groups of vendors wait outside hotel doors to catch the interest of a willing customer. The women and children escort trekkers through the countryside in hopes of making a big sale at the final destination.
people exist primarily off of rice cultivation; the fields in the lower reaches of the valley have been cultivated for hundreds of years while the fields in the higher altitudes have only recently (within the last 50 years) been added. Unfortunately, the rice fields were created using swidden (slash and burn) agricultural techniques which the goverment has recently abolished. While prohibiting the further expansion of the rice fields by slash and burn methods is good for the environment, it has put pressure on the expanding H'mong population in the valley, who already barely produce enough rice to be self-sustaining (a somewhat interesting ethical delima I'd say).
In addition to cultivating rice, the H’mong make their living by growing hemp and indigo. The hemp fibers are soaked in the dye from the indigo plant and woven into clothing and jewelry. Many H’mong women still dress in traditional costume and sell the excess to the tourists who now visit the town in droves. They will also gladly sell any tourist who asks, including Joe, a bag of hemp for smoking even though they know its not marijuana and they think the tourists are silly for buying it (which they are...).
Black H'mong woman and her baby
It's not uncommon to see 40+ year old H'mong women with young infants. Women in this tribe have many children and continue to bear children through middle age.
The H’mong women and children are known for “attaching themselves” to specific tourists and escorting them through the town and surrounding villages. They are very friendly and helpful - guiding tourists up and down the perilously slippery and muddy hillsides. Along the way to the final destination, they gently remind you to buy from them when it comes time to buy. And so begins the dance of local commerce. Many H’mong women helped me tremendously as I slipped and slid down muddy hillsides. Often I had two “ladies in waiting” who held each of my hands and made sure I made it safely and securely through each treacherous step. I thanked them for their kindness and bought a few things from them to demonstrate my gratitude.
We spent our first afternoon in Sapa on a very rainy trek to Cat Cat village with our beautiful H’mong guide - Zsa Zsa - who delivered informative lectures about minority life in perfectly spoken English. Along the way, she showed us the indigo and hemp that grows in the surrounding countryside, and explained how the villagers use a water wheel to grind and process the corn that also grows
Lesson in Indigo
Our tour guide Zsa Zsa gives us a lesson in indigo cultivation and processing.
in the fields. We ended our trek at a beautiful waterfall where we shared shelter from the rain with the local children, their moms, and our fellow tourists. It was miserable weather but every sight was breathtaking and we couldn’t stop clicking our cameras.
The next day began the “homestay” part of our Sapa tour. We packed up and left the hotel in the morning with our second guide, a bright and perky 20 year old H’mong woman named Bee. For this part of our tour, our trekking companions were two young University students from Denmark who were traveling in Southeast Asia during their summer holiday from their studies in medicine and civil engineering. They were fun, liberal and smart, and they asked a lot of interesting questions about life in the minority villages we visited. I think they liked us well enough, since before we parted ways they commented that “it was refreshing to meet Americans who don’t fit their stereotype of what American people are like.” We laughed about that for days, since it seemed like such a left-handed compliment.
Bee was an amazing guide - she really knew how to “work a crowd”
of tourists. She was always at the ready with information about the H’mong culture and lifestyle, and she had a bright, enthusiastic answer to every question we asked - even if it was the same question she answered a million times. Moreover, she had a camera-ready smile at the drop of a hat. She never needed a countdown to get ready for a picture. If there was a camera pointed at her, she flashed an instantaneous smile from ear to ear. You could tell she had been in the tourist biz for a while and was really good at making foreigners happy. When tourists weren’t asking questions, Bee was either talking or texting on her mobile phone, presumably checking on her young infant baby who was in the care of her husband or husband’s family. Bee’s family situation was particularly interesting to me because both her and her 45-year old mother-in-law were new mothers, and both were nursing infants at the same time. Whereas the Vietnamese are technically prohibited from having more than two children, families in the minority hill villages have remained large in order to provide more labor for farming. It’s common for village women to have children
well into their forties, but they must deliver their babies at the hospital in Sapa unlike their younger counterparts who deliver at home with a midwife.
Bee took us to her younger sister Sue’s home in Lao Chai village, several hours outside of Sapa on foot. This would be our temporary home for the rest of the afternoon and night. Eighteen-year old Sue was married with a one-year old baby and another one on the way. I was very surprised to learn that there is no permanent doctor in the village and Sue will not have prenatal care during her pregnancy. Rather, she will rely on traditional ways of eating and caring for herself and her unborn baby.
Sue and Bee were excellent hosts. After a leisurely afternoon strolling through the village and relaxing by the riverside, we were treated to a huge feast of tofu, vegetables, chicken, pork, and THE best French fries we’ve ever tasted - cooked with garlic and ginger (who would have known??). We drank rice wine with Sue and Bee’s husbands and played with their little babies. Sue’s husband was fascinated that Joe had so much body hair, and kept rubbing
Hemp plant growing in Sapa, VN
Of course, Joe couldnt resist buying some hemp even though Zsa Zsa told him that the locals sell it to tourists as part of a scam!
his baby’s hands over Joe’s hair and chanting “monkey, monkey, monkey”! The two sisters played cards for small money with their husbands after dinner while Joe stuffed hemp leaves into cigarette paper and tried to get high with our young Danish friends. A good time was had by all. I slept perflectly in the upstairs bunk but Joe was awakened before dawn by the sound of the next door neighbors slaughtering and butchering a pig for the morning market!
We continued our trek the next morning after breakfast, this time heading back to Sapa through the villages inhabited by the Red Dzao people, another minority tribe in the region. The women of the Red Dzao wear red headdresses and shave their eyebrows and the top part of their heads so hair won’t fall into the food when they are serving their husbands and husbands’ family members. We were sad to be leaving the countryside because we were enchanted by the villagers (especially the children) even in spite of the hard sell we got from the clothing and accessories vendors. After a shower and an early dinner at our Sapa hotel, we boarded the bus and said goodbye to
the town and the H’mong women who were still perched on the hotel doorstop waiting for a willing customer. Eventually, we re-boarded the midnight express to Hanoi - this time bunking with two Dutch physicians on holiday in Vietnam and sleeping liking a baby for the duration of the train ride back to Hanoi.
Another successful excursion in Vietnam!
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