I left for Vietnam utterly unprepared for what may come; no mental preparations, no emotional baggage, no expectations. My favorite way to travel, turns out: just plunge, dive in and let it be. Let it affect you. Let it allow you discover yourself in front of unexpected, a mirror of surprise and stress of the unknown… the most revealing.
I knew one leg of the trip would be in the mountains of Sa Pa, close to the sensitive Chinese border. Main reason one goes there – meet the ethnic minorities that live in the area, some trek among the rice fields and villages of mountain scenery, some go to climb the highest peak of Indochina, Fansipan, at 3,143 m – the easternmost lost vestige of the Himalayas. The French went to escape the heat of Saigon; their colonial response to the British hill stations of the Indian Himalayas.
We spent three days in Sa Pa, took the Victoria Express night train from Hanoi – an experience that heightened my excitement, sense of adventure and dreamy disposition. We usually don’t travel by train and I long for it at times – I find it so romantic, hardship and reverie combined; it takes me back to my college years of communist Romania and many books. I feel train stations charged with emotions and private histories; soul particles hovering above tracks, in full moon or pitch darkness, in morning dew or crimson twilight… millions of footsteps traced, lost and found. I must admit, there was no hardship in Victoria Express, just reverie… That night there was a pregnant waxing Moon almost ready to burst full. Just the two of us in the sleeper compartment, we kept the curtains open and watched the sky lying in bed… a dream! I would wake up in the soothing noise of the train moving slowly on tracks and look up; another show – Moon set and made room for stars and constellations to play, and dazzle, and tease at will. Another dream!
We disembarked the train in Lao Cai and took an hour-long car ride to Sa Pa. This ride prepares the eye for scenery and color – leaving behind the noise of typical Vietnamese morning markets, where everything seems to happen at once: buy-sell, haggle, cook, eat breakfast and drink coffee, charge up for the burden of a new day. All that behind, the eye meets endlessly vivid-green terraces, rice fields perfectly manicured on mountain slopes, specs of water catching a sun ray, gleaming in a momentary fairy dance.
And when you turn your eye to the road in front of you, water buffalos, motorbikes, bicycles coming into vision at once and there… peculiar short women in colorful dress walking on the side, carrying round baskets on their backs, but not the bamboo shoulder poles that Vietnamese women carry all day long selling fruits, flowers, and sweets on the streets of Hanoi or Saigon. No more conical straw hats either. This is a different world. Yet here, just as in Saigon, Hanoi or elsewhere in the World I’ve seen, it is the women that seem to always carry the weight of the world.
My first encounter with the local women was immediate, coming out of the hotel, two beautiful Black H’mong women with large smiles and poor teeth approached me in a very good English. Where are you from? What is your name? And this is how my tribal love affair got under way. I knew they were not only about conversation; I knew there must be trade – but I allowed myself seduced by smiles and kindness – the only thing I’d do is to respond. I didn’t buy anything from them that morning, we just arrived and had a full day in front of us – they understood, still smiling and with kind eyes they asked: ‘You buy from me when you return?’ And it was sealed! ‘I will’.
The main ethnic group in Sa Pa area is the H’mong; the Black H’mong are called such because they wear indigo died hemp clothes they make by hand. We saw a woman in her house extracting hemp fiber from the cannabis plant and barrels of blue/black die from the abundant indigo plant that grows around the area, everywhere on our treks. The women’s hands are stained in indigo from all the work. There is also the Flower H’mong group; their dress is very colorful with intricate designs. I’ve first met three of them in a Tourist Information Center, they were displaying their handwork and crafts. We talked, they showed me their stitch and how they do it with smiling eyes; they didn’t ask me to buy anything.
We started with a self-guided morning tour on motorbike, surveying Sa Pa and the astonishing surrounding area… a tour of the lush jungle bracing slopes stabbed by rich and graceful waterfalls, hiking trails in the foothills of Tonkinese Alps, taking in amazing vistas at Haven’s Gate, the highest road in Vietnam.
In the afternoon, still on motorbike, we visited Cat Cat, a Black H’mong village very close to Sa Pa. The scenery – breathtaking! Rice paddies glistening in sunlight, green, green, emerald-green everywhere you turn and blankets of white mist on top on the mountains. The village stony path felt very touristy, lined up with shops selling crafts. However, if you take your eyes a bit further to the left or to the right and look for detail, you see their homes and catch a glimpse of the child bathing, or other household chores in progress. The village natural setting is amazing, perhaps Cat Cat is quickly becoming somewhat inauthentic – so close to Sa Pa and so exposed – but remains most beautiful. Walking down the stone path among houses, stores, tea shops and half-naked children, goats, pigs and roosters, we make it to the bottom of the valley. A river runs through it. We cross it on a wire bridge. To the right the river comes down lazily barely making a statement among the green. Naked children bathe and play. To the left there is a gorgeous little waterfall and the river becomes wild cutting through polished mountain stones. Two young men catch tiny fish with baskets in the waterfall. By now we are surrounded by women and girls trying to sell us something. Anything.
This is confusing!
On one hand I think this is how Heaven must be looking like. The mountain slopes, the mist above, the green of the rice paddies, the river – so lazy where children play in the distance, the waterfall raging down below… the fishermen climbing the waterfall like Black H’mong Spiderman or Ninjas.
However, I look into the women’s eyes, they are still smiling but I finally perceive the desperation. They HAVE to sell me something! I am conflicted!! I thought this was Heaven and I still see Beauty all around, in nature, in their smiles. But deep in their eyes, the Beauty mixes with Despair.
Of course there is some haggling, they ask for as much as they can think of, but when you haggle with a smile in your eyes, it makes it mighty fine. We bought from them, not much – some postcards; their reaction warmed my heart – ‘Me Happy, You Happy!’ They tied little ribbons to our hands – a sign, a pact, a loving seal.
On our way back to the hotel, my morning Black Hmong girlfriends were waiting. The day must have worn them down and I don’t know how much they sold, but they greeted us with the biggest smiles. I’ve got little hemp purses from them, and yes… another ribbon.
The second day in Sa Pa was a full day trek in the Black Hmong and Red Dzao villages of the Lao Chai valley. This time we hired a local guide. Great English, excellent sense of humor, Xuan – a happy soul! No road this time, not even a trail – just Xuan’s knowledge of where we are and where to go… we crossed rice paddies, bamboo forests, even people’s courtyards with their permission – no beaten path here. However, there were certain stations where village women and girls would sell water and crafts.
And just the same, the story goes: great scenery, good hike, exotic and beautiful looking women and children everywhere. Xuan explained, this was the time when women dedicated their entire time to crafts and sales – the rice is planted waiting for more rains, it will be late August-early September when the paddies turn yellow that the women will get busy in their fields. They won’t have time to follow trekkers all day long. But for now, at one of the water stations I was picked up by another Black H’mong girlfriend. What is your name? Where are you from? Is he your husband? Again, impressive English. She told me she learned it from the trekkers. They have an ear for languages for sure… and a desperation mixed with resilience. Yet, their approach is so soft and gentle, and it’s not fake. They NEED to make that sale, but their smiles, good will and curiosity are genuine. My new friend walked with us for miles. She lived in the village we were going to have lunch. She braided a beautiful heart from a green twig for me. She made a little horse from another twig. Step by step we hiked down to the valley, talking all the way. She explained me the jewelry she was wearing, two sets of earrings, bracelets, her mother’s long necklace… She is 50 and wanted to see how the valley looked like through my sun glasses. After lunch we purchased little purses again, hand stitched and beautiful.
We headed for a different village – this time a Red Dzao tribe. The dress is different here; young women wear red head-scarves, the older ones have a bigger, more involved red headdress with tassels all around.
Red Dzao women are not as ‘aggressive’ as the Black H’mong ones. They certainly want to sell you something, but won’t walk with you for miles; They may not have the same charisma as the Black H’mong ‘girlfriends’. The women pluck their eyebrow and the hairline until it stops growing. Xuan explained the tradition – old story of a peculiar king that wanted his meal cooked without the risk of burning hair… since then Red Dzao women have followed the tradition. We’ve seen a meal cooking on open fire in a Red Dzao home the next day. I must say, the fire comes very close to the face. We spent some time in their home and had good conversation. Xuan asked the old woman of the house to show us her hair-line. She was a little shy at first, but then she took her headdress off. Now I shall take back the comment about their charisma. Red Dzao are just as sweet and friendly, perhaps a little shy. I was so happy she felt so comfortable in our presence to show us what rarely people see, the self-made receding hair-line of tribal lore.
The third day we hired Xuan again for a guided motorbike tour – we reached further this time; the villages, the trails, the kids, the glimpses of everyday life completely aloof, unaware and indifferent of the foreigner’s eye looking in.
When you see naked little girls using a runoff ditch and plastic bags, or simply their bare feet to experience a waterslide… you can’t help see their beauty, innocence and joy of life, but can one ignore the misery? They’re not aware, but you, the stranger looking in, you are.
Even by Vietnamese rural standards the hill tribe minorities are poor; the poorest of all. What is their fate? I was so happy to converse with many of them, to get to know a little of their lives, but are they on their way to lose their authenticity? Will they start trading smiles for camera against a fee?
I hope it rains, so that rice grows nice and abundant.