We traipsed through the streets in search of somewhere to stay, and were guided by our Lonely Planet to the bottom end of town where a guesthouse with a nice review was located. ‘Lovely and quiet round here,’ we thought. ‘And how strange that none of the lights are on!’ We tentatively opened the door to the guesthouse and were immediately welcomed by a smiley lady with a candle and two children shrieking as they took it in turns to slide down a mattress propped against a sofa. We had walked all the way through Sapa and chosen the only street that had had a power cut! We were led down to our pretty room by candlelight, and were pleased to discover we had a balcony from which we could admire the view. Just as we were about to go out in search of dinner, we heard the clatter thump of someone tumbling down the marble staircase, and rushed out of our room to find a young lady in a moaning heap outside our door. Stiletto heels, marble stairs and power cuts don’t go well together! We helped her up and she seemed okay but rather shaken. Her mother (the guesthouse owner) took her to the clinic for a check over and we continued on into town.
Sapa’s small town centre was lined with the welcoming lights of guesthouses, cafés and restaurants. Everywhere offered set meals, which were a bargain and great if you were feeling indecisive. The shops occupying the spaces between eateries fell into two main categories – outdoor clothing (with cut price hiking clothes and accessories) and hill tribe crafts.
After a lie in the following morning, we ambled into town for a late breakfast. It was still very misty and so we were unable to make out the surrounding mountains. H’mong women had come into Sapa from their mountain villages to sell their handicrafts – traditional headscarves, beautifully embroidered bags and skirts and copper bracelets. It was hard not to get drawn into a conversation no matter how resolute you were about not buying anything! In this part, most of the hill tribes are Black H’mong, but there were a few Red Dzao as well. The Flower H’mong, famous for their elaborate needlework and brightly coloured clothing, do not make it into Sapa. We were approached by a persistent and enterprising 18 year old Black H’mong girl, Lily, who after discovering we were not interested in buying anything, became intent on selling us a village tour and homestay. She was tiny and had the most beautiful smile, spoke very good English and her little notebook contained the most glowing reviews that we couldn’t say no, and arranged to meet her the next morning.
We ate breakfast at the charity café, Baguette and Chocolat, which had been set up to help disadvantaged youths. We had wonderful chocolatey rich Vietnamese coffee and listened to the staff practising classical guitar. Luke asked me to pull a face like a gremlin eating a sock so he could draw me. I obliged, using a napkin in place of the sock. I think it was rather convincing. After a time, I had to relax my face lest it should stay that way, and I wandered over to listen to the guitarist. He had a beautiful voice. When they brought out a bamboo flute, I played Scarborough Fair, which is the piece that so pleased the pig in Yuanyang. Thankfully they didn’t run away! The mist seemed like it was there to stay and so we spent the rest of the day catching up on our own little projects.
We had a somewhat confusing breakfast in our guesthouse the next day. Luke ordered a pancake with egg and cheese from the menu, was given one with cheese and banana and then when we explained, ended up with a cheese omelette, which he ate. I had a delicious black coffee, but was startled to find a puddle of very sweet and thick white liquid at the bottom. I presumed it was a huge amount of sugar which hadn’t dissolved properly, but later found out that it is very common in south-east Asia to drink coffee with condensed milk. This intense sweetness is something I have never got used to and so we always drink it black or specifically request fresh milk, which they often don’t have.
Having packed a small rucksack each, we met Lily outside our hotel and set off on the hike to her village, accompanied by a Korean father and daughter and another H’mong lady, who had a two month old baby boy bundled up in a shawl on her back. He was bound up so well that we didn’t see his face until we arrived at our destination and he was unwrapped. We tramped along the misty road for a few minutes, before turning down a muddy track. After this we started to head below the cloud level and the scenery began to emerge from the swathes of mist. Everywhere we looked was lush and green, with bracken, bamboo and various trees, including banana. There were rice paddy terraces and scattered wooden dwellings. Lily and her friend made us each a heart shaped wand from bracken and then on my request showed us how to make them. They would make lovely and cheap wedding table decorations! The bracken horse they made was a little less convincing, but fun all the same! A small black puppy decided to tag along at this point and gambolled along beside Luke, racing him. As we descended into the village, he spotted some other dogs and, probably quite sensibly, decided to scamper back the way he had come to avoid an altercation.
Lily pointed out the village school, a smallish yellow painted concrete building. Most of the buildings in the village were made of wood and bamboo, with dirt floors and small earthen yards where a few chickens and pigs ran around, but the official buildings were concrete. Lily attended this school until the age of 14 and so she could read and write, but her parents could not afford to send her to high school, so her education stopped there. Their first language is H’mong, but all children learn Vietnamese at school as well. She, like many H’mong women, had learnt English through contact with tourists, and also had a smattering of French and Spanish. The men, who tend to work in the rice fields or go to the mountains collecting ginger, do not have much contact with foreigners and so foreign languages remain a feminine occupation, something which I feel gives the women an important role in this society, as tourism is the main source of monetary income. Most families, Lily’s included, only grow enough rice to feed themselves, as in this region there is only one rice harvest a year, so there is nothing available to sell on and make a profit. Lily was clearly an intelligent young lady, and I think she would have liked to continue studying, but she is forging her own path and seems fairly optimistic about the future.
On leaving school, she got married to a H’mong boy her own age and moved in with his family. She spoke of this happily and seems very much in love. The following year they had their first child, a daughter called Dinh. Dinh is now three years old and has a one year old little brother, Su. By this reckoning I could easily be Lily’s mother and a grandmother; quite a scary thought! I asked her if they planned to have any more children, and quite sensibly she said they wouldn’t, she is happy with two and indeed once they are grown up, she will still be quite young. Hopefully her children will have more opportunities than she had herself. A year before, there was no electricity in the village, but a hydroelectric power station has now been built, and as tourism channels more money into the region, things are likely to improve further.
As we walked through the village, we were joined by three young girls of 7-9 years who were selling friendship bracelets and in plaintive, pitiful voices with a well-practised mournful lilt repeated, ‘will you help me buy something…?’ Lily had told us we shouldn’t buy anything from children as it encourages them to bunk off school, so we did our very best to change the subject and engage them in conversation and silly games instead. Luke remembered a Catalan clapping game my niece Sylvia had taught him, and we also played I spy and the yes/no game. After a time, they began to relent and giggle and eventually joined in, only occasionally getting back into character and starting up the ‘will you help me buy something…?’ mantra again. The Koreans gave them a pack of Hello Kitty pencils and I gave them each a pen, as I found it so hard to do nothing, though giving gifts is probably just as inadvisable as buying from them. The girls walked with us all the way to Lily’s house and only turned back when we entered the yard.
Lily’s mother in law came out to greet us with big smiles as we arrived. The house was quite spacious, although a lot of people lived there, and was built in the local style with wood and bamboo, a dirt floor and split into large rooms by partitions. The yard contained a bamboo pipe system that diverted water from a stream, so that there was a constant supply of running water for washing, and a drop toilet in a small cabin that was overlain with the ceramic casing of a squatting loo. Most of the house was laid out on one floor, but there was a staircase leading to what we presumed was a bedroom. In the main room, there was an open fire around which the women sat on low stools and cooked and gossiped. The men mostly sat in a smaller separate room where they passed around tea and inhaled smoke through a bamboo bong. There were lots of little children pottering around. One little boy of about two years old was a bit of a nutter, racing about, pushing the other children and lurching and dancing energetically. Lily’s children were beautiful like their mother and very sweet natured. Her eldest, Dinh, had gorgeous dark eyes and a searching, serious expression. Su was wide-eyed and quite shy around strangers. We recognised some of the women from Sapa and some were new to us. All were dressed in the traditional H’mong costume of a dark tunic covered with embroidery, black culottes which were dyed with a local plant, and a colourful head scarf of a kind of lurid tartan in green, blue or fluorescent pink. Their calves were bound with a length of black fabric and most had beautifully engraved bracelets and earrings.
Lily set about preparing our lunch and we sat around a low table, observing the chatter going on around us. In the back room, we could hear chanting and the rhythmic banging of a gong. This was part of a new year ritual and would be repeated twice more over the coming days to ensure good fortune in the coming year. Shortly after the chanting ceased, we heard a horrific squealing noise. This went on for around a minute, and then stopped rather abruptly. Lunch was a simple but tasty meal of chicken, beans, noodles and egg. When we had finished, Lily left with the Korean family to walk them back to Sapa. Whilst she was gone, we were invited out to a field at the back of the house where the family were cooking rice and pork. As a bowl of bright red herby congealed pig’s blood was passed around, we put two and two together and realised that the source of the squealing was dinner being killed. I think this was quite a delicacy and people eagerly slurped spoonfuls before passing it on. I declined, but Luke took one for the team and tried some. He said it was a bit like licking a cut from your hand, or like ketchup with an aftertaste of iron. He has been reluctant to eat ketchup since! We both ate a little of the pork and rice as the dogs darted about our feet, hopeful for bones and titbits. After this second meal, we were instructed to huddle with the family as a man circled around us solemnly banging a gong. We were told that this would bring luck to everyone in the centre. I think we were quite fortunate to be part of it!
After eating, we sketched to pass the time, talked to the women of the family and played with the children. One girl, I will call her Anna, was just a little older than Lily and had a one year old daughter, who was merrily toddling about. Anna was kind hearted and very interesting to talk to. She had a naturally smiley and upbeat character, but there was a tinge of sadness in her manner. She, unlike Lily, was unable to read and write, something which no doubt pained her as she seemed like a very intelligent girl. She told us how an Australian lady had come and stayed for a few days the previous year. The child had apparently grown rather fond of her and the woman had offered to take her back to Australia to live and have a ‘better’ life. She had told them she would be returning in July to hear their decision. The family have decided not to let her go. Life is evidently hard here, but the children seem very happy, and to take a child away from the heart of a loving family is not a decision to be taken lightly. Obviously it was very tempting for them – they see foreigners all the time and are well aware that opportunities are greater abroad and in rejecting the offer they may feel they are closing a door for the child. However, simply having more money and increased opportunity does not mean your life will be happier if it also entails a shift in culture and separation from those you love. What memories would she have of the village and her family? How would she feel to know her family gave her up, albeit with the best of intentions? I am sure the lady would have done all she could to address these issues, and I am sure there are many children who have successfully made a similar transition, but it is always going to be a gamble. It is easy to feel complacent, to feel that we have the best way of life, but I try not to lose sight of the fact that there are other ways of living, other ways of finding happiness. The farmer nomad we met in Mongolia was a case in point. Some might see his life as lonely, hard, unrelenting, with few material possessions and little income. However, he was able to see for himself what life in cities of Russia and China was like and satisfied himself that the life he was living was that which made him happiest.
We had dinner with the whole family that evening, sat around a long table. At intervals we were offered shots of rice wine, a potent home brew. With a shout of ‘HAI!’, the drinks were downed and no sooner did we finish, then our cups were refilled. After a couple of rounds, we took to sipping so that we wouldn’t fall off our stools! I fetched my silver flute and played a few made up tunes. They had only seen bamboo flutes before, so the instrument was passed around and the men turned it over, looking at the mechanisms. The children were playing with paper that the Korean family had brought and Luke gave Lily’s children, Dinh and Su, a coloured pencil each and carved their names into the wood. An older girl of around 10 drew some cute pictures. Dinh really enjoyed scribbling and held her pencil very well. She would quietly observe the others before commencing her own work, and seemed like a bright little spark. In general, the children were all very loving towards each other. They would always be checking on the babies, kissing them and wanting to hold them. Dinh wanted to carry the two month old baby like the adults. He was duly strapped onto her back with a shawl and with a helping hand, she waddled off looking ever so proud of herself!
That night, we slept in a back room on a bed under a mosquito net. As there was not much lighting, the family all retired early, so we had a good night’s sleep. In the morning, Lily made spring rolls with rice paper, carrots, cabbage and egg. Dinh came running up to show me her outfit for the day, which was black with white hearts on it. I was touched that she seemed to like me! Her fringe was a little long and she would thoughtfully sweep her hair from her inquisitive dark brown eyes as she studied newcomers. She carried a little embroidered bag in which she kept a few small banknotes and a marble. Every now and then, she would take the marble out and drop it into my hand and then silently ask for it back. I remembered I had a tiny pottery good luck owl I had bought in Japan, which was around the same size as the marble. I fished it out of my camera bag and gave it to her. She looked at it curiously and inspected it, noticing there was a small hole in the base and seeming to wonder what it was for. I used the hole to stick the owl onto a twig of bamboo as a demonstration as to what it could be used for. She seemed pleased with this, and her auntie broke off the stick and gave it to her to hold. She trotted about for a bit waving the owl stick and stopping now and then to pull it off and put it back on again. Later on, after breakfast, Dinh regarded me quietly from a distance. Then, appearing to have made some sort of decision, she purposefully came over and cupped her little hand around my cheek and looked into my eyes. She took my big, pale, veiny hand and studied my fingers and fingernails, comparing them with hers, which were titchy in comparison and somewhat grubbier! I have to say I felt rather honoured; her eyes burned with such a quiet and wise intelligence, that it was hard to believe she was only three years old.
Not long after this little episode, and rather abruptly, we were leaving. We hiked with Lily a little way out of the village, where we passed a plantation of the indigo dye plant they use for their clothes, and stopped by a waterfall, which was not particularly powerful as it was the dry season. We headed into the Red Dzao village, although we didn’t see many people there. At the next village, we stopped at a café opposite the school and waited for Lily’s husband and his brother to arrive with motorbikes to take us the rest of the way back to Sapa. We hopped on behind, I with Lily and her husband and Luke on the brother’s bike. The ride back was fun, and we watched the scenery emerge and disappear from the rolling mist.
Back in Sapa, we paid Lily and gave her a tip, but then all her friends wanted us to buy from them! It was hard as we really didn’t want more stuff to carry. We eventually relented and bought one of the chequered headscarves as a present for much more than it was worth, but we didn’t feel annoyed as we had seen how much they needed the money.
In the village, I felt aware of a kind of conflict – it is wonderful for us to be able to meet these people and experience their way of life, to observe their traditions and take photos to share with family and friends. However, the people are really poor and rely increasingly on tourism to bring in much needed cash. With tourists comes a greater awareness of the world outside the tribal community; perhaps some would leave if they could, perhaps some are content to continue life as they know it and preserve their traditions. Still others may just wish all the tourists would go away and leave them alone! And what do we want as tourists? Can we be thinking what a pity it would be if all these quaint little villages were to be sucked into the whirlwind of modern life? If every house had a tiled floor, adequate plumbing and windows, would we feel cheated because it is no longer the authentic rustic experience we were seeking? Of course, the stark contrast with our own lives forms a great part of the attraction, but I feel uncomfortable that I relish these differences. Hopefully, opportunities in the village will improve in the coming years, more children will be able to go to high school and healthcare will become better and more affordable. I believe if people can be empowered through education and not held back by sickness or obstruction by the state, then they have the possibility to make decisions of their own free will. It is inevitable that traditions will erode with time, but this is a cultural evolution and the course it takes must lie with the people.
After lunch, we encountered another of Lily’s friends, ‘Buy from me too!’ We didn’t that day, but I felt bad! We had a lovely catch up with family over Skype that evening, before heading out for a late dinner of Vietnamese hotpot. It was very different to Chinese hotpot – not nearly as spicy as the Sichuan variety and with a delicate lemongrass flavour.
The next morning, we saw Lily’s friends again. Luke had taken to running off in mock horror when he spotted them, which made them laugh, but this time I succumbed and bought a copper bracelet. Anna was there and she thanked me for playing the flute for them. She had never seen a flute like it before and she told me the music would always stay in her heart. I had really warmed to Anna so her comments made me feel rather emotional!
That night over dinner, we got talking to a girl from the Wirral who had been teaching English at a charity school in Siem Reap, Cambodia. She had really enjoyed her time there, and the online reviews were fantastic, so we decided to write to the school to see if we could volunteer. The next morning, we received a very enthusiastic reply, and began to get excited at the prospect of doing something a little different after our Vietnam trip. We had to check out of the guesthouse in spite of an invitation to stay longer and attend the family’s new year party, as our next destination was to be Hanoi, where we were meeting up with one of Luke’s old school friends, Bruce and his friend, Ash. On our way to the bus station, we spotted Anna and her friends again, sheltering from the drizzle in the porch of a shop. They put on their wellington boots and walk from the village into Sapa every day, whatever the weather, and it certainly had been miserable when we were there. Lily was not there, but had given the girls a handful of friendship bracelets for us to give to our family, which was a lovely gesture. Feeling a little sad, we bid the girls goodbye and traipsed off into the damp mist. We never did see that spectacular Sapa view!