During a motorcycle ride to a nearby Red Dao village, N’s driver tried to sell her on using him and his buddy for another adventure into the hills. When she tried to explain to him that we wanted to do a trekking tour, he laughed and asked her, “Why walk when you can just drive there?” Good question.
Well mostly because it’s easier to take in the views at a snail’s pace (which is us going up mountains) than on the back of a motorcycle that is careening around the mountains while simultaneously trying to bypass fast-moving cars and semis. The way these Vietnamese drive, it’s a wonder they manage to stay on the road at all sometimes.
So we signed up for a private trek with Sapa O’Chau, a tour organization founded by a Hmong woman, Shu Tan. Part of the cost of the tour goes towards the schooling of Hmong children to give them better opportunities through future employment. Attendance at the Sapa O’Chau school also includes food and lodging for the children. Our guide was a 20-year young Hmong girl who didn’t attend the school but did take English classes at the school. She was going to lead us to her home in Lao Chai, a big Black Hmong village about 10km from Sapa. Not long into the start of our hike through the town to Sapa, two Hmong women sidled up next to us to chat us up. “What your name?”
By this time, we were used to the Hmong women following tourists around town pretty assertively. “You buy something from me?” A no thank you will be quickly countered with a gentle, “Yes thank you.” And telling them that you already bought a lot of things will be answered with, “But not from me.” Surprisingly, the women are civil and friendly to each other even though they all crowd around selling the exact same things: little bags, zippered purses, pillowcases, bracelets, charms. “You buy something small from each of us and make us happy.” It’s a proposal we would consider if not for the dozens of other women who will ask you to do the same thing a minute later. And they’re all so damn nice, which makes it hard to say no. The Hmong learn their English from talking to tourists, and it’s pretty damn impressive. They speak way better English than the Vietnamese vendors we’ve interacted with over the past two months.
We didn’t mind buying from these two women, and they didn’t seem to mind walking all the way to Lao Chai with us. My lady (I say this because she chatted me up first) was cheerful and talkative, while N’s lady was quiet and wove hemp strands into string as she walked. I don’t understand this multitasking business, because our eyes were permanently glued to the uneven pathways as we walked and half-stumbled along. Oh, and I forgot to mention that they wear plastic sandals on these walks.
“You have a boyfriend?” I told Gom that I didn’t have a boyfriend, and she reassured me — a pathetic spinster in her eyes — that being single was good because I had the chance to do anything I wanted. She told us about how she recently married a guy who was a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s. She told us about a Hmong custom where a boy will ask a girl he is interested in to come live in his house for four days. She is expected to go, and she spends time with him and his family to see if she would be happy there as his wife. At the end of the four days, the girl decides if she wants to marry the boy. This is what happened with Gom, and while she wasn’t crazy about her husband, he was nice enough so it was OK. She turned her attention to us. “Everyone thinks you two look like boys,” she giggled. I told her that it happens a lot, and left her to wonder why.
When I fell and lightly scraped my knee early on during a descent into the valley, the women concluded that I was clumsy and incapable of walking by myself. From then on, my lady insisted on holding my hand through every descent as if I was a child. It was hot, and we were dripping sweat by the time we reached a shady rest area, which looks like it was set up specifically for tourists. Little girls surrounded us holding out bracelets. “You buy from me?” “You buy something from me?” We watched as another sweaty group of tourists made their way to the tent next to ours to sit and rest. N’s lady quietly sat next to me busying herself with her hemp string making.
After guzzling water, we picked our way up a dirt path and we started to see the rice terraces. Our ladies picked ferns and started to make little presents for us out of them. “From my heart to you,” said my lady as she held out a heart-shaped fern to me. Seriously, this woman knows how to treat a girl, and I thought about how N could learn a few things as my lady again paused to deftly make a horse out of a single fern plant.
We stopped again at another covered rest area and surveyed the valley of rice terraces below us. It takes centuries to properly carve a functional rice terrace, and it’s hard to imagine just how much time and planning must go into these things. When it’s time for the rice harvest, different families and even different tribes help each other in the fields. Gom explained that neighbors help neighbors struggling to feed themselves, and there is no monetary compensation expected. In fact, most people in these villages have very little in the way of actual cash.
As we descended towards Lao Chai, we spotted a small cafe with a “Cold Drinks” sign hanging outside, and we gladly stopped in for some water. The other tour group was there — just as sweaty as us — and we all sat around drinking water as the ladies chatted in Hmong. As the other group left on the next part of their hike, Gom turned to us and informed us that the two Thai men in the group were married to each other. It was a conversation that would’ve been uncomfortable and awkward for all parties involved, so we again left her to wonder why we weren’t scandalized by the discovery. How do you explain your gay reality to a girl who lives in a world where gender roles and responsibilities are so strictly enforced that telling her about ourselves would only end up utterly confusing her?
We kept walking on a path overlooking rice terraces beautifully carved along the hills and valleys. When we passed a restaurant filled with tourists, we were relieved that we had opted to have lunch at Gom’s house instead of here, where the food would undoubtedly be crappy. This was also where our ladies announced that they would be leaving us, and we stopped and looked through their bag of goodies before opting for a handwoven and indigo-dyed cushion cover (from my lady), and a nice tote-style bag (from N’s lady). More women flocked to us to watch the transaction and then offered us their wares after we said goodbye to our ladies.
Gom led us to her parents’ house which her brother and his wife now live in. It was a rather spacious wooden house perched on top of a small slope and was built by her father. They had just gotten electricity two years ago, and the only electric items they had in their home were a few lightbulbs and a television. That afternoon, Gom’s brother was out fishing so it was Gom, her younger sister and her sister-in-law who put us in front of their TV and got to work cooking.
We watched music videos of a popular Vietnamese singer woo, cheat on, slap and beg women for forgiveness as Gom started a fire, chopped vegetables and sauteed a few dishes (with of course, a generous sprinkling of MSG). Gom’s sister assembled a table and the three of us sat down for a meal of salted pork (from a pig they had slaughtered a couple of days before) with vegetables, a refreshing soup with greens, boiled string beans, scrambled eggs and rice. We were famished from our walk and food never tasted so good. We talked about life, marriage, jobs and the discrimination Hmong people still face by the Vietnamese.
After lunch, we made our way to Ta Vin, a Zay village near Lao Chai. Our trek was coming to an end, and two Red Dao women sidled up to us to introduce themselves. “You buy something from me? I asked her what she had and we stopped to look through their baskets. We bought charms and bracelets from them and dragged ourselves up a hill to where our car was waiting to take us back to Sapa.
Going back to the motorcycle driver’s question, a trek through the hills gives you a whole new perspective on life that a motorcycle ride wouldn’t ever be able to provide. While my world and Gom’s are so culturally different that they’re probably incompatible, I was glad to have had an opportunity to get a small glimpse into every day life in her beautiful village, and to learn so much about the customs and traditions of Hmong culture. Maybe next time, like the Thai men, I’ll be a little more honest and tell Gom a little bit about mine.
To learn more about Sapa O’Chau and their amazing tours, check our their website here.