On the train slowly dragging towards the northern parts of Vietnam I had a lot of time contemplating my reasons for traveling on this tourist train. Why bother? Packed with asian and western tourists, I would not be alone. I would not be the only one there seeking «the authentic» experience of northern Vietnam.
As an archaeologist I always ask myself if the present can tell us something about the past. Historically we do not know much about this remote valley, the first inhabitants left some hundred petroglyphs and these dates back to the 15th century. After this, the ethnic groups Hmong and Yao(Dao) emigrated from China and inhabited the valley. In the 1880s the French, started a pacification of the northern areas and they choose Sa Pa town as their military base. The comfortable climate in the north was believed to have health benefits and military came for R´n´R and missionaries came to build churches and spread the word of the bible. This region so close to China allured me to explore and the hassle of tourist traps and cheap souvenirs quieted the critical voices a bit.
On stepping out of the train early the morning after, a wet wail of air hit my face. The hastening begun, «ride to here, taxi there». After a couple of weeks in Vietnam you strap on a strict face and carry on. The ride from the lower city to the mountainous Sa Pa town took me up a winding snake of a road, placed on the edge of a beginning mountain. Thin and overcrowded with motorbikes, cars and big lorries this road was an disaster in the waiting and I clinched my hands on the back of the seat in front of me. It went well, as the Vietnamese has and organic way of driving, it is like a stream of fish. A synergy.
My guide Ling was waiting for me when I arrived. She was of the Hmong tribe and worked trough the organization Sa Pa Sisters. They are the only all women, Hmong owned business in Sa Pa. Here they work as guides and earn a fair wages. When I asked Ling what she would be doing if she did not have Sa Pa Sisters she replied; «See these women on the corner there, watching you closely? They want to help you trough the trekking, they will behave, but will try to sell you souvenirs when we eat lunch. I would probably still do that if did not have the sisters».
Ling explained, as we started walking, that the women of the Hmong was the bread winner. They were responsible for bringing in the money and the men worked in the rice fields and made some metal work during off season. It gets cold in the winter here, and the rice will not grow. «The men has a lot of free time in winter and the rice wine flows in many houses».
I told Ling that I wanted her to take me to places where I was the only blond and show me the real life of the vast and beautiful valley. She did not need to think, she knows the paths in the steep hills. The valley is today a patchwork of different ethnic groups. Nobody knows exactly how many. But some of these are Hmong (black and red), Yao(Dao), Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tay. All these minorities have different languages, clothing and customs. Most of these groups believe in a form off shamanism, but the group has different customs in regards to this as well. They are neighbors, but it seems that the rough, steep terrain and firm beliefs has kept them from mixing the different groups. «We marry inside our group, it is not good to marry outside», Ling told me when I asked her.
One of the things they have in common is the bad relationship with the Vietnamese government. They have some access to medical assistance, set up by the government, but this are only for the families that have two children, not more. If you give birth to a third child, both you and the child will not be given medical assistance. «It is better today, we can go to the doctor and get birth control».
The main sources of income in the valley are the tourists and rice. The minority groups have a long tradition with making their own unique garments from hemp. This is a long process. Some still take pride in making these clothes. They grow the hemp, and the flowers used for coloring, in the valley. Some clothes are for everyday use and some for festivities. «This purple I have on is for everyday, but I am making one for a wedding now». She drags of pieces of hemp from the stem and makes rough treads between her fingers as we walk. A lot of the garments sold to tourists are not made like Ling does, it is cheep knock offs imported from China.
We walked by a house with an open door, chanting came out and I could see smoke rising from a fire inside. «This is a house that has a visit from a shaman. You can see by the stick with the green leafs in the yard». This black Hmong family was mourning a death. The shaman can be a woman or a man. You can call on the shaman for a lot of different rituals. Big and small. The shaman uses traditional medicine and can be called if you have not been feeling as yourself lately and need help getting back in touch with yourself. Or just for a headache. The shaman comes to your house on a specific day. In their variety of shamanism they believe in reincarnation. How you live does not effect what form you are reborn in. This can be everything from grasshopper to human being.
The three women following and sometimes leading us on our trek did not make a fuzz, as Ling had told me. They did not even laugh when I fell in to a rice paddy after stepping on some slippery mud. The older one, maybe in her late 50s just smiled and dragged me up. Ling told me after that she was complaining that my nice sneakers would now be ruined by the orange mud covering most of the hillside.
After a bit of hassle by the same ladies at lunch time, we carried on to Ling´s house. The houses where a Black Hmong family lives is put together by wood planks. Drafty, with dirt floors. The fireplace directly on the floor. It had three separated rooms. One bedroom and two living rooms. The women of the Hmong tribe moves in with their husband´s family and the father and mother in law stays with them there. The second living room was for the grandmother in law, in this case a 102 year old blind woman that did not have the capacity to go outside anymore. The condition of the houses seemed to be alike all through the valley, despite the low temperatures and snow in the winter.
The complexity of the groups living here is fascinating. The tourists coming in are giving the area a big influx of new capital and wealth to the groups that lived of the land only a few years ago. The development of big hotels that will dominate the valley has begun already and the evolution of the place will be interesting to follow.