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Day 125 – Our Blessed Deprived (One Tough Vietnamese Lady)

July 6, 2010

Dateline: Sapa, Vietnam – Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Our Black Hmong guide, Sihn, is 19. She speaks three languages: her native Hmong tongue (it rhymes!), Vietnamese, and English. She’s married. Her husband works the fields and tends livestock. He often goes into the mountains to collect wood to build a new home. Collecting all the necessary wood will take 5 years.

Sihn’s a tough girl. I know this because she’s pregnant. Seven months pregnant. Pregnancy alone exhibits a certain amount of toughness (holla, ladies!), but Sihn’s taken pregnancy toughness to another level. She’s been carrying her little bundle while leading us through 17 km of this valley.

I noticed the baby bump yesterday, but didn’t ask. In my experience, there’s little upside to asking a woman whether she’s pregnant. If she is, you’ve only noticed the obvious. If she isn’t, you’d have been better off putting your head up a beehive, then shoving it up your own behind. In the end, one of the girls asked how far along she was and confirmed my suspicion.

Sihn’s not the only tough girl here. A lot of the ladies that have been following us around the trails have been carrying baskets full of handicrafts to sell. Some have been toting around their kids on their backs. They’ve been covering the same terrain we have in plastic flip-flops and full traditional dress, making us foreigners feel kind of silly in our boots and shoes with tread.

They’ve been following us around ready to lend a hand over the tricky parts of the trail, chatting, and generally preparing us for a hard sell on souvenirs. As Jenny discovered yesterday, buying one item from every kid or woman that’s been following you around doesn’t inoculate you from further harassment. In fact, it just proves you’re willing to buy. These ladies and young girls don’t take no for an answer.

Everywhere you turn, people are working hard. Walking through the hills, we came across young boys tending to water buffalo. Young girls hauling bundles of sticks in baskets on their backs. Men heading into the mountains to spend a week cutting down trees for fuel and building. Old women dragging building logs down from the hills.

Nothing here comes easy. Kids pitch in where they can. A lot of times it’s manual labor. All of it is necessary. Child labor laws mean less than Farsi here. The ethnic minorities here are poor. Hard work means survival.

Their hard work poverty is part of what makes this area so beautiful. The mountains are dramatic and the wildlife is amazing, but what caps it are the terraced fields (rice, corn, or otherwise) and the little villages all along the river. Those don’t exist without backbreaking labor.

The people and their way of life also add the little touches that make the land around these rivers and mountains special. It’s the kids swimming in the river or chasing water buffalo up and down the hills. It’s the baby being lugged around in a tied up blanket on mom’s back instead of a high tech baby backpack. It’s the fact that they still hand make all their ornate traditional clothes instead of buying them on the cheap from Wal-Mart.

It leaves me torn. I want people to have better lives. At the same time, I still want to be able to walk past terraced rice fields and through quiet riverside villages like the ones here in Sapa. I don’t begrudge people their satellite TV dishes (a few already present on the village houses). People should have better healthcare, nicer homes, and less manual labor. But it also feels like it could disturb some of the magic of the place.

It’s easy, of course, to romanticize being poor when you already have more than you need. If “backbreaking work” and “poverty” are endemic to a particular way of life, perhaps that way of life shouldn’t be preserved. Especially if it’s just for the sake of a bunch of foreign visitors.

What’s interesting is that most of the Black Hmong and Red Dzao people who are preserving the old ways (the elaborate clothes, baskets, etc.) seem to be women. They, by far, make up most of the people in traditional dress. Even then, it doesn’t seem like they’re always in their tribal best. Last night while cooking, Sihn shed her traditional outfit in favor of a t-shirt and shorts because it made it easier to cook.

Perhaps that’s the way to have the valley and develop it, too. Preserve the arts of terracing fields, carving wood, making handicrafts. Restrict building by the river. Have people who are interested in keeping traditions alive work at doing so. Then, shed all that and live up in town in nice modern houses with high-speed Internet connections, good doctors, motorbikes, and potable water.

Regardless, I hope that it’s the ethnic minorities that control how their culture and land changes. If they decide it’s best for them to stop all the backbreaking labor necessary to terrace these mountains and irrigate these fields, then good for them. The foreigners can find their dose of paradise elsewhere.

For now I’ll admire their toughness and the land that they’ve helped create. I’ll admire their ability to survive, their tenacity, even if it means being harassed tenaciously by a Red Dzao girl for three miles pestering you for “helping” the Black Hmong people but unfairly not buying from her. Takes a certain kind of will to do that.

Also, I’ll be a bit suspicious of pregnant women who, at four months, can’t be bothered to get up and answer the phone. Really. . .Seven months pregnant, hiking 17 km in cheap plastic sandals, and afterwards getting in the kitchen to cook a meal. Least you could do is hit the Stairmaster and maintain an acceptable level of aerobic fitness. Just because you’re pregnant, doesn’t mean you have to be fat. (Just kidding, ladies. You know I love you.)

GALLERY: Click through to today’s pictures to see more Black Hmong, people resting in a waterfall, a group picture of the motley hiking crew (sans souvenir entourage) and pictures of the view from Mervyn’s new hotel room.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. sally permalink
    July 13, 2010 10:16 am

    How long did you debate over whether or not to write that last paragraph?

    • July 15, 2010 9:11 am

      You know me too well. I debated a bit, then realized I was laughing all through the debate. That’s when I posted it. 🙂

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