Amongst the Hmong
So, a lively smiling woman, was my guide for the two days that I spent trekking in the Sapa area . As we walked, I learned about her life as a member of the Hmong people, one of the minority groups living in this area of northern Vietnam. Talking to So was easy as she understands and speaks English extremely well. She has learnt the language, not by going to classes but by working in the tourist industry, first in a hotel and, more recently, as a trekking guide.
To become a licensed trekking guide the women (men seem to prefer farming to guiding) take a training course but much of their knowledge on ‘managing’ tourists is learnt through the company they work for and by being apprenticed to experienced guides. Sapa town is at about 1500 meters but nearby Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam (and in Indo-China), is over 3000 meters, and some valleys dip down to as low as 800 meters. Sitting at the extreme eastern edge of the Himalayas, this is true mountain country with steep gradients and fickle weather. Tourists who trek are reliant on the local knowledge and experience of their guide, who must take into account the age and overall fitness of the walkers, along with the weather and terrain conditions. A clear blue sky can swiftly change to thick fog and the tracks can become very slippery when wet. It is an unwise person who ignores the advice of their guide or, even worse, decides to trek without one.
The Hmong people, one of the last groups to come to Vietnam from southern China, arrived about 200 years ago. It is generally thought that they were originally from north-eastern China but migrated south. During the Qing Dynasty they were persecuted and moved further south into Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Here they settled in the mountainous areas as the more fertile plains were already occupied. They had to become farmers, as they could no longer rely on being hunter-gatherers.
Until it was prohibited in 1993, the Hmong cultivated opium, an important cash crop. As the area was near the Chinese border the French had a large garrison in Sapa and also a sanitorium in the healthy mountain air. In 1901 these three reasons persuaded the French administration they should build a railway from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the 384km taking 6 years to complete and claiming over 12,000 lives. The overnight train is still a favourite way to get to Sapa, but the new fast highway means the journey can now be done in 5 hours by bus.
Tourists (both national and international) bring much needed income to the Hmong but farming is what sustains them. The staple food is rice, grown on terraces and watered by irrigation from mountain streams as well as rainfall. The terraces look picturesque at all times of the year, but producing a crop on them is hard, labour-intense work.
While we walked up and down through farmland, So explained the process of growing rice. The terraces, carved out of the mountain slopes have been re-used every year for decades (although we did pass one series of newly carved terraces).
The land, owed by the family, must produce enough rice to last at least till the following year, as the climate will only produce one crop annually. Farming begins in late April and the harvest takes place in September or October. First a small seedbed is prepared and carefully leveled. The area is flooded and the pre-soaked seeds scattered. Once these have germinated the water is drained off to allow the roots to push down into the damp soil. When the seedlings are established the ground is again flooded. At this stage it is important to keep the water at the correct level so that the plants will grow but not dry out or be swamped. After about 20 days small bunches of seedlings are transplanted by hand onto the newly ploughed terraces.
Early May is a busy farming time as this is when the terraces are prepared. Some families have buffalo to plough their land, but these animals are expensive and have to be fed and cared for during the 10 months of the year that they do not work. Other families have hand-driven motorized ploughs. Those who cannot afford either of these options use a long handled hoe and work in mud up to their knees.
The walls of the terraces are repaired and pig and buffalo manure is carried from the homestead to be ploughed into the land. As the rice grows the narrow winding paddies are watered, weeded and fertilized by hand. Harvesting, with a sharp, curve sickle is backbreaking work. Threshing and winnowing is also done by hand. Once the rice is dry and bagged it is carefully stored in the loft of the family house. This is the food that will provide the family with their staple of three bowls of rice each day.
Corn is the other main crop, grown to eat when young, but mainly used dried, as food for the family’s buffalo, pigs, chickens and ducks. The crop is grown on steep, un-terraced slopes. As we walked we saw groups of men and women weeding their corn fields. Planting, weeding, harvesting and carrying baskets of cobs need strength and endurance. Each household also tends a garden, growing vegetables and herbs. Ducks and chickens, scrabbling for food under fruit trees, are kept for meat and eggs. During the growing season the pigs and buffalo are fed in their stalls, roaming free to forage for food only when the harvest is over.
Each household has a patch growing hemp and indigo. The tradition of making hemp thread and weaving it into cloth is a job undertaken by Hmong women. A young girl learns the skills from older women in her family. This video clip shows the process of making hemp cloth. Listen to the lilt of the Hmong language as you watch it. Indigo produces the traditional dark blue colour of the hemp but a range of hues can be produced by using natural or chemical dyes.
Finally, the women make four metres of decorated and pleated cloth into skirts, and jackets and belts are assembled. Many of the garments are now made from cotton cloth, while the hemp fabric is kept for the outer garments worn by both men and women.
These three Hmong women are attired in jackets they have embroidered themselves. The various Hmong clans can be distinguished by their clothes. These women are from the Black Hmong group.
The Hmong are not big people but they are strong. Walking with So, I puffed up the steep slopes but she strode on in her plastic sandals, carrying a heavy basket on her back. Walking has been the traditional way for the Hmong to travel. When I asked So how far she was from where her mother lived she gave the distance as the time it would take (her) to walk. Now most families have a motorbike but they still walk long distances from an early age. Children will walk for over an hour to get to school.
The responsibility of house building falls to the men. The houses are made from wood, without nails, the floors are mud and the roof traditionally bark or rice straw but now usually molded sheets. Part of the house has a loft area for storing grain. Cooking is done over an open fire set on the floor. As there is no chimney, everything in the house takes on the smell of smoke, although the house does not seem smoky, as the fire is made hot for cooking and then quenched to glowing embers.
What the family doesn’t produce must be bought in the market. Working as guides, the women bring in money to buy a few extras to make their diet more varied. Women who do not do guiding eke out a living by selling cloth and hand-made clothes in the local markets and in Sapa town.
The mountain climate is harsh, with the winter months cold, damp and misty. Occasionally there is snow. A couple of winters back the snow lay thick for over two weeks. This killed many buffalo, bamboo forests and trees.
The life of these mountainous people is hard but they are a proud, independent people who continue with their traditional ways producing their food, building their own houses and making their own clothes. They also live and marry mostly within their own group and, although many now speak Vietnamese, they always converse with each other in Hmong. In the past the Hmong have isolated themselves from the majority Viet people as well as from other minority groups. In this way their traditions and culture have remained strong. Whether much of this will change now that the children attend school, most houses have electricity to operate a TV and it costs only $15 to get to Hanoi remains to be seen.