Hmong Family Life
I spent two days with my Hmong guide, So, and her family. We walked the mountain trails around Sapa, meeting family members on the way, we visited the grandparent’s home and I stayed a night at her house where I met her husband and children. Everyone was welcoming and, although I only shared a common language with So, I felt very much part of the family.
Before we set off on our trek So went to the market where she bought vegetables and chicken for lunch. She packed these into a basket, which she carried on her back. We walked for a couple of hours, on the way meeting Mai, her husband, who was gathering cabbage leaves to make into pig fodder. He took the basket and said he would deliver it to his grandparent’s house and warn them we would be coming for lunch.
We arrived at noon. The grandparents were both in their very late 80s and lived in the house that had been in the family for four generations. So and her husband had stayed with them until six years ago when they had built their own house. As the elderly couple are no longer able to farm (although they do have a vegetable garden which provided some of the vegetables for lunch) either So or her husband go each day and to cook and spend time with them.
Grandmother soon got the fire back to life. From years of cooking the beams above were covered with thick black tar. The house was large with one door opening into the main room where the couple lived and slept.
At the other end the kitchen was well set out, simple and practical. There was a table to stand pots and pans, a frame hanging on the wall for the clean bowls, cups and chopsticks; numerous baskets and plastic containers of various sizes were scattered around. Part of the floor was raised on slatted planks and a pipe brought in stream water both day and night. There are numerous small streams that flow down the mountainous slopes. Some of this water comes from ‘occult’ precipitation – during the many misty days water droplets collect on the vegetation and fall onto the ground where they form rivulets that flow down the slopes.
As So prepared, and very carefully washed, the vegetables she put aside the stalks and tough leaves to take to feed the pigs. While waiting to eat, grandfather pottered in the garden cutting sticks to stake his tomatoes. The vegetables and meat were quickly cooked (Mai had cooked the rice when he had visited earlier) so it was not long before we sat on tiny stools around a low table to enjoy lunch. What was left after we had eaten was covered and put aside for the elderly couple to enjoy in the evening.
After lunch, we continued our walk, heading towards So’s family home. She showed my one area of land that was theirs but had been loaned to Mai’s brother and his new wife so they could plant their rice crop. On the way we stopped to chat with a sister in law. She was on the back of her husband’s motorbike and the face of a young child peeped out between them.
As we arrived at So’s house, as her two youngest children came home. Six year old La and four year old King had been out tending the family goats but, being young, had got bored and left it to an uncle to bring the animals back. The family’s eldest daughter, Tung, was at home. When I arrived we sat together and read English words on a set of cards and looked at a couple of books, which had recently been given to the children by an Australian visitor.
While I watched families of ducklings and chickens scratching in the orchard and went to talk to the black pigs lazing in their stalls, So took a stool around the side of the house and had a quick catch-up with her sister in law who was also sitting outside her house just up the hill. Then it was time for sewing, something all the ladies of the household enjoyed. So was embroidering sleeves for an outfit she was making for her sister’s wedding, Tung was doing her own piece using bright green silk on a fine black canvas. Little La was not to be outdone and, helped by her sister, put stitches in a pre-used piece of canvas.
So told me that she makes about six outfits a year, one for each of the family and two for herself. The hemp grown one year will be used as cloth the following year. The women spin the thread as they walk, wrapping it around their waist and twisting it onto a hand. We had met one of So’s aunts (on her mother’s side) doing just that, as she walked through the rice fields. Most of the embroidery and sewing is done in the winter months but now that the family has electricity So can stitch at night by the light of a single, but powerful, globe. She does have a sewing machine to assemble the clothes but it was loaned to her sister in law and she would get it back when she needed it.
So used every opportunity to sew her sister’s wedding outfit, as the event will take place in June. While her needle went in and out, and she paused to rapidly count stitches, she told me about her own life before she married. There were six in the family, three girls and three boys. Her father had been orphaned as a child so, unusually, had gone to live within his wife’s family. None of the children had gone to school but a teacher had come to the house to give the lessons to the boys, but not to the girls, as it was not considered important for girls to have schooling. What girls needed to know they would learn from their mothers and then they would marry. So had met her husband at the annual ‘love market’ and had married at the age of 18. One sister was also married and lived nearby but the eldest sister’s life had taken a different path. At the age of 15 she was adopted by a Spanish couple, spent three years at school in Hanoi and had then went to Spain to university. She was coming back home with her Spanish fiancé to get married. There would be a day of celebration at their mother’s village and, the following day, a party at a Sapa hotel. About 90 people were coming from Spain for the event so there was great excitement and preparations.
I did meet one of So’s brothers as he popped in to get some ash to treat hemp fabric. A bowl and chopsticks were immediately put on the table and he shared the family supper. His visit was an excuse to bring out a bottle of herb-laced spirit and some small cups. I was told it was health giving as well as tasty and enjoyed a cup while the men each had three. The drink had been bought for a recent shaman ceremony.
When I arrived the main wooden doors of the house were shut and So explained that they had been kept closed since the shaman ceremony three days before, but would be opened that evening. Outside, leafy branches hung from the roof. It was difficult for me to understand why the shaman had come to do a ceremony but it was something to do with the spirit of Mai’s father. It had been a two-day event and a pig had been killed to feed the participants.
Once an animal is killed most of the meat is cooked immediately. Some will be kept in water for a couple of days and some will be smoked, hung in the rafters above the fire, or dried. So prepared the last of the meat as a breakfast treat. She rolled small pieces in lime leaves picked from the garden, pushed them onto a skewer and cooked them quickly over a hot fire. The pieces of succulent meat were delicious. The main method of preparing all food is quick frying over an open fire on the floor, using a pan or wok and homemade pork lard.
So and her husband share the household tasks as she is often out all day guiding and they have many trekking guests staying overnight. Mai had prepared the filling for the spring rolls we ate for supper and had also cooked the rice. In the morning he set to chopping up greens to make food for the pigs. It was Mai who put the young children to bed while So stitched. He also does some of the shopping and looks after the children, especially little King who clearly adored his father. If So is guiding she is not there to help him with the farming and bringing in firewood.
The children were independent and used to looking after themselves. Ten year old Trung, was fully involved in cooking, keeping the fire going, putting spring rolls into the hot fat and stirring the cornmeal porridge to feed the livestock. She also laid and cleared the table and did the laundry. During the week she is at school, going on Monday and returning on Friday. She clearly preferred being at home and enjoyed the home cooked food.
The house was large enough for a room for me, with a comfortable bed and mosquito net, a bedroom for the children and one for the parents. Although the family cooked in the main room there was also a separate kitchen with a stove, which they used in winter, and a stand supporting a metal basin used to dye the hemp cloth. The bathroom was connected to the kitchen and there was a squat toilet outside. The house was clean, airy and cool.
It was very enjoyable to stay in a household where the sense was that everyone was part of an extended family and had a part to play. I remarked to So on the way so much seemed to be shared – land, rice for seed or food if a member of the family needed it, caring for the animals and use of the sewing machine – and she replied that sharing was an important part of their culture. Although their lives are busy and labour intensive, there is a sense of enjoyment and pride in being able to produce so much of what the family needs. The children have tasks from an early age but they do them willingly. There was much laughter and joking in the home, little King usually being in the midst of it. I did not feel I was an intruder into their lives, but more just a welcome part of it.
In many ways the children are growing up much as their parents did but there are major differences. Both girls attend school and will learn to read and write, first in Vietnamese and then in English. Little King was the proud owner of a very stylish battery operated motorbike. Electricity had recently been installed in the house and a TV stood in the corner, while numerous mobile phones were plugged in to charge. So had recently gone with her daughter to Hanoi to apply for a visa for the young girl to go to the family in Spain. All these events could mean that the lives of the children will be rather different to those of their parents. So has already broken the Hmong tradition of the women working within the house and on the land. She is the one who earns money and has a bank account where her salary is paid.