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.
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.