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A Corner of Vietnam
Modern world creeps up on remote mountain villages
Copyright © The Star Ledger 2001

August 2001 (Travel Section Cover Story)


SAPA, Vietnam--The rain was coming down hard, as it tends to during monsoon season in Vietnam.

It had flooded the stone path I was following to the Tafin Village of Red Dao and Black Hmong people by the country's northern border with China. I paused, trying to decipher what was stone and what was mud before taking my next step. Somehow, I tended to guess wrong more often than not and, as a result, my hiking boots and socks were drenched and brown.

As I stood in contemplation of my next step (or, more likely, misstep) I felt fingers gently wrap themselves around mine. I looked down and saw a brown hand with fingertips stained by indigo, the color Red Dao people dye their garb. I looked up and saw the hand belonged to a small-framed woman whose head was covered in the traditional red kerchief that identifies the tribe's women.

Some of the hill tribe members I had encountered along the way had held umbrellas or worn ponchos, two of the few modern incursions into an existence otherwise devoid of conveniences such as running water or electricity. The woman who held my hand had only her red headdress - and a pair of plastic sandals - to fend off rain.

We didn't speak the same language, so we communicated with hand gestures. She pointed out a stone for me to step on. Somehow, despite her help, I stepped on a mound of mud and felt my shoe sink once again. The woman contained a laugh and then, step by step, led me across the path, never letting go of my hand. The maternal instinct is universal.

We caught up to my husband, Brent, and guide, Hoang (pronounced: Ang), and waited out the rain under the shelter of an aluminum roof, a rarity in a village where most roofs are thatched. As a token of my appreciation, I gave my newfound friend my spare yellow poncho. I rationalized that I wasn't exposing her to any form of modernity that hadn't already filtered into the tribe. The woman was so excited by my gift that she grabbed my hand and held it tightly, leading me even after the rain had stopped.

Such personal encounters with members of various mountain tribes are the highlights in Sapa and the surrounding region. But there's no telling how much longer unadulterated encounters will last, as the tribes are exposed to tchotchke-loving tourists. Already, the Sapa Love Market, a Saturday night ritual in which Red Dao girls sing love songs from the shadows of a market to attract suitors, has become overrun by tourists. Villagers are too distracted selling souvenirs. Hoang says it is only a matter of time before hill tribe members ask us if we'd like to see their Web sites. Although still mostly unknown to Americans, Sapa is a favorite destination for French travelers to North Vietnam. It's no surprise, as the Victoria Hotel, the prime resort in the area, is run by French people.

The Victoria Hotel is an anomaly sitting in the midst of mountains lined with terraced fields. Its indoor heated swimming pool is a virtually unheard of luxury in North Vietnam and it stands in stark contrast to the dark unfurnished wooden homes inhabited by tribe members just down the road.

To get to Sapa, we took a sleeper train for a 10-hour journey from Hanoi. When we first entered the train station, I considered turning back. Vietnamese families crowded the waiting room, squatting where there were no chairs, in the manner we saw done all across the country. It wasn't the crowd that bothered me, it was the sight of the trains: old, decrepit, packed, and looking unsanitary. I figured we wouldn't get much sleep. But then Hoang walked us past the cars stuffed with Vietnamese to a fancy sleeper car solely for Victoria Hotel guests. Hoang set Brent and me in our cabin and said goodbye until morning. Even though he was our guide, he was relegated to a noisy filthy train.

After eating in the dining car, we retired to the cabin we shared with a French couple. We awoke as the train pulled into Sapa. Victoria Hotel workers wearing embroidered vests and holding placards bearing the logo were roaming around the station in Hanoi and Sapa to lead tourists in the right direction. The hotel provided bus service from the Sapa train station but for some unknown reason, Hoang had us wait for him in the muggy station for two hours, until his train arrived.

We piled into an old Russian army jeep and started making our way up the windy 30 kilometers of mountain road leading from Lao Cai to Sapa. All around us were lush green mountains with terraced slopes on which the tribes grow rice. Cows grazed on the sides of the cliffs. As the jeep climbed higher and higher, herds of water buffalo steered by children passed by. We could see hill tribe members who had collected piles of firewood zipping down the mountain on home-made wooden contraptions resembling those you use on alpine slides. We noticed a stick served as the break control.

It didn't take long to realize the tribes may not embrace modernity but they're not averse to any invention that saves them from the arduous climbs up and down the mountains. Occasionally, we saw tribe people hitching rides on motorcycles of their modern Vietnamese neighbors.

As we neared the hotel, we pulled out sweatshirts. Sapa is about 20 degrees cooler than the lower lying regions. In August, that is a blessing. I was impressed by how fancy the Victoria Hotel is considering its remote location. Its spacious rooms contain terraces overlooking mountaintops engulfed in thick clouds. The tallest peak in the country, Fansipan Mountain, is nearby. Although we lucked out weather-wise during most of our stay, when it rained we ducked into the sunroom library where tourists have left behind books in German, French, and Hebrew. We considered spoiling ourselves with massages and, for me, a facial and manicure (all available for $2-$10).

We came for adventure, not a makeover, so we spent most days exploring. We walked to the nearby Catcat village of the Hmong people. Hoses suspended on bamboo poles directed water from the mountain to the village, a new innovation according to our guide. We walked by rice fields where I was amazed to see only women at work hoe in hand, baby on back slung in a basket. Hoang told us it is mandatory for young villagers to study Vietnamese but, once they go to study in Hanoi, few return. Hoang struck up a conversation with a family in Hmong dialect and they invited us into their home. Each tribe's homes are different. The Catcat live in sparse wood structures with dirt floors and dark interiors because there is no electricity. Like most tribe members, this young couple defied the country's two child limit. Considering most Vietnamese people we encountered in Hanoi did not own cameras, we were surprised to see a picture frame with photos of the family hanging on the wall. It was the only decoration. Like the Vietnamese we saw visiting Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum in Hanoi, the tribe members, subsistence farmers who rank poorest in the country, pay photographers for snapshots.

When we returned to the hotel, I was greeted by Moo and Yin, curious 8 and 14 year old Dao sisters. The girls are among a select few tribe members allowed to sell traditional garb in the hotel lobby. I was taken aback when they addressed me in English, asking my name, how many brothers and sisters I have, and what my relation was to the man traveling with me. I asked where they had picked up English and they told me they learned it from Chinese tourists. Of course. I should have guessed.

The adult tribe members do not have a grasp on English except to utter the phrase even infants seem to know, "You buy from me?" Moo and Yin were constantly creating a warbly noise by putting their mouths to small musical instruments resembling tweezers. I bought two for my nieces but saved my always welcomed American dollars for the Bac Ha market, the highlight of our visit.

Our entire visit to Sapa was timed so we could make it to the Sunday morning market. We piled into a rented jeep early in the morning for the bumpy, windy, three hour journey to Bac Ha. On the way, we passed tribe members walking with items they intended to sell piled in baskets on their backs. Hundreds of Black Hmong, Flower Hmong, Dao, Tay, Thai, and Nung people mingled at the market with modern Vietnamese.

The Flower Hmong women stood out, with their neon pink or green plaid headdresses, woven from fabrics manufactured in China. It fascinated me to see how they incorporate modern textiles into their traditional garments. The women wore large hoop earrings that stretch the hole in their ear, a symbol of virtue. Many Buddha statues we saw in Vietnam had similarly stretched earlobes. Under their wide bright colored skirts, I could see what looked like indigo legwarmers.

We walked through the crowded market, stopping to watch Flower Hmong women squatting on the floor selling red hot chili peppers or carrying a recently purchased live chicken under their arm like a parcel. We passed a corner where men held leashed dogs for sale as dinner fare.

Hoang told us Vietnames eat anything in the sky except an airplane or pilot and anything with four legs except a table. He told us he once ordered "flying shrimp," which turned out to be a "crunchy but not meaty" fried grasshopper. Not being particularly adventurous eaters, we stuck mostly to the hotel restaurant.

But if there was one thing I craved as much as the Flower Hmong, it was a frozen treat. I was amazed by how many tribe members used the little money they have to buy ice cream bars. I bought colorful embroidered pillowcases and shoulder bags from the Flower Hmong women for only a handful of American dollars. They use the money to purchase items from stands run by modern Vietnamese.

Except to sell us items, the Flower Hmong largely ignored us. They were busily engaged in trade. They barely raised an eyebrow as we walked past women sitting on child-sized stools eating pig parts and men squatting beside foot-long bongs, testing tobacco before purchase.

Outside the market, we were gawked at as Brent's 6-feet-2-inch frame towered over every non-tourist we encountered and my fair skin led some to giggle and whisper, "Bach Tuyet" (Snow White) as I passed by. In the market, as elsewhere, modern Vietnamese and tribe children ran past us shouting, "Hello."

Some asked where we come from. We answered, "America."

I did not think they had any concept of where that is, considering the farthest reach of their world is Lao Cai, the town with the train station.

But when you answered U.S.A. or France or China, they knew what language to ask you, "You buy from me?" Like the maternal instinct of my Tafin Village friend, the capitalistic instinct seems to be universal.


Getting there: Getting to Hanoi requires making a few stops, especially as no U.S. carriers fly into Vietnam. Connections can be made through most Asian ports via such carriers as Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Vietnam Air.

Information: Contact the Embassy of Vietnam, 1233 20th St., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 861-0737; (