A Corner of Vietnam
Modern world creeps
up on remote mountain villages
Copyright © The Star Ledger 2001
August 2001 (Travel Section Cover Story)
BY LERON KORNREICH
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
Some asked where we come from. We answered,
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; (www.vietnamembassy-usa.org).