Yes, We Have No Banana Pancakes #10: Sapa – Sapa, Vietnam


We just spent a great two weeks with some really amazing children, very very close to the Chinese border in some beautiful mountains in the town of Sapa, in NW Vietnam. Black Hmong, Flower Hmong, Tay, and Tzao people live in villages around and about, and they’d come to the Sapa market to buy and sell. Most would just come for the day, or maybe over the weekend as a family, but all the Black Hmong girls aged 8-16 or so would be sent on their own for maybe a week at a time to sell embroidery and weavings.

There were a few Hmong that opened their homes as guesthouses; the kids could stay there for maybe 5 cents a night, so they weren’t on the streets. But still, we were blown away by these very self-sufficient young girls that had learned a great deal from their families about the land, herbal medicines, cooking, weaving, and farming, and a very sophisticated amount of English from tourists as well.

At first we would just take whoever was around out for noodle soup in the market, but then we ended up spending all day every day with about 5 or 6 of the girls. It was great. Everything they wanted to do, visit waterfalls, make flower necklaces, go cruising for pre-teen boys, was far more entertaining than anything we would of thought of. Many were very anxious to learn ‘The Alphabet’. They had seen this mysterious line of symbols before, but hadn’t really sat down with it. It really choked me up to hear them say and write from A-Z for the first time. They taught us some Hmong: zong gow is beautiful, lo te is happy, pito is mountains, bali is just kidding, ka ja koo te is nice to meet you (just to get you started, you know, if you find yourself in a Hmong-language bind in Brooklyn).

When we first came to town everything looked very foreign, because all these different minority groups have the craziest, most intricately embroidered and beaded layered outfits in a variety of colors. The boys have boy outfits and the girls have girl outfits, and all the Tzao have the same huge red turbans with coins sewn in, and all the flower Hmong have bizarre quilt-design smocky shirts. The Black Hmong girls wore these cloth-covered straw cylinders on their heads around their little hair buns, lots of loopy silver earrings in big-holed earlobes, 4 or 5 heavy silver necklaces, then sort of school-girlish above the knee indigo dresses and wrap around indigo leggings bound with little embroidered strips. And those 99 cent plastic jelly shoes you find in Woolworth’s, that they would climb the rice-paddy terraces and rocky trails like little mountain goats. We would be huffing and puffing in our (relatively) fancy hiking shoes and they’d peer down the mountain: “You okay? You want I carry your bag?”

One day, the girls took us to this photo shop where they had all the clothes of all the different hill tribes, apparently for tourists to dress up and get their photos taken. They found it hilarious to put on the frock of a flower Hmong in place of their own Black Hmong uniform. A few days before, of course, I would not have been able to see just what was so funny. I guess it would be like you and I dressing up in cowboy outfits. Same Levis, but different. On a different day we took 2 of the girls to a flower Hmong village about 100 km away by bus and by boat. It was about 90 km further than either of them (aged 11 and 16) had ever been in their lifetimes. We thought they’d have a lot to talk about with the people there, but the inhabitants were so shocked to see 2 young Black Hmong girls, I think it made them shy. It was more bizarre for them than to see western tourists. Being far from any tourist stop, the flower Hmong could not comprehend how the girls (Pla and Shu) had ever learned English, or what they were doing so far from their village.

It’s hard to tell what will happen to the town of Sapa, and in particular the Hmong community. It’s filling up with tourists and new hotels so quickly. Most western tourists (definitely not all), I think would like to see the minority groups benefit from all the dollars coming in. Many seek out Hmong guides for trekking trips, and try to buy directly from families if they’re purchasing textiles. But most of the Vietnamese community there (not all) treats them like dirt. They are exploited for their labor and handicrafts, and really have no part of larger investment opportunities like hotels and restaurants. On many occasions the girls were insulted or refused service. The villages where they live are pretty much made of rice terraces, dirt, and water buffaloes. I’d hate to come back in 5 years to see a Walt Disney world in their valley, but they’re still living without winter blankets and proper nourishment. I guess that it’s naive of me to think the world is heading any other way, I just hope the budding eco-tourism movement and the UNESCO world heritage site committee can save a little corner.

Pretty much all of Vietnam, and Cambodia for that matter, seems that way; far too much insensitive construction and capitalizing development far too quickly. But, it’s hard for me to sit on my American passport and judge them for wanting to make a lot of money no matter what the cost. Everywhere in the communist country of Vietnam, you can do that now.

Well, we left that country (after Shannon nearly came to blows with two Vietnamese train ladies, and we took a lovely 3-day boat tour around Halong Bay). I’m now writing you from Bangkok. Last night we flew from one extremely empty airport to another on a very empty flight. There were no SARS quarantine problems. I guess that’s due to the mind-easing lemon-n-hospital-scented world-health-organization spray they applied liberally to the plane right before our snack to remove any pesky SARS germs. That and the little SARS-free stamp we got from the passport stamper…

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