Rice paddies quickly surrounded us as we left Hanoi behind and settled into our 35-year-old Russian built army jeep. We were lucky that northern Vietnam is cool in February since the windows didn’t roll down and our only sources of fresh air were small vents and the holes in the floor. Mr. Mingh, our driver, kept looking furtively in the rear view mirror to see if I had fallen off the seat as the bumps in the road at times made my head hit the roof. The horn was activated by a foot switch so he could keep his white knuckles on the wheel as he darted around water buffalos and bicycles.
Lured by stories of the colorful hill tribe people we found ourselves on a six-day adventure deep into the mountains of North Vietnam. The narrow two-lane highway quickly introduced us to the everyday life of the local people. Along the side of the road and at times in the middle, rice and other crops are set out to dry. Children play and vendors hawk their wares. Women mid calf in mud plant rice with their classic conical straw hats strapped firmly in place. Water buffalo slowly pull wooden plows. Grave stones are surrounded by rice fields where the desire for more crops outweighed the sanctity of a cemetery. My traveling companion, Jim, kept making up laundry commercials, "Yes, Tide can get even your rice paddy mud out!" The vibrant green of the newly planted rice made us glad to be alive and in Vietnam.
After about 10 hours of horn blowing and bumping along we came to Lao Cai, a small neglected town on the border of China. A Disney Land of tall buildings sparkled just over a bridge, so close and a world away. I could only imagine what a small child would think as he peeked across to that foreign land. A sharp right turn and we started our final assent to Sapa. In 18 kilometers the winding road climbed 4,000 feet. Colorful clothes of the hill tribes replaced the black & white pajamas worn by many of the Vietnamese. Women and small girls sat giggling and embroidering in spots of sunshine.
Sapa is the center of trade for many hill tribes. Sitting high in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range it is surrounded by vistas of incredible beauty. Pockets of swirling mist can be seen in the valleys below.
On Saturday a large market is held here. Each tribe has its own distinctive dress and baskets of textiles and other goods to sell. Members of different tribes can be seen holding intense negotiations over handmade farm utensils or locally grown fruits. Although many tourists have discovered this market it is still holds an essential place in every day existence.
Selling is not limited to the market however. In Sapa, sitting too close to the window in a restaurant is an invitation to be plied with goods while you are eating. First small faces are pressed against the glass, soon brightly embroidered cloths are dangled and the door starts to creep open. It is only with great vigilance that the restaurant owner keeps the would-be sellers at bay. Emerging after lunch I found myself towering above 15-20 tiny H'mong women. Each one was exclaiming in broken English that her fabrics were the best. As soon as I saw the intense indigo dye in conjunction with batik and embroidery it was obvious that I was a customer. Out of their baskets came an assortment of clothes, bags, wall hangings and bedspreads all beautiful and all incredible cheap. I was making a serious attempt at buying from everyone when Jim dragged me away exclaiming I needed to attend a meeting for Hill Tribe Shoppers Anonymous. I couldn’t seem to buy enough. Over the next several days whenever I saw these same women they would grab me in a strong embrace. We had formed a bond. They were so happy to have had such an enthusiastic purchaser. A word of warning however, the dyes in the materials are not set. Most of the Black H’mong and some unsuspecting tourists have a blue cast to their skin from the indigo.
Striking out from Sapa in almost any direction will lead to a small ethnic village. Cat village is the closest. Smiling and happy to have visitors you will probably find yourself invited into a home for tea. A small girl immediately latched onto us. Her English was surprising good having learned it just from the tourists. She was determined that we not leave without first visiting her family and looking at the silver necklaces her father made. Several times on the way we had to step aside for young men carrying huge loads at a brisk pace up the secluded trail. With my hand firmly gripped in hers we were led into a tiny house perched on stilts. More than half of the house was reserved for storing crops. Pigs and chickens could be heard from the space underneath. It was clear that the family cooked, ate, slept and entertained in the one remaining room. After sharing tea and purchasing more items we started back down the trail. The beauty with which these people approach their world is inspiring. With a fierce determination they have resisted Vietnamese society and modern life. Sadness fell over me as I realized that all these people have is their culture. When that is gone only poverty remains.
For the next 4 days our jeep climbed into the mountains of northwest Vietnam. Slowly higher and higher we wound our way. Our speed averaged 20 miles an hour. As the miles passed the myriad of different tribes became evident. Interspersed with the modern motorbike riding Vietnamese, the different outfits of the tribes shone like jewels. The White Thai could be found working the fields with their long hair piled in neat buns and looking like they were dressed for a dinner party, the Black H’mong reminded me of girls in uniform from a private school and the Flower H’mong were embroidering everything in sight. The typical Vietnamese is very practical and industrious with little energy expended for beauty. We were glad to be here where beauty was so important.
It was high in the mountains still bouncing along a bone jarring dirt road that we discovered that Mingh, our driver, had served in the North Vietnamese Army. In his very, very limited English he explained that he used to drive trucks down the Ho Chi Minh trail dodging bombs. That was easy to imagine since our jeep looked like it was used in the war and lots of people still wear army clothes and hats. What wasn't so easy to understand was that this sweet gentle man who would honk for every chicken, goat, pig, bicycle, or water buffalo was once considered a dangerous enemy. Instead of the companionable ride we were enjoying we would probably have been bound and thrown in the back of a truck. While the older people would stare at us with flat unreadable eyes, the children flocked around us pulling out their schoolbooks to practice English and giggling as they push and shoved to get closer. We had been told that the young generation wants to look ahead and not behind.
As we headed back to Hanoi we had time for one last stop in a White Thai Village. The Thai people live at lower altitudes than other tribes. Mai Chau is filled with weavers. Due to its close proximity to Hanoi the local people are no longer wearing their traditional dress. What they give up in color they more than make up for in products. Each family had a loom set up under their house and finished products hanging for the visitor to purchase.
After settling in with the Thai family we were spending the night with, we decided to explore our new neighborhood. I must admit I had been quite intrigued with all of the planting of rice I had been watching. Now in front of me was my perfect opportunity. A very tired looking woman was bent over in a field all by herself. I gestured that I would like to help. She smiled and pointed the way into the muddy field. As I hiked up my skirt and felt the mud between my toes I realized I love this stuff. I have to admit I was glad that she only had one small bucket of rice that still needed to be planted and that I didn't work for hours. She wanted us to come home with her, but we decided to walk with a three-year-old boy who had befriended Jim instead. We had come to the end of our time with the Vietnamese ethnic minorities and we knew we would be back. These people had found their way into our hearts with both their external and internal beauty.