An eight-hour train trip, an hour-long bus ride and a 30-minute taxi later, I finally arrive at the Northwestern tip of Vietnam, nearly touching the border of China. Here lays a multitude of hill tribes that stretch among the boundless rice-terraced fields of Sa Pa.
Sue Tan, a woman of the Black H’mong Tribe, greets me at the doorstep of her home in Ta Van Mong village with a golden tooth shining in my face. She appears exactly as she did on her Facebook page, where, of all places, I originally connected with her to be my homestay and trekking guide.
“Welcome home,” she exclaims.
It is barely four degrees Celsius in Sa Pa and the rain won’t let up. I enter her bitterly cold home, walls lined with patterned, traditional dress, which I later find out Sue Tan weaved herself.
Her daughter hurries over to me and burns a coal fire beside my feet inside the living room. She places a Coca-Cola can filled with water inside the fire to “humidify” the smoky ashes, which I believe is a health hazard, but I refrain from saying a word.
Sue Tan signals to get ready for our trek as soon as the storm passes through. As we head out and round the corner, three other tribe women begin walking alongside me with their oversized baskets resting on their backs. When I ask where they’re headed, they just point vaguely beyond the hills. I don’t think much of it at the time, but little do I know, they are about to embark on an eight mile trek with me in hopes that I will buy one of their handwoven bags or scarves thereafter.
We march on with what appears to the eye as infinite staircases to the heavens or a coliseum to the gods. Their agriculture style of rice terrace farming is an incredibly sustainable method. The terraces act as dams by holding rainwater, which flows into the rivers at a mild place and, as a result, without any flooding. Simultaneously, the terraces function as filters that purify the water.
It strikes me while gazing at these beautiful hills that we, as a society, were thinking sustainably long before there was any notion of climate change – yet we are so unable to fully commit to implementing this kind of thinking today even with it being such an imminent threat.
Somewhere along this six hour journey I notice that I have only seen a handful of men. And once again, I am met with a sense of progressiveness that we do not always face in the west. According to Sue Tan, women are the breadwinners around here. They are trekking, weaving and selling all day long. Meanwhile, the men stay home with the children most of the time and when the kids are at school, the husbands will care for the land.
“When men have more money, they have more power. I don’t like that,” Sue Tan says. “I want women to have more power.”
Yet, for how progressive—or even radical—this way of thinking is by today’s standards, so much of the hill tribe culture is rooted in the past: children are generally married by age 16 or 17 and have children of their own by the time they are 18. If you become pregnant before you are married, like Sue Tan’s daughter, you must quickly arrange a wedding or you will be ostracized from the community.
“I wouldn’t have cared,” Sue Tan reveals. “It’s the older generations that would say mean things to my family. So, it was easier to just marry them. But I hope this way of thinking changes.”
While marriages are most commonly arranged, bachelors have the quick chance of finding a companion on their own terms at a formal dance event—pending their parent’s blessing. In the past, a boy would flirt with a girl by playing her a tune on a plant. Yes, a plant. I like to think of it as plant-based Tinder.
Today, children have access to phones, so unfortunately, social media is eradicating some of these unique customs. So much has changed from when Sue Tan was her daughter’s age. Ten years ago, there was no education system in Sa Pa. Every lick of English that Sue speaks is based off of a few years of listening to tourists communicate.
Not only has she had no formal schooling, meaning no training in English or Vietnamese, but her people also have no written language. Even so, Sue Tan is able to connect with clientele via Facebook, TripAdvisor and Airbnb. Meanwhile, I can’t even get my westernized-tech company-consultant-mother to master copy and paste.