“My dream is to see the ocean one day…and to read and write. I want to be able to read my cellphone messages.” – Mai, a 31-year-old Hmong woman from Sapa area

I never imagined that my last days in Vietnam would turn out to be so interesting and intense. Not expecting too much after traveling through a way too touristy country, at least to me, I arrived in Sapa, northwest Vietnam, close to the border with China.

This area is well known for the many ethnic minority groups that live there: Hmongs, Dsai, Dao (Yao), Giay, Pho Lu and Tay. On my first day, I was very lucky to run into Mai, a 31-year-old Hmong woman from a small village called Hau Thao. She ended up taking me on an unforgettable four-day trek to her village, offering me her house, and to her mother’s place far away in the mountains where I met the rest of her lovely family.

The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos, China and Thailand. They began a southward migration in the 18th century due to political unrest and to find more arable land. Vietnam, where their presence is documented from the late 18th century onwards, is the first Indochinese country into which the Hmong migrated.

Their traditional cultivation of the opium poppy, prohibited in 1993, guaranteed them a regular cash income over many years. Today, farming is the main economic activity and most of the ethnic minorities, including Mai and her family, work their land on sloping terraces in the mountains. Their staple foods are rice and corn. With sub-tropical summers, temperate winters and 160 days of mist annually, farmers can only produce one crop of rice annually. As such, food shortages, malnutrition and other health-related problems often result.

“Believe me, our situation is not easy”, Mai tells me. “We work very hard in our fields and many ethnic minorities try to live from the tourists. Twenty years ago, there was no tourism around Sapa. Now it is a big business, but the money goes mainly to the Vietnamese. People come to learn about our culture and see us, but the Vietnamese  control the business and don’t like if we have direct contact with the tourists.”

Mai keeps looking blankly at her cellphone and finally tells me why: she is illiterate. “The school was too far away from my mother’s village, but I really want to know how to read and write, to be able to read the cellphone messages I receive once in a while.“ She shows me her display, but I only see Vietnamese text and symbols. “Can you help me?” she asks with a big smile, a golden tooth flashing in the sun. In the culture of many ethnic minorities, a gold-covered tooth indicates that a woman is married.

“I got married when I was 21, but there are girls who marry at the age of 15,” she says. “In the past, when a boy wanted to marry a girl, he made his intentions clear and ‘snatched’ her at any opportunity that was appropriate. This was a symbolic kidnapping in our tradition. In the past, our parents used to choose the life partner and arrange a wedding, but that has changed, too.”

Mai is the mother of three handsome boys, ages 2, 4 and 8 years old. “I gave birth here at home,” she tells me, pointing towards one of the two rooms which make up her simple, but lovely wooden house. “Usually, we Hmong women prefer to give birth at home and not in the hospital in Sapa. Vietnamese people work in the hospitals and they shout at us if we cry during a tough birth. They don’t treat us in a nice way so I feel better giving birth here at home”.

Shoe, Mai’s older sister, tells me another anecdote about the Vietnamese who issued her ID card: “On my card, I am actually two years younger than in reality,” she says. “My name and  birthday are correct, but the year is wrong. Usually, when they issue ID cards for Hmongs, they do it without paying attention. We are not important to them, so who cares about our correct birth year?”

“I hope to get a passport,” Mai adds smiling. “My dream is to see the ocean, especially Halong Bay, one day. I want to take a train, maybe even a plane, but I don’t know how to pay for it. I haven’t even seen $100 in my life, but I don’t give up dreaming”.

Mai is a tough woman. She takes care of her childen, and although she has great help from her husband, she carries heavy wood for many hours through the mountains, walks long distances with her small broken slippers, treks the steep and muddy way to her mother’s village with her baby on the back and helps the family on the rice fields. But she never complains and always has a smile. She seems to run through the mountains so easily, so familiar with each stone, plant and obstacle along the muddy way.

“Come on, Christina, let’s have dinner,” she calls to me. “My husband has made banana flower for you. I am sure you have never tried it before. He collected it from the banana tree for you.” We have dinner at the fire with the whole family and one bowl after the next of delicious food is served to me, accompanied by many shots of homemade corn wine.

Beautiful days in another world come to an end. I fall asleep in Mai’s mother’s bed. It feels like a stone… but is so warm at the same time. Stunning sounds from outdoors accompany my night’s slumber.

I hope that Mai will be able to go to Halong Bay with her husband one day… if somebody deserves it, it’s definitely them.


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