The Black H’mongs

I am now at home so I can complete the dozen of tasks I have to do before my next trip(!!) to India and Spain. I have two weeks to recover from my cold (I mysteriously got one once I got home – am I allergic to home?), apply for my Indian visa, go for three evening classes and pass an examination, help out at Riverkids Project for an afternoon, go for some networking session for future wannabe teachers and meet up with my (very neglected) friends.

WHEW. I ♥ my life. (Will I jinx myself by saying this?)

I also turned 30 last Saturday – the trip to Vietnam was a birthday present to myself.
I just needed some excuse to travel. I always do.

So I was in Sa Pa before I lost my memory card reader. I think I left it in Sa Pa. Without it, I could not upload pictures. No pictures = no blog post.

On my second day in Sa Pa, I joined a hiking tour group. As mentioned in my last blog post, it is difficult to explore far from the town unless with a tour group. However, I have heard that it IS possible to do so, but one must know which roads to walk on.
Me? I am easily lost without proper maps, so I stuck to a tour group.

I went for a tour which included visiting 3 ethnic minority villages and the bamboo forest surrounding the villages.

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The tour guide was from the black H’mong minority group. Her spoken English was excellent, but she could not write or read English to save her life. She said she learnt English from the tourists who visit the town. She is a mom to 3 kids and her dream was to take an airplane from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh City.

“My husband promised me that he would take me travelling for 10 days after he passed his high school qualifications. He wanted to buy an extra motorcycle but I told him that I would leave him if he did not take me travelling.”

Meeting people like this makes me feel that I am a rather lucky girl (I definitely do not need to go for a two-week long community service stint to know this!!). I can travel solo like this, and flying from Singapore to nearby Southeast Asian countries without giving too much thought to the deed.

I also do not need to learn English for the sake of my family’s survival. English has been part of my education in Singapore as long as I can remember. This is unlike the H’mong – who depend on their command of English to make money from their handicraft.

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The trek took me over 17km of road – uphill, downhill and over a lot of mud. I slipped three times on the mud. I was very close to giving up and giving myself a mud facial by plonking my face into the luxurious stuff. Beside me were little women from the black H’mong. They were easily half my size, double my age and managed the mudslide easily in their rain boots. It was because of them that I survived the trek through the treacherous mud.

**Note to self: rain boots are superior to hiking shoes when it comes to navigating mud.

The H’mong women – as I mentioned – depend on tourists to make a living. The reason why they were following the group was that they were hoping to make a sale.

“My name is So… I help you and you help me, okay?”

I bought a mid-size pouch from So for 450,000 VND (about S$28). I would have bargained more (I am of Chinese origin – I can’t help my instincts!), but she said she spent about a year making the pouch. My tour guide said the pouch would have taken 9 months to finish. Every part of the pouch was woven tightly and neatly in cotton thread, including the adjustable strap. Plus, she helped me navigate the trails. So the price was also to thank her for her help.

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The tour took us through 3 different villages – one of the black H’mong, one of the red D’zao and one of the Tays. The tour guide explained the customs of the black H’mongs very well but not too well about the rest. The school above was a place where the kids from the different villages mingled but she said the ethnic groups do not intermarry. Often, the girls would be removed from school once they hit puberty and got married. The tour guide got married (kidnapped by her husband, rather) at the age of 17, which was considered to be late for a woman of black H’mong origin. Most girls get married at the ages of 12 to 15.

This tour can easily be obtained at any of the hotels/hostels in Sa Pa. It might be easier to get the tour and the train ride as a package in Ha Noi, but how much of your money would go towards the ethnic minority groups in Sa Pa?

Price: US$12
Difficulty of trek: Moderate to Difficult (this is easy for people who climbed mountains – e.g: Mount Kinabalu, Mount Fansipan – , but not for couch potatoes like me)
Anthropology experience level: medium to high (you can take a girl out of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, but you cannot take the stuff learnt out of the girl)
The experience of almost getting a mud facial: Priceless

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