Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Sa Pa: the landscape, the people

Sa Pa is an overnight train ride from Ha Noi. And a world apart. 

Arriving in Lao Cai train station, we were driven to Sa Pa in the mountains. As soon as the bus pulled into the village square there was a clamouring of voices coming from the indigo-clad women lining the street: "You buy from me?", "Shopping, madame?" And these were the phrases which peppered the three days I spent in the area.

The landscape is stunning but challenging. Terraced rice paddies reflect the tenacity of the people who tend them. The fact that they are persistent enough to produce two crops of rice a year on these tiny layered fields, explains a lot about their persistence in trying to get tourists to buy their bags, wristbands and clothing.


The traditional indigo fabric the area is renowned for starts off as hemp. The women can often be seen walking around working sheaths of hemp as they go, stripping off the outside layers and producing threads of textile. These are then bleached and then dyed in large vats of indigo dye.

Indigo dye is extracted form the leaves of the indigo plants which grow around their houses. A paste or powder is produced by fermenting the leaves and is then boiled with rice wine, lye or, interestingly, boys' urine. The hemp is immersed in the dye for about half an hour and then hung up to oxidise.

There are five tribes living in the mountains around Sa Pa: the Hmong, Tay, Dao, Giay and Pho Lu. They live very closely to one another but there are subtle differences in dress and they each have their own language that the other tribes don't speak. Vietnamese is the common language.

Tourism is a relatively new source of income for the mountain people.  Tourists really only started visiting the region in 1995. And the people are capitalising on it, learning English, guiding treks, selling their wares.

Life in the villages is still fairly traditional. Despite the arrival of mobile phones and excellent cellular reception. Walking up a muddy track, passing water buffalo, the indigo-clad woman in front of me answered her pink phone and had an animated conversation. I couldn't quite marry that with the stories our guide, Chai, told us about about the importance of the Sunday market for meeting a prospective husband or wife. The girls marry young here. Getting married at 16 or 17 is still common. The marriages are often arranged by the parents. In this case, the couple may not have actually met before the proposal. But they may have glimpsed each other across a basket of chickens...or morning glory (water spinach). The girl can say No in answer to a proposal, but it doesn't pay to say no too often. Unmarried women are not only considered very odd in the mountains, they have no one to look after them once their parents die.

Sons are still the be all and end all, the awaited child. Some families keep trying, we were told, and end up with 11 daughters.

There is domestic violence amongst the hill tribes. The stories of husbands beating wives seemed common. Chai told us that she refused to allow her parents to choose a husband for her. She wanted to marry someone that she loved and who would not beat her. She and her husband are hard workers, capitalising on the opportunities provided through the influx of visitors. He manages and cooks in a beautiful restaurant in Sa Pa, specialising in food from the region. Her English is excellent and she works as a guide on the treks and also as a translator and interpreter, often with film companies. They have a three year old son and they want him to go to University.

Drinking 'happy water' (rice wine) with a local family who did not wear the traditional costume and who had built their house to accommodate tourists, I was struck by the fact that we are all just the same. The husband of the family may have cooked our chicken and beef over the coals of an open fire in the kitchen, but these people, like most people, are doing the best they can for themselves and their children. They like a good time. They were eager to know whether we enjoyed their cooking and even more eager to toast our appreciation of the food with even more rice wine. 

Noj tsis noj kuj tuav diav
Luag tsis luag kuj ntxi hniav.

Whether you eat or not, at least hold a spoon
Whether you laugh or not, at least smile

Hmong Proverb

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