A few years ago, my wife and I spent three weeks in Vietnam, a ribbon of land in southeast Asia, home to 92 million people, with an impressive coastline that runs for 3,200 kilometres. Our final destination was a three-night stay in Sapa, where we met our fascinating guide Cham and her family.
It was a long road to get there. After a brief visit to the Mekong Delta, the rice basket of Vietnam, we headed north from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, towards the capital Hanoi. Stops along the way included the Imperial City of Hue, the ancient port town of Hoi An and Halong Bay – all three are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Then finally to Sapa, a mountain town in northwestern Vietnam close to the Chinese border, 315 kilometres from Hanoi.
It is easy to neglect Sapa, especially when you consider the five-hour bus trip from Hanoi that includes a final hour along a narrow cliffside road with hairpin turns, but neglecting it would be a colossal missed opportunity.
Sapa is nestled in what are dubbed the Tonkinese Alps. One source calls it “a quiet hill town,” but that description hardly applies. Tourists have discovered its charms. Youthful and not so youthful backpackers and trekkers flock to it because of the challenging hills that swaddle the town. Souvenir shops abound, selling gewgaws of various sorts. Women from hill-tribe villages, dressed in their distinctive colourful attire, hawk hand-made textiles.
The real charm of Sapa are the five hill tribes (among 54 tribes in Vietnam) that live high above the town. Our guide Cham knew three tribal dialects because she was a member of the Red Dao (pronounced Zao) tribe and still lived in the village with her parents and three sisters.
Cham came to our hotel on a motor scooter to collect us. Once our driver arrived, we set off for her village. Because the road is narrow, precipitous and not well maintained, the ascent was a harrowing, white-knuckle ride.
We walked through the entrance gate into the village while Cham filled us in on Red Dao life and culture. Although she lives among her people, Cham no longer accepts large segments of the Red Dao culture. She opposes arranged marriages and no longer believes marriage outside the tribe should be forbidden.
In her tribe, a woman’s duty is to marry and to spend her day working in the fields and sewing. Cham told us that if a woman couldn’t make her own clothes, no man would marry her even if she were very attractive. Married women are marked by red kerchiefs that they sport on their heads and chunky silver bracelets from their husbands.
Married women must shave their hair from the top of their foreheads to about halfway back along their scalp. Legend has it that a woman once served her husband a meal into which one of her hairs had fallen. The husband choked on the hair and died. After that, head shaving became an essential part of the marriage ceremony.
Because she objects to what women must do to satisfy tribal rituals, Cham claims she will never marry. When I asked Cham about tribal religious beliefs, she told me that the religion was “ancestral,” without explaining what she meant, except to say she no longer accepts that either. Though she speaks and understands English remarkably well, one of her goals is to learn to read and write it. She told us village boys are taught to read and write but not girls because custom assumes the only talent they need is sewing. Perhaps in a spirit of rebellion, Cham has let her hair grow long and colours it, and she wears a small stud on the side of her left nostril.
Yet she still follows some tribal traditions. She makes her own tribal uniform – hemp pants and tunic, dyed black in a solution of indigo, with beautiful yellow silk symbols sewn on. She has never been vaccinated, never been to a dentist and visited a doctor only once when she was very ill. She found the experience unnerving and has no intention of repeating it.
As we walked through the village, I noticed several black pigs and a cow wandering on the road, blissfully unaware that their next stop might be the village butcher whom we passed as he happily dismembered a recently slaughtered pig. Cham told us her people are largely self-sufficient – they eat what they grow and kill and suffer few illnesses because, she claimed, their food is fresh and uncontaminated by hormones. The tribe makes it own wine from both corn and rice but buys beer. We passed a couple of caged roosters, staring menacingly at each other, kept apart until the illegal but apparently entertaining cockfight took place.
By the side of the road, we noticed graves – humble affairs, merely piles of grass and dirt with no markers. Cham told us people are traditionally buried very close to where they lived, with the head facing east so the corpse can see the sun rising.
Our final stop was Cham’s house, a modest affair with a dirt floor. We met her mother and two married sisters, all wearing the red kerchief. The mother’s headwear was bigger – several red kerchiefs sewn together – to signify her grandmother status. We were surprised to learn that Cham’s mother was only 53 years old. Her face was wrinkled, leathery and weather-beaten from years of field work under the hot sun. Women and children are also tasked with collecting firewood higher up the mountain in forests inhabited by wolves and monkeys, and in the past, tigers.
Back at our hotel, I wondered what might become of the semi-rebellious Cham. Whip smart and self-aware, she had taken the courageous step to depart from many tribal traditions to find her own path – it takes a special person to turn their back on cultural practices that are bred in the bone. Perhaps the questioning Cham was in quest of a new normal or an amalgam of what she is and what she aspires to be. Ostensibly, she seemed comfortable in her own skin, but I wondered if there were any dark nights of the soul in her life, the result of one culture tugging against another.
Douglas Parker is a 29-year Glebe resident with an interest in English Reformation literature, history and theology – and travel.