I hunched over for Mae to put the final touch, a heavy silver chain necklace, over my head. She brought her arms back down to her tiny four-foot frame and smiled up at me with a pleased glimmer in her eyes. I was now decked out in her clothes, the traditional garb of the Black Hmong tribe; she clapped her hands together delightedly and cried, “Wow, beautiful! You are so fat you could have many husbands!”
Ok, maybe there’s hope for this single girl, after all.
Mae is a member of one of the five indigenous tribes of people who live amongst the dramatic, rice terraced hills of northern Vietnam. The people of these communities live in a style virtually unchanged from hundreds of years ago, with only the addition of sporadic electricity and basic cell phones to connect them to the modern world.
A six hour bus ride from Hanoi takes you to Sapa, the town that can connect you to the villages. Everyone who’d been to Sapa had raved about it, so after my first week in Vietnam I headed up north.
Hundreds of tour operators in Hanoi advertise group trekking tours to Sapa, but some friends recommended I go on my own and hire a guide independently. After being herded around like a group of sloppy preschoolers for three days on my Halong Bay boat trip, I was ready to do things like a grown up so I followed their advice—and I’m so glad I did.
I’d met Johann, an insanely enthusiastic and friendly German, on my Halong Bay trip and he happened to be on the same night bus to Sapa with me. Since we were both traveling alone and seemed to be the only people who didn’t drink the group tour kool-aid, we paired up and spent our first day motorbiking around the hills and through the villages with a local guy we hired as a guide.
The following day we met Mae at the church in the town center, not exactly sure what our day had in store for us. All I knew was my friends had recommended her and I’d phoned her to arrange a time to meet. It’s funny the things you agree to do when in foreign countries.
Mae asked us about our food preferences and then sent her husband to the market to get food and take it home. Then we simply marched into the hills. When a meek little girl followed us like a shadow Mae explained that she was recently orphaned with only a grandmother left so she was relocating to a new village. I had visions of adopting her and coming home with my new orphan daughter like some kind of Angelina Jolie, but in the end she tried to sell us something and went on her way. She was so sweet though, I still dream of kidnapping visiting her.
We spent the next five hours slowly trekking up and down the mountains, weaving through rice terraces, corn fields, and gardens. The views were beautiful but by the end my grandma knees were giving out and Johann was offering to carry me over his shoulders like a ‘dead deer’. “Just say the code word: Dead deer,” he insisted cheerfully. Thankfully it never came to that, though I was eying the roaming buffalo for a possible ride home.
Mae told us how the buffalo is still the most valuable asset to a family as it helps plow the fields, and without it a family might not be able to eat. Two of her buffalo were actually stolen in the past and she only recently was able to afford two new ones. As we approached her house her young son was sitting atop a buffalo and all I could think about was how I, too, wanted to ride a buffalo. Because why not? My dream never came to fruition, though, but I still have hope that someday I’ll rope and ride.
When we arrived at her humble house, a hut perched above the village and below a rice terrace, her husband was feeding their 18 year old son in his wheelchair. They smiled and waved a hello, but then turned away shyly. Mae offered us “happy water”, a locally made rice wine that tastes like pure rubbing alcohol fermented in the pits of hell. We forced it down until it wasn’t so painful anymore, made a game of inappropriate “would you rather” questions, and had a very merry time of it.
Mae and her husband cooked dinner in their little kitchen hut and the resulting feast was mouthwatering. Plates of pineapple and marinated pork, roasted pumpkin, and tofu sautéed with tomatoes filled our bellies as Mae’s husband added more food to our plates despite our protests. It was of restaurant quality, but she said it’s the kind of meal they eat every day. I loved it.
After dinner the family and neighbors met in another room of the hut for an Easter church service. Amidst babies crying and young children giggling the adults took turns singing hymns and reading from the bible. It was very sweet and even though I don’t practice any religion, I appreciated the sincere spirituality of it all.
The next morning Mae cooked us a huge feast of fried spring rolls and fried rice and stood there watching us eat, coaxing forcefully, “More! Eat more!” After she’d sufficiently fattened me up she brought out her clothes for me to try on. It was a tedious process with all the layers, but the end product was worth it.
I thought about asking to hike in the clothes so I could indeed find myself a husband in one of the villages, but I worried about my gargantuan body ripping a hole in her petite sized dress. I changed, said goodbye to her family, the baby pigs, the buffalo, and the friendly cat, and we made our way out for another day of trekking.
Mae told us so many incredible stories and facts along the way I could fill a book. Needless to say, their way of life is fascinating and I so appreciated her sharing a little piece of it with me. It was a great reminder of how very different people’s lives may be but at the basis of it all is still the same humanity. If you ever go to Sapa, please hire a local guide as you are supporting the women locally that way.
To book a local guide in Sapa you can arrive and dozens of women will approach you and offer to take you trekking. You can ask around until you find someone you are comfortable with, or go with a recommendation. If you’d like Mae’s phone number, please message me and I’m happy to share it. They can take you for day trips or many will offer to let you stay in their homes where they will cook you dinner and show you their way of life. I highly recommend at least one night.