Our pregnant trek guide from a remote mountain tribe taught us about grit and grace under pressure.
By Dulce Zamora
The stars aligned during my family’s first full day in Sa Pa, a mountainous region in northwest Vietnam populated mostly by different hill tribes. Our local guide was Sy, a Hmong woman from Sapa Sisters, a female and minority-led trekking group holding tours in the area. It was a privilege to have dedicated time with someone on the fringe of their own country. At least that’s how it seemed as Sy referred to the Vietnamese as if they were another people, and write-ups about the place often differentiated the ethnic minorities from the rest of the mainland.
At a glance, it is easy to spot the differences. The Hmong, Tay, Dao, Giay, and other groups dress in colorful and ornate clothing that make others in the country – as one travel site puts it -look more like Westerners. Beyond the surface, however, especially when talking to people like Sy, it’s plain to see the similarities between various residents in Vietnam. In fact, the Vietnamese aren’t that much different from ordinary people in other nations. Many of us love our family and friends. We work hard to put food on the table and to maintain the roof over our heads. These days, we deal with the effects of more extreme weather and lament our children’s overuse of smart phones. Sy and I discussed such matters during my family’s nearly six-hour trek with her from Jade Hill to Lao Chai. (We were not so hard core. We took plenty of breaks.)
In this post, I will share snippets of our conversation. Sy was gracious enough to answer all of my questions, even as she led us through steep, narrow, and rugged terrain. I never once heard her out of breath nor did I see her break a sweat, which was more than I could say about myself. Yes, she was young: Only 29 years old. Nonetheless, she was also seven months pregnant! She fully expected to lead treks until almost delivery day, much like she did with her two sons (now 7 and 10 years old).
After the day with us, Sy had to cook dinner, tend to the kids, and help her husband with various farm chores on the precipitous slopes of their family’s rice terraces. Other days, she either shopped at the market, gathered firewood, or sewed/stitched traditional clothing – all of it part of her role as the woman of the house.
(It was the man’s job to manage the farm and to organize tribal ceremonies.)
Although Sy had physically taxing days, she still considered herself lucky. She and her husband have been able to provide enough for their growing family without relying too much on others.
On Breastfeeding, Child Care, and House Work
Sy plans to deliver her baby at home with help from her mother or mother in law. If there are any complications, she and her husband will pay for a hospital visit.
After giving birth, she intends to return to work as a trekking guide as soon as possible. She will place her newborn in a sling and breastfeed during breaks. She feels fortunate to have flexible work that allows time with her children. During the busy seasons, she can also help her husband with the farm work.
In a few months, when her infant is ready, she will feed the baby with over-boiled mushy rice (after she husks the wheat using a special machine.) Then, she will gradually introduce soft or finely-chopped foods. Some people have blenders, but she is used to doing everything by hand. She also manually washes everyone’s clothes, except she will use commercial diapers for the baby.
In the old days, she had to make everyone’s clothes, but now she can supplement their everyday wear with store-bought garments. All the traditional ceremonial clothes, however, still has to be hand made every year. Not only that, she and other Hmong women still twist together dried hemp strands to make thread, dye it, and weave it together to make fabric. Since she is part of the Black Hmong tribe (as opposed to the Red Hmong, Flower Hmong, etc), she stitches together clothing made with indigo dye, which at first comes out dark blue, but then turns black.
On Social Media and Courtship
Like many parents around the world, Sy says she has to pry her boys away from smartphone screens as they watch videos or movies. Many times, she has to remind them to do their chores.
She says Hmong kids are now more knowledgeable about the world outside their village. I asked whether that inspires young people to live more non-traditional lives. Her response: They can dream about a different life, but they need money to make it happen. Many people don’t have enough funds, so they make do with what they have.
Yet, social media has still changed village life. She says young people now use Facebook groups or WhatsApp to cultivate relationships. Their parents might not like that they’re up all night texting with others, but there’s often not a lot they can do about it.
In the old days, parents arranged marriages for their children. However, too many young women ate poisonous plants in protest. They would rather die than marry someone they did not choose, Parents became very concerned and feared for their daughters’ safety. So, they began to give their girls more partnership options. Now, many young people are allowed to marry for love, and not just for economic purposes.
According to Hmong tradition, when a couple gets married, the woman lives with her husband’s family. Her job is to cook, clean, and care for her in-laws and their house. The man inherits farmland from his family – how much he gets depends on how many brothers he has to share the land. Only the males can inherit property. If a couple only has daughters, they hope one of the girls marries a man with a brother. If all parties agree, the brother can move in with the girl’s parents and inherit their land. This would also assure a female in the house to take care of the aging parents.
An interesting note: This system of patriarchal land inheritance and female domestic work at the in-laws’ house appears to be similar to the one we heard about in the mountainous Ubud region of Bali during our family’s recent weeklong trip.
On Safety and Human Trafficking
In order to get to school and back, Sy’s boys usually trek on their own for more than a half hour through treacherous mountain passes. If it rains, the passage becomes very muddy and slippery. If Sy is busy, her husband gives them a ride in his motorbike.
Sy only allows the boys to be out by themselves during the day. She also makes sure they are not in Sa Pa town without adult supervision. She says Hmong children are particularly vulnerable to traffickers who harvest young people’s organs to sell to foreigners. In addition, she says Vietnamese traffickers kidnap teen girls, and market them as brides for Chinese men,
In the last few years, Sy has also noticed that authorities are doing more to rescue victims of human trafficking. She is relieved about that, but still maintains her vigilance to keep her children safe.
According to Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit group in Vietnam working on ending human trafficking and slavery, predators often target ethnic minorities but victims can also be from different backgrounds and range in age. In the past, Sy says the Hmong were more vulnerable to traffickers, because many were uneducated, making it harder for them to call or write for help. That situation has improved, however, as many of today’s tribe elders encourage school attendance. In the past, parents prioritized farm and house chores.
On Living Her Best Life
For someone who hustles every day under sometimes harsh weather conditions, Sy seems content with her life. She does not like the winter, which she describes as cold and wet everywhere, but, other than that, she is grateful for what she has. Her job as a trek guide gives her much-needed income, the flexibility to care for her family, and the chance to do something she loves.
Can her life be better? Of course. But she appears to have an enviable conviction in what she does, and an acceptance to customs that she cannot change. She also complains a lot less than people who have more. That’s not saying she has stopped trying to make things better, or that the system she lives in is fair. If we had more time together, I would ask her more questions.
In some ways, her existence has already moved mountains by giving outsiders insight into a historically voiceless and underserved community. It’s a start as knowledge about the mountain tribes can help bring awareness and solutions to their problems. Plus, tribal women can now earn their own income in tourism even as tradition has prevented them from inheriting farm land. Although they are not earning huge amounts of money, women are able to supplement their family’s income, providing them with financial cushion. Many locals in Sa Pa shared how much more difficult life was when tourists stopped coming to the region.
In addition, women like Sy now have a life outside of the home, opening up more possibilities. If a single woman saves enough, she can buy her own farmland and not have to marry into financial security. If a spouse mistreats her, she can pay a lawyer to divorce him. Her income, along with the family’s farm funds, can also help purchase a home. She won’t have to live under her in-law’s roof. Of course none of this comes easy and can create their own set of complexities, but the options for tribal women are starting to come into view.
Critics say that the tourism helping create local opportunities can also spell the end of Sa Pa’s natural beauty. Ongoing construction of more tourist sites, services, and accommodations can displace family farms, encroach on the hill tribe’s homes and way of life, and destroy the very essence that attracted tourists to the region in the first place.
Yet, there is no need to malign tourism altogether for it obviously has benefits for minorities. Authorities in Sa Pa would do well in balancing tourism with sustainable practices such as improving wages and conditions for workers, protecting local homes and wild spaces, and limiting development.
As women like Sy has shown us, we don’t necessarily need big overtures to make a difference. The way we conduct our everyday lives can also cause shifts that, over time, can open up possibilities.
This gives me hope. Maybe we don’t have to tackle all of life’s issues at once. Maybe we just need to take it one day at a time, to keep trekking despite the inhospitable conditions. Then, maybe, just maybe, we will make it through the fog of winter and see that we’ve been able to move mountains, too.
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