Friday, January 31, 2014

Trekking to a Black Hmong Village through the Mountains

I walk with my Black Hmong guides who have offered to take me to their village. The word “Black” is self-referential as this is the traditional color of their clothing. We stop on the edge of town at a small restaurant, pho is the order.
While I don’t think Vietnamese fare compares taste-wise with Thai or Indian (I find it bland) the diet here is exceedingly healthy, consisting of rice, vegetables, pork, chicken, and some fish, all of it fresh and local. Vietnam has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world standing at 1.7% as of 2008, and that figure falls precipitously in these distant elevations.
My Hmong guide near her village

No Write, No Read
The bit of English my guides know they’ve pieced together from verbal interactions with tourists over the years. In fact, the Hmong tribes have never had a written language of any kind, and last year with the government bringing schools into the region, the current generation of Hmong children will be the first ever to learn to read or write.

Snow the destroyer
We leave town and start trekking up a steep mountain path. I've chosen the worst possible time to visit. Only one week earlier, snow fell in the area for the first time twenty years. While no doubt the children were immensely excited, the trees, not so much.
Many of them lie bowed to the ground, unable to cope with the subfreezing temperatures and snow that recently adorned their branches. Vegetation has perished, unused to such conditions. 
Our path is steep and rocky, but by no means are we climbing K2 in the Himalayas. My guides tell me that the trail is regarded as too tough to traverse by the local tour companies, who prefer the main road on the opposite side of the mountain.
here's what I see winter trekking around Sapa

Hours later, on our descent, I see steps carved into the mountain where in the summer, yellow and green rice stalks spring, adding color and depth to the area. Unfortunately, today there is nothing there but stagnant, muddy, freezing water in their place. Undoubtedly visiting here in the summer would offer more of a visual spectacle.
In this vid, you'll see the rice fields, currently with stagnant water, and a view of a small village nearby

We pass two villages whose pigs, chicken, and ducks are given free reign. There are no predators left in the area to snatch them away, and these creatures won’t run far from the structures which provide them food and shelter.

Local limestone cliff being excavated for profit
A water buffalo walks by, grunting. I nod at him as he passes. They are used as beasts of burden, helping to plow the fields as they have for thousands of years. Not every family owns one, as it’s an expensive investment of about $1,500 (a year’s salary for some.) Each family works for itself and keeping what it earns, with no mandate to share with their fellow villagers. Vegetables and fruits grown are sold at the Sapa marketplace and their trinkets and clothing are marketed aggressively to any tourist in town.

The path eventually connects with the main road and I see people on motorbikes carrying roofing materials for a new house. Obviously the amount of material a couple of individuals can carry on these roads via bike is a fraction of the total needed, thus making building a house here both labor intensive and inefficient as compared with the machinery and infrastructure available to builders in the west.

Cash crop + spending
Eventually we reach the village of my guides. We’ve walked almost five hours to traverse these ten miles, I sit down with a French couple who smoke the local marijuana they’ve purchased (cash crop). They offer me some, I decline as always. They tell me it works, but it’s not very potent.
I ask my guides whether the government ever makes problems for them over the mari-j. “No, the government doesn’t care what we do here, we never see any government officials.”
I ask what they do with the money they work so hard for. Well, believe it or not one of their biggest expenses is fertilizer, as she points to the bags stacked in the corner. They also use left-over funds for things like building materials/repairs, and Western clothing.
Video: Cute kids, village, and copious amounts of marijuana

Change afoot

A year and a half ago electricity arrived, and soon after cellular access. My guides boast of the advantages, telling me that when there would be a big event such as a wedding they used to have to walk miles to neighboring villages to invite their friends. Today, they are just a click of the button away. Combine that with the new schools, and it’s safe to say this distant region of the world, is slowly but surely being homogenized. One day, maybe 20 years from now, it won't likely be terribly different than any other location on earth. 
Travel will be very different for my children. 

Black Hmong children at play

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