The 8 month old baby boy apart from her mother’s milk, was fed rice water. He came to this world a month premature and his mother, Ca, a 19 year old Hmong girl, felt the labour pain while on a trekking assignment. Thankfully she was given a handphone as a tour guide and could contact her mother-in-law and husband. They arrived in time but it was too late to bring her home or to the hospital.
With a pair of scissors, her mother-in-law skilfully cut the umbilical cord and tied it into a knot. Her baby boy was delivered along the dirt track, by a rock. He weighed only 1.5kg. When we met her, she was eager to show us the place where her baby boy was born.
Another local guide, Zar at the age of 40, told us how she gave birth to all 5 children at home. It was easy and to have their babies in a hospital would have been scarier. This is Zar’s youngest daughter.
Apart from being a tour guide, she does home stay for tourists and her daughter and son-in-law runs a small snack stall. Among the tour guides we had, she is considered more well off, with better living condition.
She helped her 20 year old daughter deliver her baby boy at home. This is her grandson, about a year younger than her youngest daughter.
Lala, daughter of Guide So, is 4.5 years old. She could piggyback her elder sister who is 9 and double her weight. Lala could start the fire, brew the tea, slice the pork, cook it over the fire and serve the guest when the parents were out. Some 5 year olds I know can’t even feed themselves, much less handle anything in the kitchen.
These girls, especially the Hmong lead a hard life and I think that is what makes them tough even at a very young age. They face multiple disadvantages. Constrained by the traditions of family preference for sons, girls spend long hours on domestic chores with little chance to rest, play or socialise, let alone complete school.
Seen as ‘other people’s women’ from birth, they have accepted their traditional feminine identity and are largely isolated from the modernising world. Many of them struggle to imagine lives different from that of their mothers.
“My” (pronounced as “me”) is our tour guide on most days during our stay in Sapa. She recognises the different plants and fruits that grows along the roads. She even knows the buffaloes by their faces. I am convinced that she and her younger sister, Sio were probably the reasons why my 5 year old could walk so far. They played with him, held his hands and sometimes even carried him on their backs.
If you ask My, she will tell you that she is 16, because she thinks that 16 is a nice age to be. We were told that she is probably 13 or 14. They couldn’t be sure as she doesn’t have a birth certificate. She was born at home and her mother probably didn’t register her birth, either that or she had misplaced it. Without any form of identification, she is effectively without any nationality.
My has been working with Ethos Adventures as tour guide for more than a year now. When we met her, she was almost as tall as me but we were told that when she first joined the team, she was small and malnourished. She is one of the many local tour guides that the tour agency employs, usually women from underprivileged families. (Ethos Adventures have done extensive studies on how to improve the lives of these people. I recommend you to head over here to have a read if you are interested).
Beside employment, Ethos Adventures provides My lodging, food and teaches her English. She could speak fluent English when we met her and her ambition is to one day open a tour agency that is even bigger than the one she is working now.
Our days of trekking brought us face to face with many local children. We saw much poverty. Children barely dressed and without shoes. They are often smeared with dirt, badly in need of a good bath.
It was the summer school holidays. The children spend most of their waking hours working the fields and tending the buffaloes. They are supposed to return to school after summer but some do not go back.
Sometimes, the school is too far away – it could be an hour and half by foot, one way. Sometimes, they are needed to work in the fields. Sometimes, they think that Vietnamese school is the government’s way of subverting their identity and way of life. Sometimes, they just don’t see the point. Sometimes it was more profitable selling made in china trinkets on the street. It is perhaps with a little more than a tinge of sadness that I write this. The vicious cycle of poverty in slow poetic motion.
There were these 2 kids, barefoot and dirty, presumably brothers who were standing by the fence to their land. They were barely 4 or 5 years old. We passed the older brother two biscuits, with the intent of passing the younger brother some biscuits as well. With neither a word nor a moment of hesitation, the older brother turned and gave one to the younger brother. They stuffed the biscuits into their mouths with their mud covered hands and stared at us. In poverty, they have learned to share what little they have. Amazingly touching, I can’t find the words to describe it.
A friend brought along a portable photo printer and started taking pictures of the local kids and printing them out for them along the way. These 2 boys were ready to smile for the camera after seeing how their friend got a picture of himself sitting on the buffalo.
Somehow, the look on their faces and the the light in their eyes tell me that the little pictures of themselves would be cherished.
It is the local children of Sapa that touched me the most on this trip. Thoughts of them continue to haunt me. I think of them much, about their difficult lives in the mountains, their future, their poverty. But most of all, I think of the strength, the spirit and the beauty of their people in these children. They have left an indelible impression.