My six Hmong friends grew up in the same village – Ta Van, a three-hour hike from Sapa – and when I met them four years ago they all lived at home and only came into Sapa to sell souvenirs to tourists. A lot has changed since my first visit but all of them are still doing great.
Vi moved to Sapa about two years ago to work as a guide for tourists who want to go trekking In the surrounding countryside. Vi isn’t exactly sure how old she is (Hmong mothers apparently don’t always make a point to remember exact birth dates), but she thinks she’s 16 or 17.
Ge got married about a year ago and already has a two-month old son. She and her husband Choo live in a small room two doors down from the room Vi shares with her sister Chau. Ge is 20 now, and she also works as a tour guide, although she’s taking a break from work until her son is older.
My, Ge’s sister, is 21 and said she doesn’t want to get married until she’s 25. She’s the only one in the group who doesn’t live in Sapa now. My lives with her parents in Ta Van and makes shirts.
Ya is a tour guide now, too. She’s 16 and she shares a room in Sapa with Chang.
Chu, Ya’s sister, is 14, and she’s the only one in the group who still sells Hmong souvenirs to tourists. Chu shares a room in Sapa with a friend but she also goes back to Ta Van a few times a week.
Chang works as a guide now too, making her the fourth of the six who have what is considered a great job in Sapa. I think Chang is 16 or 17, and she shares a room in Sapa with Ya.
Vi and My weren’t in town on my first day there, Ya and Chang had to leave that morning to lead trekking groups, and Ge needed to take care of her baby, so Chu got stuck hanging out with me. We decided to spend the afternoon hiking down to nearby Cat Cat Village.
Close to the start of our hike we passed a hut where four years ago I took the photo below.
I really like that ‘Bug on a Leash’ photo so I brought a print of it in case I ran into the family again, and as Chu and I walked by the hut we saw the father. I introduced myself and gave him the photo, and – although he looked a little confused – he invited me into his home again. Inside, he quickly passed the photo to his wife, who gave it a polite once-over before tossing it aside so she could try to sell me pillow cases and wall hangings. Unfortunately the son and the grandmother weren’t around this time, but I did get photos of the father and mother.
At the Cat Cat Waterfall Chu and I stopped at a food stand for lunch – BBQ pork, sticky rice, sweet potatoes, and eggs roasted in the shell.
Chu has changed quite a bit over the past four years, but within the group she is still the one most interested in modern technology, by far. Back in 2006 she monopolized my iPod and loved taking photos with my camera. This time she latched onto my iPhone, played games while we hiked, and frequently badgered me to download more games from iTunes. I was skeptical when Chu started a chess game on the iPhone, but she knew the rules and played well enough that several times she battled the computer to a draw.
When I started taking photos of Chu I asked, “What’s the best way for me to get you copies of these photos?”
“Send them to my Facebook,” she said nonchalantly, not bothering to look up from her iPhone chess game. I should have known! (The Vietnamese government blocks Facebook country-wide, but Chu learned how to use an alternate DNS server to get around that.) Hearing that Chu had a Facebook page, I figured the rest of the girls would be more tech savvy now, too, but it turns out that Chu was the only one who even had an e-mail address, let alone Facebook. The others just aren’t as interested, and reading and writing English is difficult for them. But all six do have mobile phones now, and Chu fielded several calls and texts as we hiked past rice fields and dirt-floor huts.
Back in Sapa a light rain began to fall, triggering the opening of hundreds of colorful umbrellas. When the rain started to let up I pulled out my camera and discovered that bringing my Hmong friends photos from four years ago had an unexpected benefit. Some of the other Hmong now recognized me and volunteered to have their photo taken, laughing and saying, “In four year you bring me photo, yes?”
I turned in early that night, tired but really happy after a great first day in Sapa.