At the end of my first day in Sapa, my Hmong friend Chu asked, “What you do tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “What do you think I should do?”
“We trek to Ta Van and you have lunch at my house,” she said. Sold! Chu’s Mom was with her at the time so I knew I wouldn’t be showing up unexpected, and there’s no way I’d miss a chance to have my first authentic Hmong meal.
I met Chu out in front of my hotel at 9am the next morning and we started walking towards Ta Van. “Horse,” Chu said right away, holding out her hand. “Horse?” I asked. “Horse!” she repeated, this time making a tapping motion with one of her hands. It took me a minute to figure it out – by “horse” she meant “knight,” and by “knight” she meant she wanted my iPhone so she could play chess while we walked.
When I first visited Sapa in 2006 I hiked to Lao Chai, a village near Ta Van, and on the way I took the two rice field photos below.
Walking with Chu four years later I took the same photos to see how the scenes had changed.
About an hour into our hike Chu got a call on her cell phone. “Talk to Vi,” she said, handing me her phone. Vi! My first friend in Sapa and the one I most looked forward to seeing again. The day before in Sapa Vi’s mom told me that Vi was out leading tourists on a trek but might be back soon.
“Hello Vi!” I said.
“Hello Ror! How are you?” (As I mentioned in a previous post, the “B” in “Rob” is tough for the Hmong to pronounce, so the way most of them say my name sounds like Rah, Russ, or Ross. But with Vi it sounds like Ror.) Just hearing Vi’s voice again made me happy. She said she would be back in Sapa that evening and could meet me and Chu for dinner. Perfect!
As if that wasn’t enough, Chu told me that My, the only one of my six Hmong friends I hadn’t talked to yet, was in Ta Van and should be able to join us for lunch. Who could have guessed it would be so easy to find them all again?
I started to annoy Chu by stopping too often to take photos, but the scenery was incredible and we kept running into interesting characters, who, for the most part, happily agreed to be photographed.
Way back in high school I participated in a program called Amigos de las Americas, basically a junior Peace Corp for high school and college students. During the summer you live for a month or two with a poor rural family in a Latin American country, and while you’re there you lead some kind of public health initiative. After my sophomore year I spent a month in Mexico and after my junior year I spent two months in Paraguay.
In Paraguay I lived with Guarani Indians, and when I arrived at Chu’s house I felt like I was right back with my Guarani family. Despite the distance and cultural differences, Chu’s house was fundamentally identical to the Guarani house I remembered: wooden planks for walls and doors, open holes for windows, dirt floor, corrugated tin roof, pit for a cooking fire, chicken and other animals wandering around the yard, no running water, no formal toilet. The only major difference was that Chu’s house had a landline phone (as of just one year ago, she said), a TV set, and an old-school sewing machine.
Inside Chu’s house I met two of her younger brothers and one of her younger sisters. They didn’t speak English and Chu was too busy with the iPhone to do much translating, so I didn’t get to know them very well. But they were really friendly and seemed to get a kick out of having a tourist at their place.
Chu was right about My: she and her mom showed up very soon after I arrived. My was always the quiet one of the group, and she was even quieter now, because – unlike the other girls – My stayed in her village and no longer interacted with tourists, making her a little uncomfortable with her command of English. But I was really glad to see My and we had fun going through the photos I brought her.
Lunch was excellent: steamed rice, pork, tofu, and some kind of green vegetable. Chu’s mom, Chu, My, and I ate in a cool, dark side room, away from the fire, sitting around a low table on tiny wooden stools. In what is becoming a familiar scenario, they took one look at my chopsticks skills and immediately offered me a fork.
The day before I’d shown Chu photos of Marie, and Chu decided she wanted to make Marie a belt as a gift. So after lunch Chu sat down at the sewing machine to do some work on her project.
Chu asked her mom to help her with the next step of her work on the belt and the two of them spent about a half hour on it while I tried to take photos. I could see the shot I wanted, but the lighting conditions were extremely tough and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I have an embarrassingly poor track record of turning vision into reality when it involves a high level of photographic trickiness. There wasn’t much light in the hut, thanks in part to the cloudy, rainy weather. But Chu’s mom sat facing the side yard and whenever she looked up her face caught the pale light streaming through the open doorway. I bumped the ISO to 3200, opened the aperture as far as it would go, and darkened the auto-exposure by two stops, but I was still stuck with a very slow shutter speed (1/25). There’s no way I would have been able to get the shot below if I wasn’t in such a lucky situation – Chu’s mom was so used to my camera by then that she’d stopped paying attention to me and I was free to take as many shots as I needed to get it right.
By the time we left Chu’s place it was getting late, so we hired a motorbike to return us to Sapa. It wasn’t raining when we left but on the way it started pouring and Chu and I both got soaked. Back in Sapa we each went to our places to change into dry clothes, then we met up again to wait for Vi and also for My, who decided to spend a few days in Sapa so she could hang out with the gang.
How great to see Vi again! Chu apparently told Vi about Marie, because when Vi showed up she handed me a big wrapped present and said it was a gift for my girlfriend. Chu had just finished the belt she made for Marie and gave it to me a wrapped box, too, and then My joined in by adding her own gift to the growing pile.
At dinner Vi didn’t waste any time scolding me for what she considered to be a broken promise. “Before you say you come back one two year,” she said. “But it take four year.”
On the last day of my first visit to Sapa, the Hmong girls asked me if I would ever visit Sapa again and I told them I would try my best. Vi asked if I would come back in a year or two, and I did tell her I would try but that it would probably take longer. So she remembered the “year or two” part and I remembered the “probably take longer” part. I switched to a better-late-than-never defense, suggesting that lots of tourists probably say they’re going to visit again but never even come back at all, and that seemed to get me off the hook.