If civilization collapses, the Hmong who live around Sapa will be just fine. They’d be inconvenienced, of course – many of them now have electricity, mobile phones, and motorcycles, and some earn their money from tourists. But fundamentally they’re subsistence farmers who know how to get everything they need from the land. Most still practice a lifestyle that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.
And yet they’ve been entirely engulfed by modern Vietnamese society. Sapa has grown explosively over the past ten years. The road and trail from Sapa down to nearby Cat Cat Village is now almost completely lined with hotels and shops. When I walked around Cat Cat this time, it felt more like a tourist exhibit than a functioning Hmong village. The primitive shack where I once watched a Hmong boy play with a bug on a leash has been torn down to make room for construction.
The analogy isn’t perfect, but what the Hmong are experiencing isn’t completely unlike the challenge Native Americans have faced. How do tribal people react when they’re surrounded by a modern state? Do they slowly abandon their own culture and assimilate? Do they struggle to stay separate? Or can they collectively navigate an acceptable balance, adopting some news ways while preserving the most important parts of their identity?
It’s fascinating. I knew almost nothing about the Hmong when I first visited Sapa in 2006, but I was lucky enough to befriend a group of amazing Hmong girls, who I reconnected with when I visited Sapa again in 2010. Several of the girls – women now – have started using Facebook, so it was much easier to find them this time. On my first day in Sapa I got a call from Chu over Facebook Messenger.
“Rah, where are you?” It’s tough for them to pronounce the ‘ob’ sound at the end of my name, so when they try to say Rob it usually comes out as ‘Rah’ or ‘Russ.’
Chu and I met at the old market and I followed her to the same ramshackle building in downtown Sapa where Ge and Vi lived in 2010. Now Chu and her older sister Ya have moved in too. All four of them are married and have a child, and each of the four families lives in a single concrete room that opens onto a narrow courtyard.
Ge was out leading tourists on a trek that afternoon so I didn’t see her until the next day, but I had a lot of fun catching up with Vi, Ya, and Chu and meeting their husbands and kids. They said they don’t speak to Chang much anymore, but they gave her a call and she came into town later to say hello. The only one of my original six friends who no longer lives in the area is My.
Here’s a quick update on each of them:
Vi is almost 22. She spent some time working at a travel agency in Hanoi before returning to Sapa and getting married. A few months ago she had a baby daughter, Anh Tuyet. Vi’s husband Choj works at a nearby hotel. Vi said she hasn’t worked in about a year and spends almost all her time at home with her baby.
Ge is 25. She was the only one of the group who was married when I visited in 2010, and her son Tuan Anh is almost six years old now. Ge’s husband cooks at a restaurant and she still leads tourists on treks.
Ya is 21. She and her husband have a one-year-old daughter named Su, and she still leads treks.
Chu, Ya’s younger sister, is 19 and still leads treks. She and her husband have a one-year-old daughter named Shui.
Chang is 21 and has two kids. She lives in Lao Chai – her husband’s village – but still comes into Sapa to lead treks.
My, Ge’s older sister, is 26. She married a non-Hmong Chinese guy and moved to his home in China.
It was awesome to hang out with them again, and to see them all doing so well. They doted on their kids and seemed to love being parents. Even Ge’s younger sister Little Chu is married and has a baby, which – given how young she looked in 2010 – was tough for me to believe. But apparently Little Chu is 18 or 19 now, not much younger than Chu, and for the Hmong it’s normal to be married with a kid at that age.
Even more surprising, Chu and Ya said their mom had another baby a couple of months ago. “Wow,” I said. “That means your daughters have an aunt younger than they are?”
“Yes!” they laughed.
Before starting my trip I’d tried to come up with a good gift to bring my friends. It had to be small and light, given that I’d be carrying it through five countries. I wanted it to be nice without being so expensive that it felt like too much. And I thought it should be something they’d have a tough time buying for themselves. The best idea I came up with that met all the criteria was to get each of them an iPod Shuffle, figuring that as an added bonus we’d have fun going through my music library to pick out the songs they wanted. I also brought an English-Hmong dictionary for Vi, something she’d asked about back in 2010.
So I was excited when I finally handed them each a small square box wrapped (poorly) in red paper. Chu opened hers first. She stared at it and frowned. “What is this?”
“A little iPod. For listening to music.”
They all looked skeptical. “How we put music on?”
“With my laptop. You can look at all the songs I have and pick the ones you want.”
“You have Hmong music?” Chu asked.
Uh-oh… My stomach sank. I did my best to sound optimistic. “No, but I have a lot of other music.”
“English music, we no like,” Chu said. And by ‘English music’ she meant any non-Hmong music.
“Where do you get Hmong music?” I asked. Ge pulled out her smartphone and went to YouTube, where – as it turns out – there are thousands of Hmong music videos, almost all of them love ballads. Who knew?
Back at my hotel that night I found an app that converts YouTube videos to audio files, and over the next few days the Hmong women and I spent hours choosing, downloading, and converting about a hundred Hmong songs. Crisis averted. Now that we had the right music, they gradually warmed up to their new gadgets.
There were some exceptions to the no-English-music rule. Ge, for example, found on YouTube a cover of Rihanna’s song Stay that she liked, and she also asked for Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (which, I swear on all that’s holy, I did not already have). And Vi wanted a bunch of English music to use as a way to improve her language skills.
On my second day in Sapa, Vi invited me over for lunch – rice, morning glory, chicken, and pork wrapped in lettuce leaves, served from plates on the floor of her room – and we had a chance to talk more. She told me about her time in Hanoi, which she’d really enjoyed. “Why did you come back to Sapa?” I asked.
“How did you meet your husband?” Vi said she’d known her husband her whole life. He grew up in Lao Chai, the village next to hers, and he knew he wanted to marry her 10 years ago. “When did you know you wanted to marry him?”
Vi shook her head. “I not know. My parents say.”
“Your parents? They arranged your marriage?”
“Yes, always parents choose.”
“Does anyone ever say no?”
Vi explained that years ago women in her community had to say yes to the first husband their parents picked, but now they’re usually allowed one veto, maybe two, if they really don’t like the guy. After that, though, they have to say yes. Vi confirmed that she, Ge, Chu, Ya, Chang, all had their marriages arranged by their parents.
At the risk of prying I kept asking questions. “Were you happy to marry Choj?”
“He seems like a nice guy,” I offered.
Vi didn’t change her expression. “Don’t know we see.”
“Will you and Choj decide who your daughter will marry?”
“No,” Vi said immediately and firmly. “She marry who she want.”
Later Vi mentioned that she almost exclusively speaks Vietnamese to her daughter. She wants to make sure Anh Tuyet will be fluent in both Hmong and Vietnamese when she starts school, so that she won’t be at a disadvantage to the non-Hmong Vietnamese students. Chu, on the other hand, only speaks Hmong to her daughter.
There doesn’t seem to be much question that Vi would rather assimilate into Vietnamese society than adhere to Hmong culture. She may be an outlier now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she has plenty of company before too long.