“Why you no bring your girlfriend?” the Hmong women asked. “She no friendly?”
“Sure Marie is friendly,” I said. “Why wouldn’t she be friendly?”
The women, laughing, reminded me that when I’d visited Sapa in 2010 they told me to bring my girlfriend next time, “Unless she no friendly.”
Ge, Chang, Vi and I were sitting in the lobby of the Cat Cat View hotel, picking Hmong songs to put on their iPods. All three of them were struggling to pronounce Marie’s name.
“Maybe we call her Movie?” Ge suggested.
“She’d probably like that,” I said. “Why don’t we get her on the phone and ask?”
On speakerphone, Movie embraced her new name and gamely tried to field a barrage of simultaneous questions before Ge grabbed the phone and ran outside for a one-on-one conversation. Five minutes later Ge came back laughing. I decided it was best not to know what had been communicated.
Later I showed Ge some of the photos I’d taken earlier in my trip. She skipped through most of them without showing much interest, but her face lit up when she saw shots of rice terraces in the Philippines. “How they know how to do this?” she asked, a little surprised that the Hmong don’t have a monopoly on sculpting hillsides into agricultural art.
Ge scrutinized the Batad rice terraces with an expert eye, taking in every detail. A shot of someone planting rice prompted her to comment that the grip they use in the Philippines is slightly different than the Hmong grip. She was particularly impressed that the walls supporting the Filipino terraces were built with stones. “Here walls only mud,” she said. Generously, Ge concluded that the main area of rice terraces in Batad was as beautiful as anything in Sapa.
Earlier I’d walked from Sapa down along the road to Lao Chai and Ta Van for photos of the rice terraces in the afternoon sun. I revisited spots I’d photographed in 2006 and 2010, and – given that I was visiting during the dry season this time, when the fields aren’t very green – the scenes were almost unrecognizable.
I was rarely alone as I walked along the road. Hmong women struck up conversations, angling for me to hire them as a trekking guide. And roaming bands of kids hung around in the (vain) hope that I might do something interesting.
The next day Vi invited me over for another lunch, and we talked about her efforts to improve her English skills. “How can I help?” I asked. Vi shrugged. She said she took a class offered in Sapa, but after three months the teacher never moved on from the ABCs. She didn’t want to go to an Internet café to take an on-line class because she’d need to bring her baby and people smoke there. “Do you have a laptop?” I asked. Vi said she used to have an old one but had to give it to her brother.
“Could I mail you a laptop when I get back to the United States?” I asked. A used laptop that would be extremely useful to Vi would cost next to nothing in the US. But postal services don’t make deliveries to Vi’s place, and there wasn’t anyone with an established address she trusted enough to receive a package like that for her.
“Can we buy a used laptop here?” I asked, somewhat hesitantly. I wasn’t going to buy six laptops, and giving something to Vi that I didn’t also give to my five other Hmong friends would almost certainly cause trouble. But looking only at Vi’s situation – forced to give up school at an early age despite still wanting to learn, homebound with her baby almost all the time – I couldn’t help but think what a big difference it would make for her to have a laptop.
Vi talked it over with her husband, and later the three of us walked over to a local electronics store. All the laptops there were brand new and overpriced, but they did have an older-version (but still new) iPad Mini that was relatively inexpensive. The three of us agreed it was perfect for Vi, and I bought it.
That was the easy part. Getting it set up was an obstacle course of unanticipated challenges (e.g., we needed access to Vi’s Gmail account to create an Apple ID in order to download apps but Vi couldn’t remember her password and she no longer had the phone she’d associated with the e-mail address so there was no way to recover the password, etc.).
As we worked on the iPad at Vi’s place I was surprised that the other Hmong women didn’t seem particularly interested. Nobody even asked where the iPad had come from. Did they not know I’d bought it for Vi? Did they not care? I decided to keep my mouth shut and hope for the best.
As always, I was sad to leave Sapa. I said goodbye to my friends and let them know I hope to visit again before too long. The women had each given me hand-crafted gifts, including a traditional Hmong shirt, a skirt and purse for Marie, a scarf, a pillow case, and a stuffed elephant made of fabric patches (which, while very appreciated, presented an interesting challenge for someone with limited packing space). A mini-van took me back to Lao Cai, where I caught the night train back to the heat, humidity, and crazy congestion of Hanoi.
A few days later my phone rang. It was Chu calling over Facebook Messenger. She sounded angry. “Rah, you know why I call?”
Uh-oh… “No Chu, why?”
“I think you know.”
Oh crap. Busted! The jig was up. Apparently the Hmong girls hadn’t known I’d bought the iPad Mini for Vi, but one of their friends had seen us at the store and reported it to them later. Chu claimed they weren’t angry I’d bought something for Vi, they were angry I’d lied to them about it.
“I didn’t lie,” I said, unsure of my footing and how this might affect their relationship with Vi. “You didn’t ask about it so I thought you knew.”
“We not know,” Chu said, clearly upset. She proceeded to recite a long list of inequalities I’d been responsible for over the years, from 2006 (when I hadn’t bought a bracelet from all six of them) through the present (when I spent more time at Vi’s place than Chu’s place, Ge’s place, or Ya’s place). “Before we think we all your good friends, now we think only Vi your good friend.”
I explained that they were all my good friends, that I’d spent more time at Vi’s place because she invited me to lunch twice and Chu hadn’t invited me once, and that I was sorry Chu felt bad about the iPad. I promised I’d try to be more equal in the future. Chu didn’t find any of my words to be very persuasive, but I think she appreciated the effort and eventually she began to cool off. “OK I no angry,” she said before we hung up.
Later Ge called. I thought she might be angry too, but her son Anh just wanted to say hello. He was shy when we first met, but Infinity Blade on my iPad won him over and he’d been sorry to see me leave.
“Chu sounds pretty angry,” I said to Ge. “Are you angry too?”
Ge said she didn’t really care about the iPad, but she hinted that Vi might not be quite as needy as she’d led me to believe. Ge basically suggested that I could avoid more headaches by not buying any of them anything.
Ge was right, of course. Vi used to make a similar point. But I didn’t feel bad about the iPad. The impact the gift will have far outweighs the cost. And can you really blame Vi if she’s a little more opportunistic now that her focus has shifted to giving her daughter the best life possible?
Having said that, I may finally have learned my lesson. The next time I visit Sapa I’ll no doubt make some other kind of drama-triggering mistake, but any gift-giving will be strictly equal.