January 6, 2007

Talk to the hand!

We signed up for a trekking trip through the hills of Sapa in northwest Vietnam, to take in the scenery and to see the traditional way of life of the ethnic minority groups, such as the H’mong and Dzai. (Check out Jonathan’s photos)

Sapa seemed overrun by western tourists, and we initially worried that we wouldn’t meet any locals on our trip. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. Dozens and dozens of girls and women in traditional dress sought us out, hawking all manners of handmade goods – cloth, embroidery, purses, wallets, bracelets. Although heavily accented, their English was startlingly good. Usually as soon as we left the hotel lobby we were quickly surrounded by groups of women and girls, some as young as four years old, thrusting goods in front of us and chanting “Buy from me!”

One big bonus was that I, personally, was largely ignored by the locals, who concentrated on the rest of the group. My tour guide cued me in – “They think you’re Vietnamese,” he whispered. “Vietnamese never buy anything.”

We hiked down through the amazing terraced rice paddies that lined the hillsides. From above, the rice paddies look smooth, seamless and perfectly sculpted. From ground zero, I saw that each paddy actually has a lip, and thus creating a small pool to to keep water in. I discovered that there were small channels of water running systematically downhill, sometimes powering wooden rice mills designed to separate the grain from the husk. Wildflowers lined the edges of the paddies, while pigs wallowed in the mud to keep cool, and ducks swam in the little pools. Completing the perfect pastoral scene were water buffalo munching on hay, chickens pecking the ground, and little boys playing with sticks and hoops.

After dinner, we went with our fellow trekkers for a drink at a very non ethnic minority English pub, complete with blaring music, bar stools and a pool table. To my surprise, 3 H’mong girls (we found out later they were actually 18-24 yrs old) in full traditional dress were wielding the pool cues with ease, sinking stripes and solids with attitude. They were so out of context for me in that bar, it was like walking into a bar and seeing a giraffe calmly chewing on a leaf. One table near by had several more H’mong women sitting quietly playing cards. No one was drinking alcohol, but they seemed very at home there. After a few interactions, we found out that they were saavy, spoke excellent English, and worked as local tour guides for their villages.

The influence of over 10 years of constant tourist interaction was clear – they could play pool, exchange insults, and talk trash with the best of them. They’d met people from all of the world, and knew quite well what was fashionable – one of them was out of traditional dress, in a spaghetti strap tank top and a miniskirt and silver hoop earings. This all from villagers who have only intermittent electricity, no running water and only one TV in the whole village.

After a heated debate about whether a ball was fairly sunk into the hole, the most hyperactive H’mong woman screamed at Jonathan “Talk to the hand!”, with perfect hand gesture and intonation. We all watched, fascinated.

I left the bar thinking about what a strange line these women walked. They lived in a traditional village, farming rice and taking pigs to market, and yet were irreversibly changed by constant exposure to tourists and the outside world. It made me think of the book “The Ladies Paradise” by Emile Zola, depicting the lives of shopgirls in 19th century Paris. The shopgirls were trained with the mannerisms and the taste to be able to interact with the wealthy aristocracy, but would never be one of them. They stradled two worlds, and were not fully content in either.

How does it affect village life? It is the women who earn the living, who make the traditional crafts that tourists buy. It is the women who go out and hawk them. It is the women that have the exposure to westerners and their ideas.

I can only imagine how bewildered a Hmong man might be if his wife suddenly put her palm inches from his face and shouted out “Talk to the hand!”…

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