“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.” ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
I spent the last couple of days in the northwest mountains of Vietnam around Sapa. The French once called this area the Tonkinese Alps - it’s home to the highest peak in southeast Asia Fansipan. Sapa town is a strange mix of hippie backpackers (mostly European), outdoor trekking types (lots of pants with zippers) and the native Black H'mong, Flower H'mong and Red Dau people (hill tribes).
While it was supposed to be one of the drier times of the year to visit, mother nature had other ideas. It was pouring when I arrived and a grey fog settled around the mountains. I decided to take my chances and booked a guide for the following day for a 12km trek to three neighboring hill tribe villages. On the morning of the trek (which honestly I hoped meant walking), it was misty and cool, but the rain had ended. I met my guide Ahn and we headed through town, out the main road, past the checkpoint for entry into the hill tribe area and onto the trails. As we hiked up and down the mountain side, through rice fields, mud, more mud, and rocks, she leapt like a mountain goat and I kept hoping I wouldn’t slide several hundred feet down the mountain through the orange mud.
The clouds moved in and out of the valley and I could see endless steep slopes carved into terraces for rice planting, water buffalo grazing, wooden houses perched on the side of the mountain and small villages in the valley below. While it was take-your-breath away beautiful, it also become clear as I talked with Ahn and others over the next two days, it was not an easy life.
The H'mong are a very traditional people, trying to grow enough rice to feed the family through the winter, making most of their own clothes, including spinning hemp fibers, dying cloth and embroidering designs and taking care of their families, young and old. The outlying farms do not have electricity (or heat), just a water-powered generator for a light bulb or two. It can be a two or three hour trek (each way) from the farm to the nearest market or village to sell or trade goods. Education especially among girls has been a problem. Many marriages are arranged based on astrological signs and birth years.
As I visited the villages with Ahn and the next day at a hill tribe market, I began to wonder how many more generations will live like this - both the good (strong families and culture) and the bad (poverty). There is better access to education for the H'mong people and a push to keep children in school longer. There is a greater opportunity to earn money through tourism and some H'mong are moving away from the family farms. H'mong teenagers with cell phones are probably going to start arranging their own dates. I hope they can navigate a future without loosing their past.