Sho, Our Black Hmong Guide and Friend, Gets Married!
A beaming Antoine and glowing Sho enter their “white dress wedding.”
Those of you who have been following our newsletters for a few years know of our friend Sho, a beautiful, intelligent, vivacious Black Hmong woman with an acute business sense who was our first guide in the Sapa, Vietnam region, and who has continued being a special friend (see Newsletter #6 for an introduction). This summer, the timing worked out just right for Ari, Zall and Maren to attend her two weddings in Vietnam to her French husband, Antoine, who works as a hotel manager in Sapa; the first wedding was a Black Hmong event held at her parent’s house, and the second, a “white-dress” wedding at a nearby eco-lodge.
Ari, Sho, Maren and Zall get a quick moment together for a pose.
I need to preface with the comment that all of us have been “in love” with Sho since we first met her – she holds a special place in all of our “boy’s” hearts. I have called her “my daughter”, and have jokingly bemoaned the fact that Ari is 5 years younger and not old enough to marry her. As such, when the three of use first saw Sho and her daughter (born 2 months before the wedding!), huge hugs went all around. Just then, a man came out from a nearby coffee shop, and Sho introduced us – he was Antoine’s father. I put my arm around Sho and told him she is my daughter. He put his arm around her and said, beaming with pride, “No, Sho is MY daughter!” A better introduction could not be had. Having a father-in-law so pleased and happy with her relieved any of our anxieties about her acceptance into her new family.
Sho (left) and her sister, Thi. Both are excellent guides and translators.
In reality, Sho and Antoine were already married. They had had the formal paperwork wedding in early April, before their daughter Alice was born. We were invited to attend the fun Vietnam weddings; a fourth wedding was later held in France with all of Antoine’s extended family and European friends.
The Hmong wedding held at Sho’s parent’s house with a group of about 100, included Sho’s closest friends and family, Antoine’s closest local friends, and Antoine’s dad and brother who had flown in for the event. Many of the Hmong, as well as Antoine, were dressed in traditional Black Hmong clothing including a handspun, indigo-dyed cotton jacket – the women’s jackets had silk-embroidered sleeves – and a handwoven, indigo-dyed hemp vest with a silk-embroidered collar. The traditional Hmong wedding includes eating vast quantities of delicious local food, drinking non-stop, and hoisting uncounted toasts to the family of the bride and to the bride and groom. Had Antoine been a traditional local Hmong man, he would have knelt in front of the bride’s father; this step did not happen as Antoine had been accepted as family for some time.
Sho and her large, extended Black Hmong family.
It was hot, hot, hot. Even high-elevation Sapa is hot in June. Everyone who could shed their hot local clothing, but Sho said she couldn’t, as it was required of the bride. Throughout the meal and party, Sho nursed Alice, and handed her off to friends and family to hold. Even I got to hold her for a few minutes! As we would expect, Sho conducted the whole event – center of it all, in charge, and having a ball! Everyone toddled off in a happy state, including the three of us, who had to hire motorcycles to get us back to our hotel – the boys loved it!
The next day was the “white-dress wedding” – more of a reception – at an upscale eco-lodge an hour drive from Sapa that offered a stunning hilltop setting overlooking a lush, terraced valley full of sun and flowers. Sho was resplendent in her western wedding dress, with constant photos opportunities. She would yell “Zall – hey Zall – take a picture!” and he would go running to take more photos – over 1,000 that day alone! There were many more people at this event, about 300 total, including Hmong and Westerners, and a fabulous barbeque meal was shared.
Even though the Hmong and westerners knew each other, it was clear, watching their faces, that the Hmong were not used to the western ways of marriage, watching the celebrations from a slight distance and with questioning looks, not knowing quite what to expect next. Most of the Hmong wore their traditional clothes, except for the young lady friends of Sho’s who wore shimmery outfits in silk, cut to western styles. Sho danced with Antoine, her father-in-law, and Ari – the only ones so privileged! We knew many of the local people, having met them in the market or because of our “Above the Fray” interests; of course, we know many of Sho’s friends and family from our years of visiting.
A beautiful setting for a formal wedding, high in the north Vietnamese hills. The French developed the area as an escape from the lowland’s heat.
One of the young Hmong men, dressed in western garb, talked with me a bit, calling me “ma”. I asked him why everyone had been calling me “ma” (yes, it means mom, just like it looks), and he said that it was what Sho always calls me – her second mom. Boy did that make me feel special! It is true, I was the only western woman present at either wedding (her mother- and sister-in-law were at home preparing the wedding in France). All of the western men living in Sapa had Hmong girlfriends or wives, and there are no western women, it appears, who have made Sapa their homes.
Ari had to leave this wedding early to travel, for the first time alone, on to Vientiane, Laos, to start his internship with MAG (see his article in this newsletter). Zall and I stayed on and Ti, Sho’s sister, became our guide for a 5-day exploration of some new parts of NW Vietnam, including Son La Province. Ti’s husband Trang, the maker of the beautiful traditional Hmong jewelry we sell, came with us – his first time ever riding in a car! What a treat to be able to take him with us and share our trip! Sho, despite being on a honeymoon of sorts, called Ti daily to make sure everything was well – she obviously didn’t like the idea of relinquishing her shopping and guiding relationship with us! Needless to say, Ti was fabulous, and we discovered an array of new treasures we will share at our fall events (along with some new earring styles from Trang).
Maren spent several weeks traveling – and “shopping” – in the hilltribe region of Laos and Vietnam without the family this past season. However, as she tells in the following e-mail excerpts sent home, she was never lonely:
Maren modeling a shawl, loving the trip.
[We open in Vietnam’s Lao Cai Province, in and around the mountain town of Sapa which is home to mostly Hmong and Red Dzao (Yao) people who have a long tradition of embroidered hemp and cotton textile work. This cooler mountain area is quite developed, and attracts the few westerners who tour north Vietnam as well as up-and-coming middle class Vietnamese tourists – giant Hanoi is but an overnight train-ride away. With a good flow of tourists, street-vendors can be pretty aggressive in gaining your attention.]
July 24: OK – I am having an absolute blast traveling without the family – sorry gang! I keep turning around looking for Josh and the boys to comment about something, but other than that, it is fantastic.
Black Hmong woman selling machetes forged by her husband.
I am sitting in my room in Sapa, Vietnam, in the Queen Hotel, our usual place, with a cup of coffee, listening to the sounds of fresh tourists arriving and hordes of Black Hmong young ladies chasing after them with volumes of “…you buy from me? You no buy from me but you buy from her… I sell very cheap. Made by hand, made by hand…” all accompanied by the appropriate facial expressions and hand motions to convince you to buy. It is so fun to be a regular and watch the faces of newbies coping with the onslaught!
To backtrack. I arrived in Hanoi four days ago. The staff at our usual hotel greeted me with big smiles saying “Where is your family?” I spent the first day in Hanoi looking for our usual haunts to seek things we are not able to find in the villages and markets such as older ritual art and shamans’ masks. A couple favorite places had lost their leases and were looking for a new space. Real estate prices in downtown Hanoi have doubled in the last year, and landlords are ending leases so they can remodel and/or get new tenants at higher rates. However, our favorite place was still there, and I spent several hours hanging out with Hanh, the owner, and talking about our businesses, the state of tribal arts collection in Vietnam (she says it is EXTREMELY hard to get good items any more as most of the old stuff is already in people’s collections), family, and life in general. Without the family, I was able to just sit and talk with her and we got to know each other better – a wonderful opportunity.
Flower Hmong mom and baby.
Took the night train to Sapa – it poured all night and all morning, so my bags got soaked going from the train to the bus to Sapa – fortunately things dry…
The hotels in Sapa were all full Saturday night with Vietnamese tourists – it is peak season for local tourism. Sho (see newsletter #6) met me at the Queen Hotel (they all remember me) and I ended up staying at her apartment that night – the advantage of traveling alone. I spent the entire day with Sho – shopping in the local busy market, gasping for breaks, and then diving back in. Friends of hers made dinner, and I ate with Sho and about 6 others- women who all speak English, and have vowed not to get married unless it is to a Westerner; tourism and the ensuing education of the women through their guiding and selling efforts has made a huge impact on the cultural norms and expectations from the women’s perspective.
In the lush and gorgeous Red Dzao village.
The next day Sho, one of her sisters, the mother of a friend of Sho’s and I took a van to a Sunday market to search out primarily Flower Hmong items. The friend’s mom, having lived in Sapa all her life, had never been to the market – a 2-1/2 hour drive away! That friend, by the way, married a Canadian man and is currently living in Myanmar with him and their two children, and has invited us to come visit – next trip perhaps??
The hotel had a room for me on Sunday and Monday (today) so I am here now, surrounded by my selection of traditional handspun, handwoven, hand embroidered blankets, bags, and clothes, among other things. Last night I was having dinner at the hotel to avoid the selling crowds outside (yes, even I can have enough shopping), and one of the little boys (age 2) was having a crying fit. I got him one of my punching balloons for distraction. 20 minutes later, his bigger brother, who was perhaps 4, brought me a note his mom had written asking if I had another of those balls for him! I had been thinking of getting him one too. This morning they are happily playing with their still un-popped balloons. Kid toys are definitely the best things to bring on these trips.
Red Dzao women eager to show their work.
Today Sho and I are off to a nearby Red Dzao (Yao) village. I am looking for the fine silk-embroidered cotton clothing, baby hats, and accessories that are the pride of the Red Dzao women, and that they constantly embroider in their “spare” time making clothing for the next year’s wear. Sho and I will spend Tuesday labeling all of the items to get through customs, then I go back to Hanoi on the night train, and then on to Laos.
July 28: I am in Na Meo, the border town with Laos, and, at 8:45 PM it has finally cooled down to 89 degrees! It is only survivable inside with a fan going full blast – too bad the fan in my room only operates on speed 3 of 8… There is a soccer game on TV here – Vietnam vs. Qatar – and there are simultaneous moans or cheers from through out the hotel, restaurant, and surrounding town from the men – all of whom are of course watching it.
The man who runs the hotel, and his wife who runs the restaurant, remember me and the family. The first question was, of course, “Where are your babies?” – sorry guys. And, after lunch (as happened in Laos 5 years ago), I was asked to sit on the scale to see how many kilos I weigh. I gave in sooner this time – it is inevitable once they get the courage up to ask. Wild hoots of laughter as I mimed that I was equal in size to 3 Vietnamese women – they appreciated that. Of course, they have size 2 feet, their hands are half the size of mine, etc., but I am not the usual backpacker going through, and, having been there several times, I was easier to ask…. Humor is the only way to cope with some things!
Shoʼs favorite “pho lady” in the Sapa market. On the table are additions to the pho, including raw and cooked eggs, chicken intestines, regular or black chicken meat, morning glory and bamboo shoots.
So, to backtrack, the Red Dzao village near Sapa was a madhouse. Many of the village women stayed at their village instead of going to Sapa because they heard I was going there on Monday in search of their finely embroidered clothing, and other items. Sho and I walked through the village’s center dirt square and up to the “residential area” where we visited two houses – one is a BEAUTIFUL homestay run by a Hmong friend of Sho’s who married a Red Dzao man (and who now dresses as a Dzao). She is fluent in English too. Then we walked back to the main area where we had told the women would go to look at their textiles. Oh…….my……goodness….. I swear we were surrounded by 100 women. They were at least 6 deep, fully encircling us, shoving items constantly at us. We found a few really beautiful baby hats that had been outgrown by toddlers, as well as some stunning aprons that the women all wear over their derriers. Prices were haggled (are they good at this!), money changed hands, change was sent back or passed onto the next person who needed that amount, and on it went. It was fun, but felt like absolute chaos! The two guys we hired for a motorcycle ride to the village were sitting back laughing at us, particularly after I asked Sho to tell them that I would pay them more for waiting so long. We spent over 4 hours in the village. We were only able to escape by shoving our way onto the motorcycles, climbing on, and the drivers plowing a path through the crowd.
Ta May (in Red Dzao headdress), Tea (in Black Hmong outfit), and Sho (in western garb) on the balcony in front of my room in Sapa. We are labeling items for shipping and customs.
Anyhow, Sho, her sister Tea, and a Red Dzao woman, Ta May, from whom we have purchased several quality items, all helped me sort and sew labels on the items I purchased – I took them out for pho (noodle soup with meat) in the market as a thank you. Took a van to the train, off to Hanoi, and on to our regular hotel. They let me have a room for a couple of hours to shower, sort my gear, and cool off in air con for a whole $2.50. I left 5 large suitcase-sized bags of items for our shipper to pick up at the hotel and took a bus to a town halfway to the border with Laos to spend the night at a guest house where we have stayed before. The lady who runs it remembered me (see, it pays to be visually distinctive!) and I got a private room. Had a great chat with a German woman, 25, who just gotten her law degree. She was on a 3-month trip through Asia and had invited her German-only speaking parents to join her in Vietnam. I got to use some of my rusty high school German! This village is a White Thai village, and I found some lovely used baskets. Then, I rented a van (there are no buses) to Na Meo, the border town between Vietnam and Houaphon Province in Laos, where I started this e-mail. I called my friend Mai in Xam Neua who is meeting me on the other side of the border tomorrow, and all is on as planned. I am so excited to get to Laos!
[Xam Neua is the provincial capital of Houaphon Province in NE Laos. It is the only town in the province with over 1000 people, and very few tourists or westerners visit this region. Houaphon is home to the Tai Daeng people who are some of the world’s most gifted traditional silk dyers and weavers. They maintain a long tradition of using 100% natural dyes and locally raised silk and have, for centuries, honed the art of creating some of the world’s finest, most opulent silk art.]
July 31: In Xam Neua again – what a comfortable, friendly place! However, nothing can hold a candle to our favorite weaving village which is another 6-plus hours by bus into the hills.
A beautiful village valley in Houaphon Province.
Our friend and translator Mai and her son, mother, and nephew met me at the border on Friday, and we drove to the village, with her 7 year old son barfing out the window the whole time – twisty roads do lead to that! On arrival, it seemed I was greeted by everyone in town, from the pho seller in the market to our favorite restaurant owner to our weaving friends. I got hugs from our main women weaving contacts, which is a novelty, as the Lao will usually just touch someone on the shoulder or hold hands. It was stinking hot the first day, but then the rain came, for the first time in a week, and it got all the way down to 80 degrees. The electricity only works from 10 PM to 6 AM two out of three days, and, of course, I was there the two out of three…. I used my little battery-operated fan that hangs around my neck – everyone wanted one, particularly the kids.
Phut, Souk, Maren and Sukkhavit in Phutʼs house.
The whole time we were in the village I was treated to every meal. Each of our regular weavers and dyers offered a meal. At each meal, I also had to have an extra drink (ceremonial drinking to welcome guests is a mandatory part of Lao hospitality) with my host/ess in honor of absent Josh. We ate frog soup, fried catfish, crispy fried grasshoppers (anything fried that much just tastes like a french fry), boiled greens, bamboo rat (they look more like hamsters), fireball fruit (somewhat like lychi), and bananas – the ripe but green variety is absolutely delicious!
I had a fantastic time conversing with everyone, with Mai translating, about our respective businesses, why we are buying the new materials, not the old like some other tourists, and how we sell their items in America. I explained that we buy the new items because, if we bought just antique textiles, we would not only be robbing the culture of their history, but would also not be encouraging the young women to continue the tradition of weaving by helping to provide another market for their goods. So many cultures, with industrialization, stop producing their indigenous art, and if we can make just a small dent in delaying or avoiding that outcome in Laos and Vietnam, we would be thrilled.
Souk and Mai eating chestnuts and green bananas; to the left are some silk textiles Iʼve been admiring.
At one dyer’s house, I made a selection of stunning pieces, but chose to stop buying textiles because I had a budget for that village, and wanted to spread the dollars around to everyone. When Mai translated my comments to my hosts, they said that that we have a “spirit business” – an ethical, honest business based upon good relationships and truly caring for both the individual weavers and the village as a whole. It is what we are striving for, and I was so pleased at their comment!
A woman in Houaphon Province posing with her baby and handwoven “phaa sabai.”
I also got to see Mai enjoying herself with her childhood friends, watching them reminiscing about climbing a huge tree and jumping off a branch 30 feet above the river into the water. Mai grew up in this village, but moved away 20 years ago as one of the rare locals to gain acceptance to the university in Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. That’s where she learned English. She has since returned as a “Director of Tourism Development” and works in Xam Neua. Still, she only rarely visits her home village. Two of her childhood best friends are master dyers and weavers, and we spent the whole time together. Phut, who lives mostly in Vientiane now, came back to the village (two day trip, each way) just to join in the party (and the purchasing), and Souk, who was visiting Vientiane, also came back for me. I learned that when they sell in Vientiane, they do not get paid for their items until the pieces sell – sort of a consignment arrangement – so they really like that we pay cash on the barrel. Souk, by the way, had just developed a new dye, a shimmery bright marigold, using the “ear leaf tree” leaves. The new color addition has changed some of her color schemes.
Mai, in her separate cooking shed, making eel soup.
I have to say that Houaphan Province is achingly beautiful in this season. The rice fields are neon emerald, the forests are overwhelming lush, with bamboo, deciduous trees and vines all dripping with the rain and humidity, and the predominantly limestone ridged landscape is dramatic, particularly contrasted with the patches of terraced fields wherever the land is flat enough and there is enough water to support crops. People are working the rice fields, and water buffalo and cows line the roads. Because of the rain, Mai wanted to come back to Xam Neua as early as possible today because she was worried about landslides closing the road. There were about double the number of landslides going back, but they were all small and left at least a car width open on the road.
I am now back in Xam Neua and plan to spend tomorrow snooping around. I am going to buy some handspun cotton and silk skeins, and probably a few more textiles. I have been invited to Mai’s house for dinner tonight, and she is going to pick me up at 5:00 so I can help her cook – she said no to my wanting to help as it is more polite to do all of the work for a guest, but I told her I enjoy cooking, and I wanted to see how she makes the food, so she said OK. I think I will just chop stuff so I can watch what she does, but not get in her way. We stopped at a small village along the road this morning and bought about 3 kilo of frogs and 1.5 kilo of eels for dinner. The eels will be soup and the frogs, I don’t know. Maybe stewed, maybe fried. Either way will be delicious!
An incredibly delicious dinner. Top and bottom are the eel soup, left and right are the frog, and the other plates are cooked greens and two different “jaows”, – spicy dipping sauces – with a sticky rice basket on the floor on the right. Mai made one dish each of frog and eel without MSG just for me!
[Phonsavan is about 8 hours from both Xam Neua and the northern city of Luang Prabang. It is the dusty take-off point to visit the eerie “Plain of Jars,” and is home to Laos’ Mines Advisory Group (MAG) office.]
August 2: I’m in Phonsavan right now, where the Americans bombed the hell out of the Lao people during the secret part of the Vietnam War. Almost 40 years after the war ended, 200-300 people in Laos are killed every year from unexploded ordnance left from that war. Bomb casings decorate the front of the restaurant where I am now having dinner, admittedly a rather backpack tourist oriented restaurant, but I came here because they have wi-fi. It is dumping rain, as it did 5 times on today’s drive. When it rains here, it is serious!
The frog dish in a banana leaf in a pot, ready to cook – you can see the brown frog leg on the left side.
Yes, frog and eel were absolutely delicious with Mai. I helped chop some vegetables, but she did most of the work. I shared beer with the people who continued to congregate at her house throughout the evening, all of us using the same cup, as is customary in Laos. If you do not accept the drink in the shared cup, it is considered very rude. Mai told me that all of her family and friends who were with us, as well as everyone in the village, commented on my (and our family’s) eating all local Lao food and going along with all Laos customs, and they were totally amazed that a “falang” (literally “french”, but applied to any western tourist), would so casually eat and participate on a local level. Mai and I had hours of good conversation about different customs, philosophies, et al, and, once again, friendships deepened. Mai, like Sho, is somewhat between cultures. Because of her English fluency and expertise in the developing tourist industry, Mai won a Laos-wide contest two years ago for a scholarship for a Masters Degree program in rural economic and tourist development in Japan where she spent a year. Her friends in her home village call her a “second Falang”. She agrees that she is in an in-between place, but doesn’t resent it. I met a bunch of her women friends – a banker, a real estate regulator, a restaurant owner, and a cosmetics vendor – lots of laughs, and comments on how handsome our sons are (yes, I had photos)!
Kaiphet, our first translator in Xam Neua years ago, accompanied me on Monday afternoon to translate again. We went to see the woman who makes the exquisitely fine scarves, and finally had a lengthy conversation with her. (More on this phenomonal artists in our next newsletter!) I also met the basket weaver in Xam Neua who makes gorgeous water buffalo woven from fern fronds – fair prices, beautiful product, new contact!
Mai had arranged for a van and driver to Phonsanvan for me for today, and we stopped at several towns and weavers’ homes to hand off pictures I had from prior visits – very well received! I did have to buy a few more things….
[Luang Prabang is the spiritual center of Laos and its second largest city. It is home to some beautuful temples that date back some 700 years. It is also Laos’ tourist center, although if you walk 15 minute from the central area you won’t see a white face. Why is it that tourists all hang together? Luang Prabang has one of Laos’ two international airports.]
August 6: Sabaidee! I’m back in Luang Prabang and Josh is here! Good thing, because I was down to about $8.50, not including my emergency funds. He is feeling major jet lag, and is gently snoring next to me in the room as I write.
Vandara stirring a dye-pot full of annatto dye – see the seeds in the bamboo tray on the bottom left.
Once again, Vandara, the owner of the Vanvisa Guest House where we have now stayed 10 times, has been more than welcoming. I have eaten all but two meals with her in the last 4 days, and we have had outrageous conversations, deeply admired each other’s collections, and decided we were sisters in some past life. We’ve discussed business marketing techniques, how to label products for different markets, branding, dyeing materials, and, of course, poured over her lovely handspun silk and cotton, naturally dyed collection – some of which is coming home with us… Vandara’s husband’s 108-year-old grandma is still alive, but overseeing the general operation on a much decreased level – she manages to sit in her chair in the lobby/living room for only about 1 hour each day, compared to her usual 8. All of the young people who live and work here “sabaidee” her with bowed bodies to show respect by being lower than she is. It is really touching to watch them care for her, making sure she has food, tea, and company.
My first night in Luang Prabang I went to the night market – a rather rambunctious, but low-key handicrafts market, and ended up just buying a mango shake and going back home – there were so many falang there that I felt overwhelmed, and had to leave! I really prefer the remote villages without all of those other people like me! It is amazing what some young travelers think is OK to wear in Laos. There is actually a sign posted by an ATM saying men need to wear shirts and bikini tops are not appropriate for women. The skin-tight, skimpy clothing that some falang wear is truly culturally inappropriate.
The woman selling the carved wooden hangers.
Bought wooden carved hangers from our usual source in the market again. She recognized me when I showed up, and even remembered what she had charged me for each type of hanger I bought from her last year, even without looking the information up in a book. It is so nice to have established relationships with the best artists! Her husband and brother do the carving, and she does the cleaning and staining of the finished goods. She gave me her “business card”, and said that next time we were there, she would invite us to her house so we could watch her family making the hangers. It really pays to make and keep contacts – creates deeper relationships and insights into the daily life here.
One of the bamboo soup tureens made in the Khamu village.
We went to Vandara’s second guest house in a town about 45 minutes away next to an amazing set of waterfalls. We sat on a wooden covered platform right next to the limestone-stepped waterfalls, eating a locally-grown organic lunch in the cool of the breeze from the river, in absolute paradise. Wished we were staying there for a day, but business calls in Luang Prabang. However, Vandara got two batches of dye going in huge pots over outdoor fires, and showed us the dying methods she uses to make a black and an orange dye. She gave me skeins of annatto (orange) and indigo (blue) dyed handspun cotton. She is using this dying station to teach the local Khamu women how to naturally dye fabrics, and then how to weave. The Khamu are one of the poorest groups in Laos. Since her second guest house is in this Khamu village, Vandara is working hard to help the people learn skills that they can use to make money from the tourists who arrive daily to tour the waterfall. She also set up a bamboo workshop for the men to make bamboo cups, soup tureens, day beds, couches, and gorgeous huge beds. We’re thinking about it…
August 9: Got all of our stuff – 10 huge bags and boxes – off to Vientiane and our shipper this morning. I left them by the bus as the driver was loading his passengers for the trip – being Laos, the bags will arrive as scheduled. Here, the bus drivers own their bus, and are the driver, mechanic, cleaner, and mail delivery service, so their reputation is on the line if a package does not arrive as ordered. I get the driver’s cell phone and bus number, and swap it with our shipper’s number, and the driver calls our shipper as he arrives at the destination so the bags are picked up. Great country!
It has been dumping rain today. Fortunately, rain brings the temperature down about 15 degrees, so it is survivable, as long as landslides don’t block the way. We’re heading to our next, more rural, destination. The last few days have been a more “urban” experience, and we are looking forward to being in a less westernized environment, even though we greatly appreciate Vandara’s company (and spoiling us rotten).
Bus has arrived. At our new guest house. Tired, ready for bed. Had Beer Lao, fresh tofu with vegetables, beef and basil, and the ubiquitous sticky rice for dinner. New adventures await us tomorrow!
At the moment of writing these words, we are sitting in a thatch-roofed bamboo hut on the side of verdant rice patties watching two Akha women work the rice field opposite, while Tui, our guide, translator and friend, is cooking lunch for us on a fire below. These crude open-sided shelters are built primarily for use during planting and harvest seasons, and allow the field-workers to get reprieve from the sun, grab a meal or nap, or camp out overnight. But anyone is welcome to use one. We have an internet connection here, between Muang Long and Xieng Kok in NW Laos, about 8 miles from the border with northern Myanmar, because Tui has a mobile internet connection! He just plugged it in, logged us on, and here we are! Amazing.
In a rice field resting hut near the border between a Laos and Myanmar, with internet connection!
The town of Muang Long is wonderful. We are the only falang (literally “French”, but it refers to any westerner) we’ve seen in a week, except for a passing hello from Scott (of Maryland), who works with an agricultural NGO helping villages develop fish ponds and better planting techniques to improve consistency in food production. We are staying in a newer guesthouse in Muang Long that is owned by Tui’s sister. It’s a clean, simple, cement-block cube with a double bed, an overhead fan, and an attached bathroom with a squat toilet and a shower snozzle; joyful news – there is actually a hot-water- on-demand system. Tui is just as we remember him from 2006 – funny, kind and full of information on local cultures and people.
One question we are asked is how we present ourselves, as business-people, in small villages. How do we respectfully inquire if they have tribal arts available? Some villages, such as Xam Tai, are known weaving centers and new textiles are readily available for the inquisitive. Larger villages have open-air markets where business conversations are anticipated. But what about the small subsistence farming villages? One reason we love Tui is that he has an incredibly disarming and respectful approach.
This morning we visited Cha Kan Tanh. This village of perhaps 200 Akha people is about 2 km off the sealed road; the path to the village is well-worn by years of small motorcycle and foot traffic – a swaying, wooden plank bridge about 2-1/2 feet wide crosses the shallow river. The village is set on a knoll of hard-packed dirt, and the first sizeable home we encounter is wood-sided with a thatched roof, perhaps 500 square feet, and, like the other homes, set about 8 feet off the ground on thick wooden posts. The area under the home has wooden boards where two local children are sitting; stored under the home are farm tools, baskets, bamboo poles, and projects that need protection from the monsoon rains.
With other villagers laughing in the background, a young lady poses with her basket that she wanted to sell in Cha Kan Tanh village, Laos.
Today, however, it is humid and hot – the sun at this latitude feels close to the Earth. Tui and the two of us walk patiently up to the home and sit down on the benches. A couple children come over to ogle, and soon an adult, a woman in an Akha headdress, appears from upstairs. Tui says nothing at first, waiting for the sweat to dry on his face. He smiles and nods and then, in the Akha language, offers a “good morning,” which brings toothy smiles. The woman’s adolescent daughter brings out a tea kettle with three well-worn, unwashed glasses, and she proceeds to fill them with the light brown, boiled water (we ignore the “floaters”). We politely accept and, despite what our doctors might advise, take a draught. Tui looks around at the village scene, downs his water in a gulp, and doesn’t say anything for a full minute.
Tui begins by asking about the health of the village. It turns out that the night before a pig had given birth, not in the sty but in the village – a taboo. To appease the spirits, the pig that morning had been ritually slaughtered (and was to be eaten); thus most of the village members were not at work in the fields this morning, needing to attend to spiritual needs. “And the piglets?” Maren asks, “Did they also ….” “Yes, of course” Tui replies to us without asking our hosts.
As we share quiet pleasantries in the shade, other villagers start to drop by. One elder comments that we are the first white people in his memory to ever have visited their village, and everyone agrees; while tourists have zoomed by on buses and cars and motorcycles on the nearby road, none had ever walked the extra 20 minutes to this beautiful village. In Laos, one can easily “get remote.”
An Akha woman in full traditional garb showing skirt style.
Tui notices a particularly beautiful basket one villager is carrying, and he asks to look at it. He turns it over in his hands, and shows it to us. We all complement the basket-weaver’s talent, and this opens a conversation about who makes the local baskets. Tui also notices other items under the home – a couple of digging tools, a basket for catching fresh-water eels, a wooden plow. Tui is as interested in the cultural knowledge as we are (and keeps making Akha-language notes in his journal), and we all ask many questions about how the items around us are made and used.
More people join the hubbub. Soon locals are demonstrating how to bait eels, and another brings us a sample of the vines used for making shoulder bags. Tui, who used to be an elementary school teacher, starts teasing the once-skittish kids, and then he dons a small women’s basket and, to gales of laughter, mimes being a woman going off to the fields. About 60 Akha villagers now crowd in tightly, and, with more gales of laughter, watch our clumsy-fingered attempts to bait a delicate bamboo bird trap. By this time Tui has let the villagers know that we are collectors of quality tribal art who look for baskets and other wares that people might like to sell.
“Hex” symbols are being woven for the ceremony to appease the spirits of the rice fields and ensure a good crop.
Tui describes that we only seek baskets that are worn, but still whole. We bargain lightly for one Akha gathering basket with a deep warm patina; a few locals see the dynamic and over the next hour we are shown a variety of used baskets that the locals are willing to sell. The price stays stable – bargaining is inappropriate in rural Laos assuming a reasonable price is originally requested. In truth, cash is a valuable and rare commodity in the village, whereas basket-weaving materials and skills are indigenous. Another local brings us some finished piat shoulder bags that she had intended to sell at a nearby market; might we be interested? As we are “ooh-ing and ahh-ing” over baskets and textiles, we request if we can take photos of those selling us items. Most are eager to pose and then laugh as we share the picture on the camera’s viewing screen (we’ll bring them copies of the photos when we return). Some of the older women are bare-chested, but most cover themselves with a loose vest before posing for a photo; some choose not to have their photo taken at all. We are careful not to photograph small children alone who are thought to have more vulnerable spirits.
Maren learning from an Akha expert how to use a drop spindle to make recycled plastic “yarn”.
The skirts in this village demand some attention, as they are the lowest of the low- slung! It makes western “low-riding” pants look “square”. Most of the local Akha woman here wear a skirt that rides down around their backside to expose at least half their complete rears and rests underneath their bellies. What keeps these skirts up at all for modest coverage seems to defy the laws of physics!
An Akha silversmith shows us his technique.
Every village offers a different adventure. In one Akha village, in an open-air shop set like a watch-tower with a magnificent valley view, we shared time with a silversmith who was making a new set of ornaments for an Akha woman’s headdress. At another village, we talked at length with two women about piat, the jungle vine that is used to make fishing nets and knotted bags. Maren got a hands-on lesson on how to use a drop spindle – Tui said Maren was a natural – and she also learned to splice piat to make the string used for their nets and bags. The Akha ladies laughed and said Maren, with these new-found skills, was now an Akha! It helps to have patient teachers. A lot of their newer woven carrying bags are made from market nylon, or from used plastic rice-bags and tarps (those blue tarps are everywhere!). The Akha women simply undo the bags and tarps into fine stripes, and use the drop spindle to twist it into “yarn”.
Carved water buffalo horn forms for casting silver half-moons and circles.
At yet another village, we arrived toward the end of the weaving of a dozen bamboo “hex” symbols, three simple baskets, and a larger hex that were going to be part of the ceremonial offering to the spirits of the rice fields. The baskets were to each hold a chicken that would be sacrificed for the offering. Tui motioned to us to wait back a bit until he checked to see if it was OK for us to come near during the weaving of these objects to be used in a sacred ceremony. The locals said it was OK, and we were even allowed to take photos. No, we didn’t ask about acquiring a “hex.”
Not every village has things to purchase. Often we get a treat of traditional art only for viewing – just yesterday a shaman showed us his tools to appease the spirits – but of course a shaman’s tools are not for sale and we would never think to inquire as to such. Another village was stricken with grief at the loss of a 5-year- old; we shared glasses of weak tea, paid our deepest respects, and then excused ourselves.
A Hmong shaman’s altar with bowls, incense, gong, sword, offering cups, and bronze bells.
We can smell the fresh fish that Tui is cooking on the small lunch-time fire. In the middle of the hut, set out on a banana-leaf table, is the dried buffalo meat, a spicy eggplant dish, some pickled cabbage, fried pig skin, a cooked green leafy vegetable moosh, bamboo shoots, fresh aubergines, greens just pulled up from the edges of the rice field and rinsed in the watering stream next to the hut, and sticky rice that Tui has pulled out from his small pack to accompany the delectable fish. Ah well… here’s to our image of being rugged, outback adventurers on the “edge of civilization.“
Oh boy – lunch is on…..
Josh, Tui, Ont (Tui’s guide-in-training), and our driver (Tui’s new uncle-in-law) digging into a delectable lunch.
The Akha were originally a Tibeto-Burmese minority group who, in order to escape persecution in the 19th century, migrated south into southern China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Most are subsistence farmers who, by virtue of being late migrators, live in the more hilly, less accessible, and hence poorer parts of the region. There are 1-2 million Akha people divided into many “sub-groups” (classification techniques vary); 60,000 live in NW Laos. Traditionally they are animists, believing in ancestor worship and the spirits of the forest. Traditional Akha villages have a spirit gate at each entrance through which people who stay in the village must pass – this keeps unwanted forest spirits in the forest. Their ancient history is oral, and preserved in 10,000 lines of poetry memorized by “Pimas”, the designated story-tellers of the Akha. Only recently has a written form of the language been created.
The Akha leadership struggles for recognition and support in their host nations; some seek autonomy. About one-fourth of the Akha people have been converted to Christianity, also creating concern among its leaders, as conversion to any other religion undermines Akha traditions and culture. Laos does not allow active missionary work.
Akha women and children in NW Laos.
Last month, our guide and friend in Muang Long in NW Laos, Tui Chaddala (see newsletter #6), again created an unusual and magical opportunity for us. We had told Tui that while we were on a “shopping” trip for authentic cultural items, any chance to see unique cultural events would be most welcome, whether business-related or not.
Next day, quite by chance, we arrived at an Akha village (Puli sub-group), Pha Home, on the third day after an important 75-year-old elder, Pha Home’s coffin-maker, had died. We had missed the first two days when the body is wrapped in black and red fabric, the extended family is called to join, and a team of young men is sent into the forest to cut down an appropriate tree for the coffin (the Akha have government permission in a nearby forest reserve for such needs). We stumbled upon the event on its third day, after family and friends were assembled, and just after a water buffalo had been roasted to feed everyone for the ceremony’s duration.
Maren in front of an Akha Spirit Gate with a human figure showing the people’s side of the gate, NW Laos.
Upon our arrival, Tui, who knows some Akha language, checked with the villagers who nodded that it was OK to go up to the mourner’s house; we assumed our presence might be inappropriate, especially given the Akha belief that spirits directly affect daily life. Maren took a few surreptitious photos of the colorful scene with her camera resting on top of the case and set on the no-flash, low-light setting. People were in full ceremonial regalia – Akha women in headdresses covered in silver ornaments, jackets with embroidery and more silver on the back, pleated low-slung skirts, and a trapezoid-shaped shirt, most often tied just under the breasts. In Akha culture, women’s breasts are not sexualized, and are often bared, particularly on older and nursing women. Men wore loose indigo-dyed cotton pants and jackets with silver buttons down the front, and some wore red headdresses wrapped many times around the head so as to make a brim about 3″ wide.
Akha women in full regalia in the town of Pha Home, NW Laos.
Tui discovered that one of the sons of the deceased, Mr. Champa, was an acquaintance of his, and Mr. Champa quietly said we could join the family’s funeral party that day. We were then offered the traditional 2 shots of lao-lao (distilled rice whisky) and cigarettes, which we dutifully smoked (cough, hack!) to shared laughter. Tui told Mr. Champa that it was Maren’s first cigarette, and she was smoking it in his father’s honor – he thought that was a hoot! Around us was a great deal of laughter and conversation. Younger men were playing cards and gambling on the patio under the stilt-raised house; dogs were running around sneaking bones and tidbits of fat; chickens were hunting for rice grains and anything they could beat the dogs to; kids were yelling, chasing, crying, and generally being kids.
Akha men in full regalia, Pha Home, Laos.
After perhaps an hour, Mr. Champa invited us into the house and room where his father lay in state. The body was wrapped in red cloth, and an altar had been placed next to his head where people stopped to pray and chant and offer rice, meat, lao-lao, eggs, and other items in his honor and that he might need in his afterlife. We were invited to sit with the village chief and some other headmen of the village. A daughter-in-law of the deceased offered us each two more shots of lao-lao followed by a cup of water. Before drinking each shot, we poured a small amount into an old rusted tin can full of cigarette butts as an offering to the coffin-maker. Same with the water. That signified that we were officially a part of the funeral party. Mr. Champa then announced that we were welcome to take as many photos and videos as we’d like – a stunning opportunity that we never expected to receive. Being allowed to photograph any rite of passage, particularly an Akha funeral, is unheard of. We promptly set to work photographing everything possible.
An hour later we heard a hullabaloo, and all of the people, led by the young women, headed off to greet the cutters and shapers of the coffin just a short way into the woods. We followed, slipping on the muddy trail and eventually giving up all attempts to stay clean. We reached the coffin, which had been carried in two pieces, top and bottom, through the woods by strapping them onto long bamboo poles with rattan ties. The mourners each walked between the two coffin pieces, placing an offering of a paste of rice and spices onto the crude coffin halves. This cleansed the coffin of forest spirits who may have followed the coffin back to the village. Then, with a shaman chanting throughout, the relatives offered lao-lao and cigarettes to the dozen-plus men who had gone to the forest to cut the tree and roughly form the coffin. There were probably about 150 people all told in a tiny clearing made by chopping down some bushes – the ants that lived there were not pleased, and climbed up legs and bit when possible. As non-locals, we were strictly forbidden from touching the coffin as we might have introduced foreign spirits into the scene requiring deeper cleansing – who knows what might have happened then! We followed the coffin and the line of ululating mourners through the forest back to to the roadside village, and, with night falling, returned to our guesthouse in nearby Muang Long.
Procession past rough coffin pieces with offerings to cleanse them of forest spirits.
After spiritual cleansing, the rough coffin top is carried back to the village.
The next morning we visited two other 200-300 person villages, slipping on the trails after each monsoon rain burst. Maren had a particularly exciting “pirouette” and spent the rest of the day with a mud-decorated skirt. However, our minds kept returning to Pha Home and the opportunity to immerse ourselves in what seemed like a “National Geographic” moment.
Younger son making offering to his father, who is covered in red cloth.
We talked to Tui and said that, given Mr. Champa’s blessing to film the rare event, we would rather see the funeral than to go trekking, as planned, to another village; the funeral was something we would probably never get a chance to see again. So in the afternoon, we returned to Pha Home. Mr. Champa smiled broadly and raised his hands in the traditional Lao “sabaidee.” We were welcomed with more lao-lao and cigarettes – Maren gently refused the cigarettes this time. All afternoon we studied a team of about 15 men who trimmed and smoothed the coffin until it was as thin as possible. They even used an electric planer (!) to assure a quality finish. The finished coffin is a striking artifact, with it’s boat-shaped bottom, and eerily out-of-this-world wooden flanges that reminded us of sails. Meanwhile, a different type of wood was carved into two “feet” to hold the coffin upright, and a man thinned and smoothed long rattan strips to hold the coffin closed. Off to the side, Akha women were using a bow to fluff fresh cotton to use to line the wooden coffin for the deceased’s comfort. After the coffin was shaped, each relative took a handful of fluffed cotton and stabbed it with a machete or other tool into the inside, both top and bottom, of the coffin until the cotton stuck.
The coffin is trimmed using hand and electric tools to create the best shape as befits a coffin maker’s final resting place,
We were then motioned upstairs. Maren managed to squeeze into the room, but Josh and Tui didn’t make it in as the room was so crowded. Maren videotaped the entire process of moving the body into the coffin amidst a constant and loud discussion that appeared to be about how to do it correctly. It seemed that for each talker there were two opinions! First the cousins and important friends and villagers placed small (about 12″ x 8″) pieces of handspun handwoven cotton cloth on the bottom of the coffin. Then, the body was lifted in on the mat it was laying on. (In the heat and humidity, it was clear why the body must be placed in the coffin on the 4th day.) The red cloth was pulled back from the head, the black fabric wrapping the body was opened just enough to see the forehead, and then the cousins, shaman, etc., touched the forehead with cotton pieces (we later learned they were ritually wiping away “tears” from the deceased’s eyes) they then placed on his chest. The head was then rewrapped, the red cloth put over again, then more white cotton fabric placed over the body. His mattress cover (minus the filling) was used to help tuck him gently in, and then the top of the coffin was put in place.
Carving out a spot for the deceased’s head to rest.
Women were chanting and ululating in the corner of the room while his body was placed in the coffin. Suddenly, there was a piercing scream and a richly adorned woman collapsed in the corner and had to be carried out of the house on the back of a man. What we had assumed was a family member overcome by grief turned out to be a woman shaman whose head was accidentally touched by a mourner in the crowd. The Akha believe that the head is a sacred part of the body and it shouldn’t be touched by others. The shaman was whisked away followed by a dozen women and men (and the usual gaggle of children) to have her face and head cleansed. Darkness had fallen as they were sealing the cracks between the two coffin pieces and painting bright decorations on the rich wood coffin; it was time for us to return to our guesthouse.
Cotton being bow-fluffed to create a soft bed for the deceased.
Cotton being affixed to the coffin inside.
The next morning Mr. Champa invited us again up to the room with the body in state. The coffin had now been painted with stripes and zig-zag patterns using store-bought acrylic paint in red, blue, and green. A bright red pyramid, perhaps 8” tall and representing the coffin-makers heart, was placed upside-down in the center of the coffin’s lid. A shard of wood made from the same tree-type of his pre-deceased wife’s coffin was wedged between the rattan ties and the coffin; this assured that the two would be together in the next world.
The body being lifted into place in the cotton and fabric lined coffin.
After sharing a modest meal of the water buffalo, fried pork, and rice, Mr. Champa proceeded to tell us he was very grateful for our being there to document the funeral. Most funerals now do not have a traditional coffin due to cost and the rarity of the right types of trees. He said that not only would he have photos for himself and the family of the event, but now, any Akha who did not know how to conduct a traditional funeral could come and look at the photos and video to learn how to do so. He said that no one at the funeral knew of another funeral where falang (westerners) had attended. We, of course, expressed how honored we were to both witness and photograph the funeral; we would always remember them and the funeral as a special and rare opportunity to see a slice of real Akha tradition. Mr. Champa said that his father had never been outside of Laos in his life, but now, with our photos being taken home, his father’s spirit would be able to travel to see America. Everyone thought that was a wonderful thing!
Coffin being tied together with rattan.
Then another hullabaloo arose outside. A pig was being ritually slaughtered. The squealing pig was held in place while the shaman directed the oldest son of the deceased where to stick the pig. A piece of banana leaf was held between the pig and the knife, then the son quickly shoved the knife in and the pig bled out. A hole was then dug in front of the pig’s nose and several fern fronds were woven together in a specific design, with cowry shells laid in lines along the stem of the bottom-most fern. At this point the entire courtyard went silent.
Cowry shells ritually placed on the fern frond in front of the sacrificed pig’s nose.
Fully decorated coffin surrounded by the deceased’s belongings.
You can see the whiter piece of wood representing the deceased’s wife.
The eldest son repeated after the shaman for all the locals to hear the names of the 57 consecutive ancestors of the coffin-maker and then the name of his father. This was the first time the coffin-maker’s name was included in the list of ancestors. A bowl of rice and salt was poured over the pigs nose, and the ceremony concluded. The pig was quickly gutted, seared, cooked over an open flame and distributed in small pieces to all the villagers not related to the deceased. The relatives were not allowed to eat any of this pig at all. Meanwhile, while the pig sizzled on the fire and the young people returned to gambling games and laughter, the youngest son sat quietly in place, alone, clearly mourning.
Meal of water buffalo, pork, and rice with Mr. Champa and village elders.
After the pig was cleared away, everyone came down from the house, two bamboo poles were tied together with large sturdy lengths of rattan, the coffin was brought down from the house (amidst a thousand loud directives), and the procession took off for the cemetery complete with bags of the dead man’s possession: clothes, rattan chair, hat, basket, machete, etc. We were not allowed to go to the cemetery unless we were committed to follow the tradition of the mourners who were required for the next 6 days to remain inside the elder’s home eating only rice, salt, and water. About 370 photos and 25 videos later, our experience was done. Mr. Champa was most grateful for a DVD of all the festivities, and we felt ecstatic to have witnessed this rare event. We are deeply grateful to Mr. Champa, Tui, and the entire community of Pha Home for inviting us to join in this unique and powerful experience.
The women and other family members carrying the deceased’s belongings.
The coffin on its final journey.
The next day we visited 3 other villages. The first was a Hmong village where a 5-year-old girl had died. We were, again, welcomed by the village members into the mourner’s room. The drummer nodded and bowed at our entrance, missing only a single beat, and then returned to his task. The body lay on a platform against the far wall about 4 feet above the ground. A person in the dark room set out a wooden chair for each of us to sit front and center. This funeral was hard; no one was gambling or celebrating or preparing colorful rituals. There was only the soft shaman’s chanting, a constant drum beat, the eerie drone of a kaen (reed organ), and the crying pleas of the family who repeatedly touched the small body and then held there hands in front of themselves as if asking “Why?” In the dark and humid hut, our eyes welled up. The pain was exposed and raw, unjust and cruel. Again, however, the community was present, talking, playing music, shucking corn, and being a community together. All present – parents, villagers, and even this couple of wandering falang – were invited to mourn and feel the deep and profound loss and the power of what we cannot control or understand.
Hmong family grinding corn off of the cob just across the way from the girl’s funeral.
The contrasting funerals gave us pause. In one home death was celebrated in full regalia, and in another it was mourned in deep grief. Such festivity and beauty; such pain and fragility. The warm glow of long-burning coals; the quick extinguishing of a bright spark. The mystery of death and life was exposed; the earth accepts us regardless of age or status. That is what we surely share; that is the proof that we are all one human family.
Our hunt for textiles and tribal goods in hilltribe Laos and Vietnam leads us to some great market settings, each with its own charm and challenges. In this story, we visit a larger hilltribe market in Cao Bang Province in far north Vietnam. Regional markets are weekly, colorful affairs when thousands of nearby small-village residents from diverse ethnicities come to the region’s hub for business, shopping, news, and good chat.
Waking up in Bao Lac on Market Day, I peer through a soot-stained window of our third floor room to see throngs of locals wending their way to the market center. The women are dressed in bright ethnic fineries, and their cheerful, chatty laughter echoes through the streets; the few men are in their daily wear – drab pants and a shirt – and for whatever reasons they seem more intent and quiet. It is 6 AM; the day is dim gray.
The busy Bao Lac morning market, complete with multiple tribal and urban outfits and people.
Early mornings are busiest and best in a market, so we rouse the boys, quickly throw on our clothes and stumble down the unlit stairs onto the dusty street. Bao Lac is a modern Vietnamese minority town; its several roads are paved and the buildings around the few blocks of the downtown area are narrow 3 or 4 story-high businesses and homes. People are arriving on foot, bicycle, and 100cc motorcycles from neighboring smaller villages. This is the biggest weekly market in perhaps 30 miles in all directions, and a dozen different ethnic groups – Green Hmong, Dzao, Black Lolo and more, each identifiable by the women’s outfits – reside in the surrounding steep green hills and valleys. An occasional car or truck honks and edges its way down the street that is rapidly filling up on both sides with vendors selling and trading their goods.
A beautiful San Chi woman at the market.
There is that hesitant moment before plunging into the throng – take a deep breath. We do have a game-plan that includes breakfast in less than an hour, but to get to the food stalls will require bustling and squeezing our way to the central market plaza where the wood-smoke is rising. Our guide, Sho, with a wide-awake smile, will help us translate in Vietnamese and Hmong with the vendors and other locals; she’ll also help us locate hand-woven or embroidered textiles and other unique wares, be it an old opium scale, a beautifully worn basket, or locally-crafted jewelry. We know that the local Dzao and Lolo people create intricate embroidered textile work, and Maren has her heart set on finding some full traditional outfits. For the next four hours, I surmise, we will be engaged and in the middle of a crowded market with our attention-inviting appearance (and wallets).
Dzao women selling shaman paper, shovel blades, nuts, and incense.
I no longer worry about the kids getting lost – our youngest, Zall, is a confident 14 and an adult by local standards. That, plus we are all a head taller than the average local adult and our white faces and brown curls stand out above the crowd like candles over a cake. Zall is also in Heaven; as a photographer he is entranced by a thousand colorful outfits and sun-wizened faces parading the grounds. Most noticeable are the women’s outfits decorated with brightly colored embroidery and applique, a dozen different headdresses, large hoop earrings and chains of necklaces. Zall clicks away – some shots of the unsuspecting are snuck over my shoulder; other shots gain tacit permission with a smile or nod. It helps that he’s cute and young. Some do wave off the invitation to be photographed. (Practicing respectful photography etiquette – asking permission before taking photos or being discrete – enables all to continue to photograph stunning local scenes and people.)
Green Hmong woman with a baby on her back (note dark circle on forehead from heat-suction headache treatment.)
People are hauling chickens and pigs in open-weave bamboo cages, rolling barrow-loads of greens and garlic and ginger, and shouting out for others to come and see the wares spread out on their blue tarp (yep – the tarps are everywhere). The carnival energy is accentuated by the sight and smell of a popcorn vendor. The sides of the main street turn into a street fair; every tarp has someone sitting cross-legged making change, barking prices, and catching up on the week’s news. The array of items for sale is boggling: Nylon socks, medicinal tree bark, indigo-dyed hemp and cotton yardage, bright Chinese-made acrylic scarves and skirts, newborn chicks, pig intestines, donuts, high-heeled shoes, water buffalo horns, dried bamboo shoots, shaman paper for ceremonies, tobacco, crossbows, rice whiskey, and on and on. A mix of new and shiny and old and traditional; pastries for the wealthy and rice balls for the modest. Children beg parents for sweets, and adolescent men and women flirt on the bridge over the shallow, mucky river. In the entire morning we notice only two other western couples with whom we share a few words of market appreciation. As westerners, we gather a fair share of stares and nods, but in a town as modern as Bao Lac our appearance does not generate a hovering, gawking crowd (as does happen in some smaller markets).
Red Dzao woman in front of sugar cane and chicken (in bamboo basket) seller.
Sho buys us each some unnaturally-green banana-rice goo wrapped in a leaf. I take a bite and smile, then quietly discard the chalky remains in a pile of refuse someone has swept to the curb. No doubt a treat for the next dog that wanders by. We walk toward the center area, sort of a cul-de-sac at Bao Lac’s heart, that on other days houses the daily market. A large, simple wall-less cement building, perhaps 100’ x 100’, offers cover from the regular rains. During the week, all the vendors easily fit under the large roof with their vegetables, groceries, and plastic or acrylic Chinese-made wares.
Barefoot Green Hmong woman.
Sho gone Lolo!
Today’s weekly market fills this building and then spills out onto the street for blocks. The sides of the streets and every nearby business is busy and involved. People sit in small circles on the curb’s edge drinking strong, bitter tea; women in gaudy yellow and magenta headscarves haggle over prices; children with sticky hands and faces chase and squeal and weave through the busy crowd. Inevitably some car wants to drive through and it creeps along, at a crawling pace, honking continuously for the crowd to part, which it ever-slowly and patiently does. A horse patiently walks through the scene carrying vegetables in its appliquéd hand-made saddlebags. A barefoot Green Hmong woman strides by with her now-empty backpack basket. Everyone seems to have something they make or grow or raise or have acquired that they are eager to sell or trade. Everyone, from the youngest walker to the most bent-over ancient, has a market-day agenda.
Horse with appliquéd saddle bags.
We squeeze onto half an unoccupied bench amid the food stalls; our cook looks up at us, wipes her sweaty brow. A small fire at her feet heats a flat pan that cooks what look like crepes, and she eagerly points at the bowls beside her – one holds what looks like minced pork, another has whole eggs, another has a brownish sauce. We look at her, shrug and smile as if to say: “Whatever – you’re the chef!” She smiles broadly, points a finger at our boys, rubs her stomach and gives us a thumbs up. She ladles a soupy rice porridge onto the crepe pan, and with a long flat narrow spatula careful and quickly cooks one side and then flips the thin pancake. She gathers a spoonful of meat and sauce and cracks an egg into the mix. The steam and smoke from a dozen different food stalls fills the noisy, packed sitting area. Egg/pork “crepes” arrive in a minute and we each devour two or three to the delight of the cook. Sho strikes up a conversation on the side with an unusually dressed woman who is delivering firewood. The woman explains to Sho that she is of the small San Chi ethnic group, and that yes, she would like to eat, but doesn’t have any money. Sho, without hesitation, buys the woman breakfast and they sit and chat quietly in Vietnamese. Sho is always eager to improve her guide skills by learning of the local cultures.
An elderly woman carries fresh fish home in a bag from the market.
After another hour of wandering – and feeling a bit disappointed at the lack of hand-crafted wares – Maren becomes enthralled with the Lolo women’s bright-banded outfits and wanders to a group of a dozen Lolo women selling medicinal herbs and bananas on the market’s edge. Maren smiles broadly and admires a woman’s earrings, and then the colorful armbands on her cotton jacket. Smiles are shared; our children are introduced. Through Sho, Maren finally asks if the outfits woven by the Lolo people are available anywhere for sale. The women giggle. “No, they are made in our village – each woman makes her own.” Maren, gaining courage, perseveres and learns that their village is about 30 minutes away. One woman, it turns out, would be delighted to take Maren to the village where she has additional outfits perhaps to sell, but a motorcycle is required as the path is too rough, muddy and narrow for our rented vehicle. Maren asks if we will need a permit to visit, as would be customarily required for going “off the track” in this particular province. “No,” the woman replies. “My husband is the police chief, and I am the government officer for our village, so it will be no problem.”
Our breakfast chef, tending her rice crepe over the wood fired stove.
It takes Maren and Sho almost an hour and a fistful of Vietnamese dong to locate a driver of a 125 cc motorcycle (the usual 100 cc bikes are too tiny for a small local plus a … ahem … larger westerner). Sho – all 80 lb of her – hops on the back of the Lolo woman’s cycle, and, with a whoop, Maren, Sho and the drivers zoom off.
Black Lolo women at the market.
Now in the U.S. I might have worried. There goes my wife on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle to an unknown town. And there goes our translator, leaving me with the rest of the family to fend for ourselves in the market’s chaos. But this is hilltribe Vietnam, and adventure only befalls those that seek and act. Imagine not taking advantage of such an opportunity!
San Chi woman wood vendor.
Some three hours later Maren and Sho reappear at our hotel. Sho is now dressed head to toe in a traditional Lolo outfit (as if she weren’t cute to start with!) and Maren carries two immense plastic bags filled with authentic Lolo-made tribal clothing, complete with headdresses. She is beaming, sore from the bumpy unaccustomed bike-ride, and perhaps lightened just a touch from the rice whiskey that is compulsory at most every business transaction. The ride had been a bit longer and slipperier than anticipated (isn’t it always?), but the outfits and jewelry are stunning traditional pieces, and the experience itself was priceless.
Maren and Sho taking off on motorcycles.
Other than some hand-spun, handwoven, indigo-dyed cotton Hmong shirts, the most wonderful hand-made textiles were those being worn, but not sold, by many of the local minority women. And thus the Bao Lac market itself didn’t yield many treasures, unless, of course, you count the smiles, the adventure, the fresh donuts, and the photos (thank you, Zall!). That’s the way, sometimes; but I‘ve got to believe that the measure of a day’s value is best assessed by the adventure you had, and the company you’ve kept.
Highlights from Grandma – Hemp Weavers of Vietnam by Joy Hirschstein (Mom and Grandma)
Grandma’s modeling her scarf gifted by Mrs. Loum, master dyer.
I was very excited to be able to join my son Joshua and his family on their latest venture to Laos and Vietnam. As a 79-year-old grandma, this “trip of a lifetime” seemed a bit intimidating before we started; my doctors loaded me with pills and dire warnings of tropical diseases and unusual diets. However, my worries were not warranted. The scenery was fantastic, the hilltribe weavers were warm and welcoming, the health hazards were greatly exaggerated, and the local food was fresh, tasty and healthy. The moderate winter climate (70o days, 55o evenings, and moist air) even dismissed my arthritis! We traveled about half the time in a comfortable van (although the axle did break on one particularly steep mountain turn), but I also had the chance to travel in local buses, airplanes, boats, and even on a motorcycle!
A Hmong hemp weaver in Lung Tam.
Age in Asia is certainly an asset; neither family nor locals allowed me to carry a thing other than my own purse! I was consistently honored for being so “healthy and beautiful”, and was even gifted with several beautiful scarves. The weavers of Xam Tai even presented me with a a special “Basi” ceremony and feast, with a local shaman blessing our family with long-life and good wishes. (Note: See Newsletter #3 at www.hilltribeart.com/events for information about Laos’ Basi ceremonies).
The owner of the hemp shop displaying the bags we bought.
A most memorable visit was to the small Vietnamese village of Lung Tam, set in a rocky, rugged valley in Ha Giang Province, that produces hemp products. We saw the hemp stripped from the plant, spun, woven, bleached and drying in the sun in great sheets spread along the dirt streets and fields. The hemp was spun into thread on home-made spindles and then woven on simple wooden looms. These sheets were ironed flat by a woman standing on a large flat stone who rocked back and forth over the fabric that had been placed on a rounded stone. Watching Maren try her hand at ironing got the whole village doubled over in laughter! The village women then naturally-dye the hemp material and sew it into decorated wall-hangings and shoulder bags.
The woman who ran the shop explained to us, through Sho, our translator, that she hires women who have returned from being kidnapped and forced into the sex and child slave market that is prevalent in nearby southern China. Since the Chinese often favor boy children, there is a shortage of marriageable women available. Apparently, many young women in Ha Giang Province are kidnapped each year and married through an underground market in China. Many escape or, after having a girl child, are dismissed only to return to their homeland needing to support their child. (In one of Sho’s sister’s villages in Lai Chau Province, 6 young women were kidnapped on one evening -only 4 made their way back home.) Her business offers these women an apprenticeship to learn the hemp weaving trade, a home, and place to earn a decent living. Here, amid the beauty of the land and the pleasant simplicity of village life, we were shockingly reminded of the cruelty and selfishness of some humans and the grim challenges that remain hidden to much of our world.
In a weaving village watching fringe tying.
The trip was very memorable. Not only was I welcomed by so many wonderful hilltribe people, but I also had the chance to spend some unique quality time (as in 24/7!) with my son, daughter-in-law, and 2 grandchildren. Even though I didn’t always have the energy to charge up to the top of the hill, I did feel that my age did not hold me back from enjoying the fantastic scenery and daily adventure, and was even an asset when it came to connecting with the local villagers who culturally revere their elders.
Trekking to Trang & Tea’s; Trang’s Traditional H’mong Jewelry
I wasn’t sure we’d make it. Between the recent soaking rains and the prevailing hilltribe conviction that switchbacks are inefficient, the steep route ahead look unforgivingly slick. Especially for my 79-year-old mom.
Trang and Tea’s home in Lao Cai Province.
Our friend and guide, Sho Lythi (featured in Newsletter #6), led the way. “My brother-in-law Trang is just up the hill,” she chimed. “Maybe 20, 25 minutes more.” Of course she weighs about 80 lbs. and has danced on these slippery slopes since she could first walk. “This is no problem – I will help your mother. I will pull her from above, and you can push from below.” My confidence was not increasing.
Sho and Ari helping Grandma across a slippery, steep slope.
10 minutes later, Sho’s sister, Tea, came gliding down the thick mud slope. Incredibly, not a spatter of muck touched anything but her thin flip-flops. She laughed as she looked at our trepid stance. Tea said something coyly in H’mong to Sho and quickly fell to pushing and pulling us up to her modest home at the very top of the habitable mountain-side slope. Fortunately, we encountered no crisis that the laundry couldn’t resolve.
Trang crafting an earring while the cat warms by the fire.
Tea’s home nestled on a carved terrace ledge overlooking the valley; each 10-foot wide terrace had an abrupt wall-edge that dropped several feet to meet the next terrace. Scraps of wooden branches were cleverly woven into fences to protect the precarious mud-walls from the pigs, buffalo and humans that might damage the sculpted farmland. Being winter, the terraces lay mostly fallow save for a few pumpkin plants and a rich array of leafy greens. Spring would see corn, rice, and other crops filling every fertile corner.
Tea’s husband, a talented Black H’mong metal-smith, greeted us shyly, then returned to his crouched position next to the slatted window that allowed sunlight to illuminate his workspace. A variety of small hammers, pliers, and metal punches sat on a work stump. He worked quickly, methodically, efficiently; metal shavings littered the ground at his feet. He was eager to complete the “fern-frond” earring set before lunch, knowing he had one more sale if he could finish the task. And, in truth, we bought every necklace and set of earrings he completed.
Tea wearing earrings and hair comb crafted by Trang.
Tea disappeared into the side-room kitchen as Sho stoked the living area fire with one stick of hardwood and a couple splinters of wide bamboo. We all appreciated the extra warmth on this mid-winter day, and the smoke smelled good. To a westerner, the home, like much of rural Vietnam, offered an eclectic mix of Spartan simplicity and modern practicality. The simple fire on the dirt floor was juxtaposed with the rice cooker’s glowing red light. Tea and Trang’s youngest son, a smiley 3-year-old, played on a wheel-less bicycle set in the front room. A large sow slept a few feet outside of the front door, and grunted greedily when a pumpkin was split open. The daughter helped wash greens using the hand-pump in the kitchen. Drying corn hung from the rafters.
Trang and Tea’s youngest on his bike.
Sho had thoughtfully requested that we purchase food at the morning market to contribute to the meal as the family’s means were modest, and the addition of our appetites would stretch their resources. Within an hour of our arrival, a large meal was set for our family of five plus five more – the adults guests got to use the four chairs. Steaming plates of greens with pork and ginger, fresh bamboo shoots with buffalo, fresh tofu from the morning market with tomatoes, and garden pumpkin soup were served with gracious smiles all around. It was delicious!
Trang had learned his metal-working skills from a local elder. Trang knew that farming alone would not support his family in this sparse environment, and living a couple hours walk away from the tourist town of Sapa granted him access to a wider customer base. Several members of the extended family (which including Sho before she moved on exclusively to guiding services) offer his jewelry to both western and Vietnamese tourists in the local market.
Tea cutting up pumpkin for lunch.
Trang can work with silver as well as nickel-bronze. But the high up-front cost of silver and its limited market appeal pulls Trang to work more with nickel-bronze. Most H’mong women as well as tourists prefer more affordable nickel-bronze or aluminum “bling” as well; locals relegate silver jewelry to wedding-wear and dowry value, and not to the desired everyday use of bright dangly and hoop earrings and extravagant necklaces.
Trang crafting earrings for us to buy that day.
His workbench is a slab of wood, his tools simple, and his workmanship traditional & exquisite.
After three hours of eating and chatting, and our promise to sell Trang’s jewelry in the USA and come back seeking more, we gathered up our treasured bag of finished jewelry and prepared to slide back down the mountainside. Luckily, an hour of afternoon sun had set the mud a bit firmer, and our careful steps, with Sho’s firm support and freshly-chopped bamboo walking sticks, got us back down the hill without catastrophe.
The Hmong shaman mid-trance, chanting to invoke healing spirits.
Near the bottom, we heard a constant drumbeat and a monotone female chant coming from another hillside home. A rather distraught and inebriated gentleman stumbled out of his dark, smoky home and, bleary-eyed, indicated for us to enter his home. Sho confirmed that indeed a H’mong shaman had been hired to clear his home of recent illness. We were unsure as to whether it would be appropriate for us to interrupt the healing ceremony, although we were intrigued with the rare opportunity to see a shaman in trance doing her work. The man looked desperate and again, through Sho, urged us forward. We tiptoed into the dark home, and watched the candlelit shaman rock back and forth intently as she wailed a fast, tuneless prayer. We stayed only a minute or two, feeling both honored and out-of-place. The old man nodded quickly as we bowed with gratitude for the honor of bearing witness to the ceremony. Afterward, Sho confided to us that the elder thought our family’s presence in his home might intimidate the malevolent spirits so they would exit more quickly.
The gracious kindness of Trang and Tea and the heartfelt plea of a mourning elder were the bookends of an amazing afternoon’s adventure. And we can’t let the story go by without thanking Sho Lythi and her extended family for welcoming us into their lives in rural Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam; she has opened so many unusual and wonderful doors for both our pleasure and our business.
Our older son, Ari, is spending the summer in Sovie, Ghana, a remote town of 2000 people, volunteering with a service organization; now his days are filled with constructing a latrine at an elementary school (a 10-seater!), helping the 4th grade English teacher (who apparently knows little English), and studying international social justice issues with a small group of other fortunate young adults. Like Laos, Ghana is under-developed and struggles to provide for its citizens. One of the toughest challenges for both these countries is to ensure that its most vulnerable citizens are treated fairly, safely and with dignity. Throughout Laos (at least in the parts tourists tend to visit) are signs in English stating that child-sex crimes are illegal and that if anyone hears about or witnesses such a crime, to alert the authorities. Sadly, such heinous crimes are not unusual in Laos, Ghana, and many other under-developed nations. Ari managed to get a few minutes at an internet café and sent us a report on a vital program fighting child-slavery in Ghana:
Ari dancing with Katu villagers during their New Year’s celebration (no pix yet from Ghana!).
Today, our group visited a program called Challenging Heights. Challenging Heights was started and is currently run by an ex-child-slave named James Kofi Anan (nope, not related to the previous UN President). This program “rescues” child slaves from the communities where they were enslaved and returns them to their families. To ensure that the ex-child-slaves are getting an education that is appropriate for them and that they are welcomed back to their community, Mr. Kofi Anan has established schools that they can go to. We visited one his schools located in a town that has one of the highest rates of children who are sold into slavery in the world. The school was mostly made of cement and had random English words on the walls. Inside, the rooms were separated by simple walls of cardboard. Despite the limited funding and difficult learning atmosphere, the children were almost all literate in English (even at the first and second grade levels) and were studying math, science, government. This school seemed to do an incredible job.
After visiting the school, we shared a lunch with Mr. Kofi Anan. He described in great detail many of the abuses that he had to suffer. These abuses were physical, sexual, emotional, verbal… His speech brought me near tears and made me really think about the situation that so many children are being forced to live with in Ghana and elsewhere. He also told us that many of the child-slaves whom he rescues are in the same area as Sovie. This brought to mind images of all of the children who I have taught and worked beside being whipped and sexually assaulted before they go out to labor endless hours on Lake Volta fishing. It’s hard to say all that I want to with a simple email. Words are insufficient when it comes to describing feelings like the ones that I experienced while working with Mr. Kofi Anan. The best image that I can conjure is of a boy I saw sitting at the school. When I asked why the boy was not playing with everyone else he said, “My head is spinning.” This was a result of the abuse that he suffered. This boy is now unable to be a full participant in games, even in a school that was specially designed for children who have suffered like he has.
By virtue of being at the right place at the right time, Above the Fray is privileged to have acquired a huge, museum-quality, window-rumbling, Jarai Rong House drum. Over each end of this drum stretches a taut, thick water buffalo hide – one side is from the hide of a male, the other a female. The hide was originally tacked on using only bamboo pegs, although a few nails were applied some years (generations?) back to hold one section of hide tightly to the frame. Under the hides and hidden from view – save a 2 inch wide strip in the middle from which the drum hung – is an ancient hollowed tree trunk giving the meter-wide drum its frame, and echo.
Josh wakes the neighbors on the Jarai Rong House drum.
The 200 lb. drum (carefully shipped home in a custom-made, 1.5 m3 padded wooden crate) is thought to be 150 or more years old. We were told it was obtained when two villages merged, and the extra drum was sold to help develop the newly expanded village. We continue to search for any knowledgeable articles and research on Rong Houses, and specifically Rong House drums.
A close-up of the center of the drum, where the decades of wear on the wood have brought out the grain, and the holes in the water buffalo hide, some pegged by bamboo “nails,” are visible.
Our translator, Mr. Vinh, smiles proudly as we arrived at his small village an hour outside the city of Kontum in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The Bahnar village is nestled in a lush copse near the river; large leaved trees protect us from the harsh, hot sun. The ground is packed dirt, and the dogs, pigs and children wander freely between the small homes that alternate thatched and corrugated metal roofing.
Mr. Vinh with his daughter at the loom.
First we visit Mr. Vinh’s adopted daughter, a talented weaver who has a physical disability. She sits under a shaded porch at her loom, a beautiful long cotton shawl half-created in front of her. Mr. Vinh points out the modifications of the loom that allows his daughter to fold her awkward legs under but positions her to fully operate the loom’s complexities. “She has such talent,” he beams. “I had a special loom made so she can work even if her legs won’t.”
“Now you must see our village’s Rong House.” I must have misheard him – “We’re going to the wrong house?” “Our communal house,” he clarifies. “The place where our village gathers and celebrates.”
Maren in front of the Bahnar Rong house in Mr. Vinh’s village.
The immense thatched-roof structure in the village’s center couldn’t be missed. Rong houses are shaped like thick axe blades, with steep-sloped sides and a long sharp ridgeline up to 50 feet off the ground that is decorated with buffalo horns or other ornaments. The building is rooted to the ground with nine thick hardwood logs that lift the 30’ x 15’ bamboo floor about five feet off the ground. A five-step ladder carved from a tree trunk invites us up to the entrance. Some Rong houses have a low railing and open sides to let the warm jungle breeze flow right through; this Bahnar Rong house has tight-fitting bamboo walls fully enclosing the open space, leaving the interior dark and, by afternoon, pretty steamy.
Men in a Katu community house during their New Year’s celebration in Laos – see the gongs?
Both in and outside some Rong houses (and other community houses in Laos), village artists have carved wooden animal figures both into of the wooden structure’s frame or as stand-alone decorations – sculptures of birds, monkeys, eight-pointed stars, the sun and humans. The carvings symbolize myths of ancient deeds and spirits as well as daily village and farm life. Some of the figures are brightly painted. A large two-sided drum hangs from an animal-hide strap ready to call the villagers to an event or meeting. Tucked into a back corner are brass gongs, crossbows, ceremonial shields, clay flasks of wine, and other ritual wares awaiting their next use. A large flat-stoned fire-pit, used for ritual cooking as well as lighting up the town’s faces as an evening story is told, dominates the middle of the room. The house itself contains no metal. Joins are cut very carefully and the bamboo scaffolding and thatched grass for the roof are tied with strips of rattan.
Inside the community house in Attapeu Province in Laos – note the fire pit on the bamboo floor!
Mr. Vinh points to a painted line that goes down the length of the interior. He waved his hands to the right: “The unmarried men and boys are on this side,” he announces, and with a wave to the left, “the unmarried women and girls on this side.” Then he squints his eyes a little and lowers his voice. “Sometimes a girl goes over to be with a boy on the boys’ side, but the boys can never go to the girls’ side.” I swear I catch him winking at me. Mr. Vinh suddenly straightens up: “We have a big Rong house, because our village has good land and many people. The taller the Rong house, the more powerful the men of the village, and the easier it is to find the village when hunting or farming away from town, as the tall roof can be seen from some distance. Some villages have small Rong houses. But no matter – every Rong house is the heart of a village – the place where the seasons, and births, and marriages, and even death is celebrated.”
A Bahnar Rong House in Kon Tum, Vietnam.
In our visits to several ethnic groups in the Central Highlands – Bahnar, Sedang, Jarai and others – we find Rong houses of similar design and pride. Some groups build two community houses – one for the men, another for women. Regardless, the Rong house embodies the blood, sweat, tears, pride and past of the village members and their ageless ancestors; it is the physical center for a village’s heritage, power, and future. Tradition holds that a human soul only becomes whole when it joins the village soul, and the Rong house is where the members of a village and the spirits of the ancestors and nature come to respect and negotiate a proper balance.