Solo Sojourn in Hilltribe Vietnam and Laos

Solo Sojourn in Hilltribe Vietnam and Laos 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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