Here’s the situation: I’m staring into a smiling man’s eyes. He has horrible teeth and crooked glasses. In his shaking hand, he offers me a glass of Lao-Lao (traditional rice whisky). My brain freezes. Can I? Should I? Would my parents be mad? Would I insult my host? I take in the smile on his face, the cautious look on my dad’s face, the hungry look on my mom’s face, and the oblivious look on my brother’s face. I decide to take the shot of rice whisky. Do I sip it? Do I go bottoms up? What would be appropriate? My thoughts are whirling around in my head. The look on my host’s face is encouraging. What do I do?
Receiving a glass of beer with good wishes.
In this situation I normally make some strange noise between a yes and a no and look at my parents for advice. I’m 14, I’m underage; not supposed to drink until I’m 21. My parents look distracted and they may have had one too many Lao-Lao: mom’s cheeks are getting rosy and dad’s stupid grin is trying to refuse another drink… they won’t be too much help. If I drink will I test my families’ boundaries? If I don’t, will I insult my host?
I’m in a strange place in my life. I am both a child and an adult. Both international and American. Both traveler and student. What seem like simple questions can, in reality, be confusing and controversial cultural conundrums. When do I sit down or stand? Do I eat or wait for my host?
One of several Lao-Lao toasts at the Basi ceremony – this one from Suk, who hosted the Basi for us.
Sukkavit is a good friend in the village of Xam Tai, Laos who we go to see every time we travel. When we meet, it may be for the first time in almost a year. This year, she looks so short. So do I offer the formal way of saying hello by cupping each other’s hand or bowing? Or are we good enough friends to hug or put our arms around each other? In truth, we normally end up in some awkward position of one of us extending our hands while the other attempts a hug. Luckily, Lao is a fairly relaxed country as far as customs go.
These questions arrive multiple times a day in the travel-world, and truthfully, the guidebooks can only tell you so much. When you’re facing a cultural or social issue, your mind stops working. In the end, you wind up staring into your host’s eyes with a blank look until he puts the glass in your hand and begins a toast.
All of us, including Grandma, at the Plain of Jars – it was COLD!
At a family meeting before our most recent trip, my dad had expressed a bit of concern at grandma joining us. She lives in Seattle, so we don’t get to spend a lot of time with her, and he thought perhaps she may be a touch more frail, being 79, than we were used to. “Let’s be sure to not push her beyond her comfort zone,’ he had said. “Someone should always walk in front of and behind her along bustling streets.” “Let’s make sure we eat foods that agree with her.” Although we kept these ideas in mind while traveling, we found that the meeting may have been a little overkill. Grandma was amazing! She ate everything, never complained about hard beds, saw the world through eyes that were understanding of cultural differences, and always made the best every situation.
Grandma toasting a village elder in Xam Tai, Laos with Lao-Lao
We saw Grandma’s positive attitude and energy starting on our very first day, when everything was most new and foreign. Our first stop in Hanoi was a tiny coffee shop that serves the thickest, richest Vietnamese coffees. We sat on tiny plastic stools right on the road’s edge and grandma feasted on the scene of street vendors, overloaded motorcycles, and a woman in a bamboo hat washing dishes in the ditch. Revved up on coffee, we went to our favorite bun cha restaurant. Bun cha is a rice noodle soup with chunks of an unidentifiable grilled meat and sausage and slices of kohlrabi in a slightly sweet-sour broth. The restaurant is a hole in the wall – a mildewy cement box on the side of the road that doubles as the entrance to a house. Nonetheless, Grandma squatted down at the low table and relished the new flavors. She didn’t hesitate to dig in to the unknown meal or to enter the restaurant that, in the United States, would have long been shutdown.
Grandma’s first motorcycle ride!
A couple days later, in Luang Prabang, it rained – really hard. When the downpour began, we were wandering through the night market seeking a dinner. We wove our way through the vendors’ tents and jumped when the rain-soaked light bulbs sparked and died; buckets of water held in the tent folds gushed onto the street shorting out electric lines and we felt crunched between the anxious people desperately packing their wares and tourists scrambling out of the now-chaotic market. Despite the discomfort, Grandma, drips rolling over her glasses, was laughing at the hustle and bustle of the soaked market.
Our third homestay, at Babe Lake, verified our belief that grandma was born to travel. After a fantastic, homemade dinner, we crowded into our host’s kitchen to share traditional toasts of rice whiskey. Grandma joined us as the host passed around the seemingly magically refilled shot glass. The men in the room were transfixed by the television, which was showing “Vietnam’s Next Top Model.” They decided that yet another toast was necessary – to “long legs,” much like those parading across the screen. Sho, our guide and family friend, quickly interjected, “And to men’s broad shoulders.” Grandma couldn’t just let this stand alone, so she added, “And big muscles!” After a round of applause and a decent amount of head nodding, we drank to beautiful bodies, something that all cultures can appreciate.
The very next day, I watched grandma hop on the back of a motorcycle – her first motorcycle ride ever. She hooted “tally-ho” and waved as she shot off down the road. Now, whenever anyone asks me about my dad’s mom, these and other travel scenes are going to pop into my head – some of the best grandma moments ever.
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.