May 29, 2012

Meeting the Hmong

Riding a Minsk, Russia’s cheapest motorcycle, with my girlfriend sleeping at my back, I leave Hanoi with the pollution and heavy crowds behind me and head for Sapa in the North of Vietnam.

Northern Vietnam

Entering Northern Vietnam, I can’t even express with words how beautiful it is – hills, rice fields, sakura valleys, mountain rivers, sun is up, air is crisp and fresh and there are no cars or tour buses on the road – it’s really mind-blowing. I stop at a mountain village for water and food, the locals look at me like I’m an alien from a different planet and you know what, they look like aliens to me as well! They are short, with dark sun dried skin, face features are very different from Vietnamese, their ears decorated with big and heavy earrings, clothes are hand made and beautiful, the kids are full of life and most of the times running around naked. These are the Hmong people.

Hmong People Northern Vietnam

By the third day we finally reach Sapa, a cold mountain village covered with fog and tourists. Fortunately we met a Hmong woman named Chu Chu, who spoke English (courtesy of the tourists) and who invites us to stay at her house in Hmong village 25km from Sapa. Yes, please! The Village is in a valley, surrounded by levels of empty rice fields, but because of heavy fog you can’t see past one level. Her daughter greets us and takes us to her house, which is lonely sitting on the other side of the hill. There are no other houses around us, there is also no bathroom, no running water, nothing.

Chu Chus daughter

We sit by the fire, peeling potatoes with a metal spoon with our jaws on the floor. Chu Chu has two smart and beautiful daughters that are 16 and 14 years old, and two sons, one of them is 15 years old and has already a wife who is three months pregnant. She also has two grandkids, a boy and a girl who are about five and six years old but sound and act like they are 40 years old (way beyond mature for their age), a husband, a cat, a dog, some pigs, geese and a buffalo. Even though it’s freezing, we feel very relaxed, and with great attention observe their lives, so very different from ours.

Chu Chu and her grand children

At supper we eat rice with boiled potatoes, boiled green leaves and a spoon of preserved dried meat. As there’s no bathroom, you have to go outside in the rice fields where you have no privacy. When it’s time to sleep we are taken to a room with four beds, one for the young couple, one for the grandkids, one for the daughters and one for us. We lay in bed with all our clothes on under two heavy blankets trying to keep warm while while we hear the 15 year old’s wife sing a prayer and then quietly weep in bed, behind the sheer mosquito net-the only privacy she has in her newly adopted home.

Chu Chus grand daughter

The next day everyone is up at 5am in the morning. The girls are cooking breakfast (rice cake with sugar syrup) and sweeping the floor as we are getting ready to leave the house. My head is spinning, I’m so speechless and humbled by this experience. As we are leaving this beautiful family with such a tough life, I’m quietly thinking about our life in New York with all those absurd frustrations, temptations, confusions and dissatisfaction. Is it really a good way to live?  As our society declines by greed and thoughtless actions, the Hmong will carry on living a very simple but beautiful life while unaware of the problems of the western society. I think they are probably much better off than what we are. 

The House

To see Photographer Dima Hohlov’s travel journal Rice and Beets click here.
See also his photography website here.

text by: Dima Hohlov

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