Voices from below stirred me from my slumber, followed by a screech so crazed that in my half woken state I imagined someone must be slaughtering the pig! Having been kept awake by the creature’s snoring for a good deal of the night I have to admit I didn’t consider it to be such a bad thing. The pig and it’s offspring (admittedly adorable) lived in a pen in the front yard which extended to below the house. As the screeching continued to project through the floorboards, I couldn’t shun the image of a rodeo style attempt to catch it taking place beneath me. It turned out that Xu had forgotten to feed it last night, with the rounds of rice wine taking precedence…oops!
By 7am the home was bustling; food was being prepared, various new faces had appeared in the house and a keen lady was attacking the garden area with a plough. Nursing a cup of tea I looked out at this scene of village life as the mist lifted over the mountains like a blind.
“Oh my God!” I heard Kim yell from the other end of the verandah “Look at this girl…she has a knife!”.
Sure enough as I joined her side, turning my attention to the wooden house next door, there was a baby girl sat naked in the mud brandishing a meat cleaver. Realising she was attracting an audience, her mother came out, smiled and waved up at us – totally unperturbed by the fact that her tiny child was now chopping away at the floor. I couldn’t look!
“I hope you don’t mind;” Said Kim after managing to draw her attention away “I said to Xu we would rather eat breakfast with her and her family than have pancakes. We presumed you would want to do the same?”.
There was no need for an apology; I couldn’t imagine anything better, especially since my rice addiction had gotten the better of me and I was surely due my next dose…
Minutes later the plastic tables and chairs were arranged for a feast of heated left-overs, cabbage, pork and rice (the latter 3 constituting the traditional breakfast) with an assortment of beers, which we naturally declined – 8 am is a tad early even by my standards. It was perfect, especially with the addition of around 8 new family members at the table who fed stories to Kim, which she and Xu translated for us.
Delving deeper into family politics and cultural norms:
It turned out that one of the men at the table was Xu’s husband’s father and another; his father’s brother. The two brothers had, however, fallen out after their father died; leaving the multitude of his land to his youngest son, who was now capitalising on his gains by selling his poorer relations small segments of this land. This unequal inheritance custom is commonplace among the tribes but the younger brother’s attitude had apparently ostricised him from the rest of the family. Looking over at both brothers as they shared food from the same table, a certain tension was most definitely apparent, with no words being shared between the two throughout the whole morning.
We also found out that this uncle of Xu’s husband lived next door and the baby we had seen earlier was his. However, the young girl of around 4 who she played with was actually his eldest son’s daughter. His granddaughter was older than his daughter! I thought my family was complicated! Like most of the women in the village, his wife and daughter-in-law walked the 9km to Sapa every morning to sell their handicrafts to tourists; leaving the children at home. The men, it appeared, did very little, certainly not much in terms of entertaining the children who roamed the hills contentedly in rags for most of the day, drinking water from the drains and salvaging rubbish from wherever they could find it.
It was after breakfast that Kim relayed to us what she had been discussing with Xu earlier in the kitchen…like most of the tribesmen, Xu’s husband used to drink a lot. At one point he disappeared in a drunken haze and did not return. Continuing to raise the family (aided by her sisters in law), whilst leading treks and trying to set up her home-stay, Xu powered on, pretty much alone. A month later he returned. After much discussion he shared his sense of incompetency compared to this remarkable woman, who has the foresight and determination to do whatever it takes to provide the best for her children; constantly seeking new opportunities to further her goals, including teaching herself English. They decided from that moment on he would no longer drink and would help Xu with the building and running of the home-stay. It was apparent from our time there that he had kept his word, albeit working at a tenth of the rate his wife did.
Kim and her family were being led on their trek by an incredibly beautiful and intelligent young girl name Vy. She was actually the sister in law of Xu and spoke fantastic English. As the only girl among 5 brothers, it was her duty to help financially support her younger brothers’ education in Hanoi, something she was in full support of and proud to assist with. As she brushed her newly washed, sleek black hair back into place with a clip, she shared with us some of her gripes about being a young woman in her society.
As a 23 year old unmarried girl she is literally viewed as an old spinster. None of this being single in your early 30’s nonsense we have all had to deal with from family members at weddings and other events ladies. With girls in their community being married as young 12 or 14 and often becoming pregnant immediately (hence the earlier mentioned situation with Xu’s neighbours), Vy has broken away from tradition.
Women, once married, wear ornate hooped earrings, whereas unmarried girls wear a thin dangled set to mark their availability. It is then quite common that if a girl is at the market and a boy likes the look of her, he will kidnap her. This form of bride napping, known as zij poj niam, really does happen. The young girl will normally be taken to the male’s house where she will be locked up with him in a room for around 3 days. If after the 3 days the boy wants to marry her, he/his family will offer her a gift, the acceptance of which signifies her agreement to marriage. Often this is decided alongside her family, which she and the boy will visit.
When Xu had mentioned something the previous day about her husband kidnapping her I laughed; brushing the comment off as an amusing way to describe being ‘swept off your feet’ as my grandmother likes to call it. I hadn’t realised that the comment wasn’t lost in translation and she really was taken against her will! *
Vy had apparently been getting a lot of male attention at the market, leading Kim and her husband to act as bodyguards to prevent such a fate. Rather admirably she was ‘waiting for somebody who truly deserved her’. Like many of us women, her knight in shining armour hasn’t come along yet, but when he does what a lucky man he will be. I was captivated by Vy’s wisdom, loyalty, get up and go, as well as her sense of self. I couldn’t help but think of what opportunities there would be for her outside of this life; abroad perhaps, but she was happy. What more could anyone ask for.
We said our farewells to Kim and her family who were setting off on their final day of trekking with Vy, whilst we headed off up the mountain with Xu in search of plants that she believed would help soothe Andrew’s eczema. On the way back we made the previously mentioned visit to the medicine man before returning to boil the combination of various leaves and stems in a huge iron pot for Andrew to soak his hands in.
It was as we were sat there, Andrew up to his forearms in green gunk, me taking in the surroundings, that we realised the lady that was working in the garden this morning had cleared a whole area of land (with the assistance of ‘knife girl’ and two other young children, who basically wielded farming equipment and thrashed it at the ground every few seconds) and was now shifting cement bricks from one end to the wall.
“I can’t just sit here and watch” declared Andrew “Xu can I help?” Xu, who was busy rustling up lunch explained that it would not be a good idea for his hands. “Do you have a glove?” And that was how we ended up in the boiling sun; Andrew lifting bricks and me ploughing a field with some kind of farm tool I had only seen in history books. Exhausted after about ten minutes, my acknowledgement of the lady’s Trojan like qualities were amplified. After about an hour I was quite proud of my efforts and decided that after lunch I was more than justified in taking a short nap before returning to my labours. I returned after about half an hour to find ‘Trojan’ had not only completed all of the ploughing, but had re-ploughed my rubbish efforts and was now making holes ready to sew the seeds!
Determined to prove myself as a capable woman, I spent the afternoon helping Xu with the washing up and preparing dinner. Andrew spent most of the day washing his hands. We were joined by 4 other guests that night, one of which spent the whole night pretty much singing his own praises, screamed when the cat jumped on his lap and proceeded to scold his girlfriend for accidentally standing on his toe.
At around 5 o’clock the children started to return and I was pleased to see that Lin’s bump on the head wasn’t so bad. Of course when I asked him about it (and he suddenly remembered) the smile faded, he winced in pain and held his hand to his head. Kids…they are the same everywhere; I love them!
That evening, after we finished another amazing meal with the family, we headed next door to watch the children rehearsing their singing for church. Sat in the dimly lit barn I couldn’t have been happier; these boys and girls of aged 9-12 were belting their little hearts out, reading from exercise books with beautifully written out hymns. One of the girls, who must only have been around 10, was clearly the designated ‘teacher’ of the troupe and kept them all in check. We stayed for around half an hour before heading home and turning in for the night; our last night with the family.
* I feel it is only fair to comment here that my views are based purely upon the stories I was told and the people I met, hence why they may come across as slightly biased/feminist. In order to make a fair judgement I would need to fully integrate myself in the community for an extended period of time. The people of these communities accept the ways of their traditions and who am I to pass judgement on something that is different? Surely it is such differences that make the world such an interesting place to explore. Perhaps given more time I would find gender equality did exist in Hmong society, but one thing I will say is that from my experience with Xu; the women are among some of the strongest, in both mentality and physicality I have ever come across.