In SaPa, Vietnam, I was humbled. I was stripped. I felt cold, wet, and miserable as I trekked down a slippery mountain in the mud and wondered “why did I think this was a good idea?!?”… and “why would anyone else sign up, and PAY to be taken down a difficult path like this?!?” By achieving the end of this trip, I knew why. Its crazy to think that in 2 days, I learned as much as I did.
My guide was a young woman of the Hmong tribe who takes this route rain or shine. It took us the day of trekking and miles of mountain to get to her humble village where the living conditions are “basic”. This means they have a roof over their heads but aside from walls and roof, there is not more to it.
They cook over an open fire, there is an outhouse for the bathroom, and there is a wooden frame where you sleep. November in Sapa is cold and foggy. In the summer SaPa is breathtaking, with rice terraces as far as the eye can see. It is green, dry, and beautiful. Many people vacation there and rave about it. However, the winter is harsh in these parts ( especially for delicate souls like me).
If you read comments about SaPa, tourist complain of how Hmong women are relentless and follow you asking you to buy something. What you need to understand is that: It is the means of feeding their families. They have to hustle, and can you blame them? Let me paint the picture through a little history. The Hmong are group of people who were nomadic in nature for thousands of years over this region of Northeast Asia. They were divided by modern government and are split over 4 countries. Their nomadic ways allowed sustainability of the resources which enabled them to live comfortably. When Vietnam was colonized by the French, the Hmong tribes were forced to stay in permanent locations and this led to present day situation: they are a impoverished. The rice they grow in the season is not sold but used to feed their families. The rice they cultivate only provides them with food for part of the year. To make up the difference, they make things to sell in the market as tourism is the main source of income for this area. My host got up at 4AM in order to start the journey for the SaPa market. From their village, it is a 4 hour hike. Talk about working hard for the money! I thought I had it rough waking up at 5AM to be at work at 6M for a 10hr day. Its not a lack of hard work for these people, its a lack of opportunity.
The hardships these people undergo made me feel bad and shed new light on all that I have. Abundance. Then I saw how happy they are. They have a strong sense of community as well. At 32 years old, my guide has 3 children: 14, 12, and 3. They marry young and work hard their entire lives. The youngest son inherits the land and family home but in turn lives with the parents to take care of them as they age. Neighbors and family take care of the children, actively living by the ideology that it takes a village to raise a child. They are happy, they share stories, and people hardly leave these villages for the cities and a more “comfortable” life. My guide cannot read or write in English but she speaks 3 languages with excellent pronunciation. Spending 2 days amongst them I see they are skilled and hard working. More admiration filled me.
Women are strong, men are loyal, and family is everything. They have physical and emotional strength. It says a lot when a young girl, no more than 17 years old, with a baby slung on her back, gives you a bamboo stick because she feels bad at how you are struggling through the slippery mud. I am blown away. Thats when I realized that they have their priorities straight and if anything, I am the one that needs to re-evaluate myself before passing judgement. They felt bad for me and here I was thinking I have it all and they have so little! In fact, they are rich. They realize that the most important things in life are not material things or how much you can flaunt. Instead they value human relationships.
After this trip, I have a new perspective of contentment and how I need to find it in the right things. I find it humbling to experience difficult moments like this where I am put out of my comfort zone. You are forced to reflect. One thing that I hope to do is ensure that I travel responsibly. The company we booked the tour with (ETHOS ADVENTURES) is focusing on helping the community improve their living conditions and provides a fair wage to the guides and hosts. It was refreshing to see that I could contribute but more importantly, that I could learn firsthand. So I challenge you to think about how your tourism is affecting the community you are visiting. Sometimes as tourists we breed a certain negative behavior. For example, when we buy something from a cute little kid who is selling something, you are promoting the parents using the kids as salesmen instead of ensuring they are at school getting an education. Obviously kids are irresistible but we need to be mindful of the message we are sending.
The moral of the story is that we get entrapped in our every day lives and issues and we forget how much we have and how little we appreciate it. Even when you THINK you don’t have enough, there are people with LESS than you who are doing MORE to get it. Any achievements I thought I had are blown away by the achievements of the humans I met on this humbling journey through a little village in SaPa.