We met Mai and Chi at 9am for our hike. They wanted to know what food we would like for lunch and then took us to the market to buy supplies. Mai found a spot for us to wait while she went for the purchases. Without us, she would get better prices, but in hindsight, I would have been happy to pay more just to watch the shopping process. In any case we got the supplies and headed off down the road with quite a few other tour groups.
The other tour groups were larger – say a dozen or so – with a tour leader who didn’t particularly look H’Mong, but may have been. They also had various H’Mong women trailing along so we were constantly asked, ‘Where you from?’, ‘How old are you?’, ‘How many children you have?’. Eventually, we asked the same questions back. Once the H’Mong worked out we were with Mai and Chi, they wandered off. Along the way, Mai pointed out various features and urged us to come back in summer to see the rice crops in flower. Sounds tempting.
Mai also told us that she has disabled children who require fairly constant attention from her husband. She has been married twice. The first man did not meet her expectations so she divorced him. The divorce process happens with a meeting between the two families where a fair settlement is sought. The settlement is about the dowry payment made to the brides family. It seems the going rate in Sapa is $1500 which seems like a fair amount for these people. Marriage occurs after the groom speaks to the brides family and makes a payment. Then the happy couple wear new clothes at the next full moon and after a party or two, it’s all done.
At the various stops, H’Mong women and children approached tourists to make sales. We were not approached by the women and I’m guessing Mai and Chi had somehow let them know we were off limits, but the little girls came with their friendship bracelets and the catch-phrase ‘Please buy one more’. It’s of course difficult to not buy the entire stock from each and every child.
When we arrived at the village, we stopped at a building that looked fairly new and guessed that it is a community hall that services tourists for their lunches. The other groups were getting stuff like chocolate biscuits, but we got local produce cooked in the local manner. I had asked for tofu as the Vietnamese tofu is pretty sensational – not sure if I will be able to buy the supermarket stuff again. Mai served this with bamboo which she had recommended we try. It was a sensational and memorable meal. We also told her we like eggs, so got a bowl of clear soup with noodles and a fried egg in it. There was so much to eat, we told them not to cook the beef that the Responsible Adult had asked for. Mai and Chi took our leftovers (they had really given us a lot to eat) and shared these with other H’Mong women. No waste.
After lunch we continued on through the village with Mai showing us the traditional crafts that are obviously still a way of life. Weaving, dying, rice hulling and so on. I particularly liked the still and had a go at the Rice Wine. Very good. We visited a school and it was obvious that they were proud that the children were getting an education. But it seems that the children are not looking to escape the traditional way of life.
Our journey was soon ended and of course it was exit through the gift shop. We didn’t really need anything. Mai and Chi started proceedings by giving us gifts. (They are really good at the whole sales thing about establishing rapport). We got some small coin bags and bits of jewellery, then the buying began. I have no idea what we bought apart from Chi’s necklace. But no doubt there are cushion covers and bags as well. Having no idea about how they worked together, I took Mai aside and gave her $40 for the tour and told her she needed to sort out how it would work with Chi. I think this may have been the wrong thing to do. Anyway, it’s done.
Somehow after all this, they took us across a bridge to where a mini bus was just about to leave for Sapa. Their timing was excellent.