Their amused stares, the smiles. I wake to face three young boys with dirt-smeared faces and sparkling brown eyes.
These happy, scruffy kids are with their mothers and sisters, gathered in this Hmong tribal house to trade with my recent travel friends, Mo and Adam, from California.
They are here to purchase hemp cloth for fashion stores in the west.
(The fibers from hemp—a harmless cousin of the cannabis plant, are used by the Hmong to weave tough-wearing material.)
Hmong clothing is ornate
The boys wear naval-blue tunics with embroidered cuffs and collars.
But from their waists to their tiny, dusty feet, they’re naked.
The women wear leggings, long skirt-shirts—drawn at the waist with a slash, jackets and vests, and head-wraps with large silver hoops in each ear; every inch wrapped in layers of naval-blue cloth.
The colorful, elaborate cuffs and collars of their garments also stand out—the Hmong are famous for fine embroidery on clothes and rugs.
Hmong women study from childhood to perfect this intricate art.
As a single square inch, containing up to 400 tiny cross-stitches, can take as long as two hours to complete.
Hmong hill-tribes originate from China
The Hmong tribe was originally from the mountains of southern China but during the mid-19th century, clans fled to Indochina to escape Chinese rule.
Today about a million Hmong live in north Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, while some 2.5 million remain in China.
The Chinese call the Hmong – Miao.
It means “barbarian.”
But their own name, Hmong, means “free men.”
The distinctive culture of the Hmong tribe draws tourists like myself to the mountains of north-west Vietnam, where until recently, this shamanistic hill-tribe was isolated for decades.
It was at the hill station of Sapa, ringed by peaks that the French colonists named the Tonkinese Alps, that I first encountered the Hmong.
Hundreds of tribes people—mostly women and children—had converged on Sapa for the weekend market.
Amid the benches of cut meat and stacked fruit and stares and smiles, we met Si, the spokeswoman of one Hmong clan and it was she who had invited us to their village.
Staying in a traditional Hmong house
This village is around 10 km from Sapa, in a river valley surrounded by terraces of rice, the lush paddies stepping the slopes to the misty, forested peaks.
In this house where we stay, it’s basic.
Imagine a medieval barn.
Made of slatted wood and built on the ground, cracked earth floors like cement, a bamboo ladder reaching to a loft of straw. Hens forage inside as a dog rests in one corner.
Furnishings are a wooden table and chairs in the main room.
And beds and an open-floor-fireplace bordered by burnt stones and blackened pots and pans in another room, where hang twists of yellow chillies from bamboo rafters.
In the latter room we’re gathered, after a dinner of rice with boiled corn rusks and pink flower buds.
Lunch, breakfast, and dinner are the same simple meal.
Life of a strong Hmong woman
Si stirs the embers and places a pot on the open fire. She asks “tea?”
Although she speaks just a few words of English, after some charades and phrases of Vietnamese we understand something of her life.
Si is 45 and respected by her people as the village go-between, relating to ethnic Vietnamese and hill-tribes alike.
Si has seven children.
But one is dead.
Another is an opium addict.
Her first husband died; her second beat her, so she left.
During the Vietnam conflict (while many Hmong sided with the US), Si had been a member of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft unit, and her all-women unit claimed many American bombers. She received 10 medals.
Hmong getting high on opium
Swirling smoke stings my eyes as Si retrieves the hot, charred pot, stick hooking its handle to be placed beside a tray of white china cups.
The kids are all grinning.
We sip black sugary tea with extended family and friends.
An old man smokes a water pipe of tobacco, then joins a young guy slouched on a mat in the corner of this flame-lit room.
With a needle, the young man nurtures a sticky black ball on the bulb-end of the pipe as it draws across the candle and as the old man lies relaxed on his side. Head on the pillow, he inhales from the slender wooden stem, sucking up the soothing, bittersweet tingle.
Many Hmong smoke opium – yet few take it to the point of addiction
Hmong condone the use of opium among elderly people (with the help of the drug they can pass into a peaceful euphoria, rather than enduring a painful decay).
However, Hmong view young addicts as a disgrace.
In recent years, the Vietnamese Government and the United Nations have been trying to eradicate Hmong opium cultivation, replacing it with alternative cash crops. Building infrastructure to entice change in the remote mountain regions.
Around midnight, I’m slouched on a bed in the corner of his communal room.
Meanwhile Si and another woman sit sewing, eyes fixed on the needle and cloth as they talk by lantern light.
In the far corner, a man and woman lie curled towards one another with flame and pipe working between them.
My friends Adam and Mo have retired to the room next door. I hear them talking, but not what they talk about, for Adam’s portable plays dreamy, ambient-trance.
This whisper of music is the only link with the outside world.
But I’m swept away by passaging time, surrounded by shadows, strange language, flame-enhanced faces.
Here I am within range of the 21st century, here amid people simultaneously living ancient and modern lives.
I first published this article in 1996 + 1998 as a (paid) series for mainstream media. But stopped all commercial aspirations by 2000.
Part 2: (notes from the road)
In a Cloud of O
Have woken from more than a dream: this strange reality still surrounds me.
Si asks if we want tea?
A young man prepares it, powdering Chinese Aspirin into a cup of tar, heated by a candle.
With a needle, he nurtures a sticky black ball on the bulb-end of the pipe as it crosses the flame. The old guy sucks the slender stem.
Several hits later, he makes way for Mo.
Four hits each, then another person, head on the pillow, inhaling.
Again, we return the pipe, with the young man – Si’s son – preparing the O.
He drains many pipes; he’s addicted.
Floating with the mid-morning hits, I take a stool outside.
Muddy black-haired pigs – snorting, squealing, scrambling for sugarcane.
Beasts slurping water like the sloshing of a paddle-steamer.
Heads and tails flicking sugarcane splinters and muck as I pass.
Walking the narrow clay path dividing rice ponds.
Amid the luminous-green rice, alone.
Mo and Adam are back at the house – 200 metres away; another distant home hugs the hillside of pine and fog.
Feeling light, floating in a silence of ecstasy.
Rustling awakes the greenery.
Out shoot two geese just a meter away, flapping towards misty peaks.
Everything’s lovely, dreamy, so calm in a cloud of O.