Hmong in Burma

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I came across this blog talking about Hmong people in Burma, very interesting!! Taken from David Meaton

travel diary – day 160

day 156 – today was the last day on the island, and i had to leave early. after breakfast we checked out and were met by a boat which would take us to halong bay. we crossed cat ba island and ended up on a chinese style ‘junk’ which would be home for the final night. there were about 16 foreigners on the boat and we cruised around the bay, visited limestone caves and went swimming. it was actually a lot of fun. we also went kayaing through a tunnel which was actually a ridge beneath one of the massive rocks scattered around the bay. the area was incredibly beautiful and we had even more fun.

that evening we had dinner on the boat and cruised until after sunset. however, the boat began to have engine troubles and another boat (also a tourist cruiser) had to tow us to the harbour where we’d sleep. we were sleeping on the boat, but hadn’t yet reached our final destination. a bunch of us, including an english guy who was moving to australia to live, sat on the roof drinking beer. he and his girlfriend (she was german) drank 19 bottles of beer that evening … an impressive tally.

we all headed to bed late and enjoyed sleeping on the boat (first time i’ve done that, i think).

day 157 – in the morning the engine was still broken, so we had to be towed all the way back to halong bay. it meant we were late and we had a late lunch and a long drive back to hanoi. i ended up buying some souvenirs too, mostly for craig, and added those to my booty to be stored in korea (before i take them to australia).

getting back to hanoi, i checked into a hotel, showered, changed and repacked my stuff. some gear (the heavy stuff and souvenirs) was going back to korea early, where it would await me. the rest (a much lighter pack, i was happy to notice) was reorganised for future travels. we went to the airport, had a coffee in a lounge full of rude staff, and said our goodbyes. it was late, so i headed back to town. but before going to bed, i decided to book a trip to sapa. i had a little time and decided that sapa would be worth seeing before i left vietnam. it was odd … vietnam was one of the places i had the least interest in … and ironically, i’d spent nearly a month here on various tours and adventures. i also booked a ticket to nanning … finally signaling my departure from vietnam.

day 158 – i checked out of my room and pilfered wifi all day. today was a waiting day for my night train to sapa. i’d decided that i didn’t want to spend money, so i sat behind a fan playing my chess tournament games. i also edited a few photos.

in the evening i went to the train station and boarded my train. i quite liked the idea of an overnight trip to sapa. i watched a movie on my ipod and went to sleep.

day 159 – in the morning i woke up to a banging on my carriage door. i was sharing a sleeper with three other men and the banging signaled our arrival in sapa. i disembarked and, bleary eyed from sleep, stumbled around outside looking at placards for one with my name on it. i couldn’t find my name and spent much time fighting off drivers and touts who were eager for easy business. i sat down and pondered what to do. then i noticed a guy holding a placard with two sheets. he moved the first sheet and for a moment i spied my name hidden on the back page … slightly misspelled, but it was definitely me. i grabbed the guy, pointed to my name, and i was directed to a minivan which drove me and my fellow travellers the rest of the way to the sapa village.

i found my hotel, checked in, enjoyed a huge buffet breakfast (free) and wandered into town. sapa is a mountain village which has become popular for its minority tribespeople called hmong. there are various hmong tribes, known by their various colours – black hmong, green hmong, red hmong, etc. the black hmong are the largest group and can be found all throughout sapa. they make a busy living off handicrafts and tour guiding. most of the visible hmong are women, who work the tourist industry. the men are off in forests labouring away cutting trees and such.

so, needless to say, the main streets of sapa are crowded with tribeswomen selling stuff or offering tour services. there’s also a lively market in the main street (next to a rather prominent roman catholic church). i bought shoe laces and browsed the shops. my compulsion for buying bags almost got the better of me, but i managed to resist.

when i returned to the hotel, the guide told me that the day’s hiking tour had been postponed until afternoon, due to the bad weather. so i strolled back into town for some coffee. after lunch we did a short walking tour to cat cat waterfall. i met an australian woman called eileen, who was in her late forties and whose name kept me humming ‘come on eileen’ for the next three days. we chatted together as we hiked down via a supposed hmong village to the waterfall. the village wasn’t a village. it was a trail of stores manned by hmong women selling the same handcrafted bags and soapstone figurines. i was enormously disappointed that there was no real ‘village’ at all and most people seemed to resent having their photo taken.

in the heat, i began to scorn myself for coming to sapa, thinking that it was going to be all shopping malls and no photo opportunities. we reached the waterfall and it was a brown muddy mess. there was an indoor hmong dancing show, but that was a paid attraction and i was in no mood to fork out more money. after a break, during which i took a few photos, we started the uphill hike back to town.

the hike was hot and sweaty, but it felt really good. and i have to admit that the local people really know how to wring every penny out of fourists. the downhill section of the hike was relative quiet, aside from market stalls and drink sellers. but the uphill section had guys with motorbikes waiting to take hot, tired tourists the rest of the way up the hill. it’s really quite smart, that they have figured out every possible niche and opportunity to make money. with the sight of that long, uplil trek ahead, i’m sure many tourists opt for the easy bike ride.

i didn’t and stomped my way all the way back to town … with a short break (and a beer) along the way.

i showered at the hotel, had dinner, and played with my computer. i had been stealing a neighbouring hotel’s wifi and noticed that my computer was sluggish. then, unexpectedly, the computer crashed … for the first time ever i had got windows xp’s famous blue screen of death. the computer restarted, but was clearly not working properly.

with most computers, merely throwing in the xp cd and restoring (or reinstalling) windows would be in order. but my netbook has no disk drive. so, everything is much more difficult because it requires either peripheral optical drives (which i hate carrying around) or usb restore software. fortunately, i have hp’s restore software and tried to reinstall the operating system. the restore failed, but after the format … which meant i had no operating system at all.

at midnight i gave up and went to bed.

day 160 – i checked out and left my backpack in storage. today i was hiking to a hmong village and doing a homestay. i took only my camera bag and my duckpack (with a change of clothes). the broken computer remained behind while i considered my options.

we (my group and i, including ‘come on eileen’) hiked from sapa to hmong villages. the walk was a lot of fun. we were joined by a group of hmong women who routinely follow tourists from town to the villages. their tactic is to follow you, befriend you, then sell as much shit as possible to you. i know their ploy, but decided to play along … my nefarious intention was to use this as a way to get as many photos as possible.

one girl, ten years old, seemed keen to attach herself to me. her name was ’soh’ and she followed me all the way to the village. during the walk i told her that if she came with me, i promised to buy something from her. that made her happy, and she gleefully frolicked along by my side. she was quite endeering actually, because at one point she thought i’d gone off ahead and raced down the hill to find me. one of her friends called to her. when soh stopped, the friend pointed at me and soh (with a massive foolish grin on her face) waltzed back up the hill.

((speaking of waltzing, i really regret that i forgot to take matilda with me, i could have got some nice photos of her and the hmong people))

so we kept hiking through villages and along muddy, clay bush tracks. the views were amazing … terraced rice paddies as far as the eye could see … but the weather was terrible and sapa’s peaks (3200m) were clouded over. at one village i bought a bracelet of a little girl who had a cyst or cataract over her eye. her left eye was really bad and i felt sorry for her because it was probably treatable.

during lunch it was clear that the hmong women weren’t going any further. this was the time to make good on my promise. i bought a handcrafted pouch and a bracelet. soh was pleased with her sale, but hung around with other hmong women to try and get more buisness out of the tourists. while i ate, i spied soh lingering outside. i grabbed a can of passionfruit drink and handed it to her over the fence (they weren’t allowed to enter the restaurant to sell stuff). soh took the can happily. i thought she’s try and resell it, as i’d seen in other places, but she immediately cracked the seal and drank some then shared it with her friends. that made me happy and i returned to my lunch.

i was in a fantastic mood. i’d got lots of great photos that morning (portraits, portraits, portraits) and the day had turned out wonderfully. in fact, it was the exact opposite of the walk to cat cat waterfall the previous day. sapa was fast becoming one of my favourite places in vietnam.

after lunch we hiked a little futher before reaching our homestay. when one thinks of homestay, one automatically thinks of sleeping in the house of a local family, eating local food, sharing stories and learning about local lives. this wasn’t that kind of homestay. our homestay was simply a hotel in a village. it was an open room hotel, with everyone sleeping in bunks on the first or second floor. each bunk had a mosquito net (thankfully) but there was absolutely no privacy … which was fine by me. the hotel even had a pool table, which the hmong girls used constantly.

at our ‘homestay’ was us two aussies, a belgian couple and three young brits. the seven of us sat at a table and chatted over beers. the hmong girls changed into regular clothes and one of them even had a mobile phone. we found out later that she also has a facebook profile … which lead us to conclude that for these girls the ‘hmong minority’ is very much a job and their traditional clothes are a costume or uniform. like all people, they wanted to be modern. however i was very surprised to learn that one of the hmong guides, who was probably about 17-18 couldn’t read or write.

the hmong are an interesting people. as a minority group, their presence has never held much value in vietnam. in the days of french colonialism, the hmong were mostly converted to roman catholicism and, in fact, most are still catholic. soh and many other girls wore rosaries with a crucifix around their necks all day. when i told them i was catholic, they were very excited and asked if i’d seen the church in town … a place of which they were very proud.

as well as being insignificant, as a minority, the hmong were also shunned by other vietnamese because they chose to fight alongside the allied forces during the vietnam war. northern vietnam was communist and very much anti-american and anti-western. but these tribespeople fought against their fellow vietnamese … a decision which still draws much hostility from others.

however, our homestay was fun. they gave us more food than we could possibly eat and four of us (me and the three brits) played drinking games with beer and the potent local rice wine until midnight.

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