Day 5: Sapa Valley


Pearls are a resting metaphor to life—taking an impurity and after a year encircling it until an orb of beauty is created.


Hanoi—when Alex lands he would probably comment on how he had tried so hard to get here before.


Deborah while in Kuwait walked in on miller and two other guys performing an “interrogation.” Miller drags her out of the room.


“Find somewhere else to be.”


“No! What the hell is going on here?!”


“You don’t need to be a part of this.”


Deborah never reported it.


As Alex stops speaking he notices her face, pours her a drink. “Whiskey for your thoughts.”

“I saw..” she can’t finish.


Alex just nods. “Yep, we saw.” “I didn’t…” she trails off again. Alex looked at his glass. “I did.” He raises a glass and they drink it down.


Today I saw a Mung village. There were three ethnic minorities there! Mung, Dy, and the Red Zuang. But I saw mostly Mung.


I got to go inside their homes and see how they live. It was unreal. The mountain itself is beautiful as you will see in the photos.


The Mung live in small houses usually with a dirt floor. Duc tells me that the way to tell how wealthy they are is by how many bags of rice and corn they have in the loft.


They have a tiny kitchen in their home with various pots and pans. The beds are wood with a thin mat and some blankets. Attached to the home are stables for pigs and cows.

The Mung are known for their indigo clothes. They make coarse thread from the indigo plant. Then dye it blue using ashes from the kitchen and rainwater. They then weave the cloth and hang it to dry.


For decoration, they hand embroider designs or paint the cloth with beeswax before dying it. The result is the painted portions stay white and it imprints the design on the blue fabric. They may also sew beads onto the clothes.


The Red (Zuang?) wears a tall red scarf.


They have (the Mung) a fire inside their home that they use to keep warm and to smoke marinated meat.


The women marry young—sometimes 16-17 years old. Though 19 seems common. They rely on herbs and their food for health. It seems they are healthier than the people in the cities. My guess is less pollution and cleaner living.


Some things that I asked about timing for the book.


  • Private tours: Started about 2000-2005.

  • Scooters: started 1994. Before that bicycles.

  • A lot of the infrastructure is late 90-2000s.

  • Sappa recently became a tourist attraction.

  • American tourism was rare until more recently.


So realistically if Deborah and Alex were to travel to Vietnam, I’d need to think about timing 1995-2001. I have a 9-year gap.


I don’t’ think that is going to work out… I’ll think about it.


Today was a beautiful sunny day. This Mung woman followed me around trying to sell her wares. I ended up giving her $20.00 for some handmade crafts that would have cost $40-50 in the U.S. I think Duc thinks I got ripped off, but I kind of half feel like I should give her more. So I guess $20 was probably about right.


I had more fun today. I feel like I got to see more of what I hoped to.


Duc says Sapa was named by the French who settled here. The French named it “Chappa,” though I can’t find that it means anything in French. Now it is inhabited mainly by ethnic minorities who live in poverty. Farming the rice terraces and selling wares and house stays to tourists.


Wandering around the village at first I was very uncomfortable. Duc would grab people’s clothes to show me, he’d walk into people’s houses without asking and show me around and use people as displays or curiosities. The people seem used to it, but something felt off. I can’t help but feel I was witnessing something terrible.


I don’t think any human, regardless of culture, likes being on display as a curiosity. The people made little eye contact—not in a different cultural way—in an “I want to be left alone” way. These people have almost no power here, and can only survive by giving tourists what they want. I feel sure guides like Duc use this to their advantage by using their power to “sell” the minorities to tourism.


I felt so dirty. I asked Duc if this was normal and he seemed to think it was cultural, but I don’t think so. I think that Duc wouldn’t like it much if I walked into his house in Hanoi without knocking and started touching him without permission so I could display his way of life to tourists.


He is the majority and doesn’t realize the power he has. It is highly reminiscent of the treatment of minorities in the U.S. 50 years ago or so—or the colonization period.

I refused to take pictures of people or their homes except for a few cases where I had permission and had spoken to the person. I felt the outside of houses was okay. Most Americans wouldn’t consider this an invasion. I tried to avoid taking pictures if the owner was present though. I didn’t want to contribute to making them feel like a show. Being ignorant of their culture, I have to rely on my intuition regarding what desires are universally human.


I hope I didn’t add too much to the problem. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history… particularly if my husband is going to be a historian.


Only three and ½ pages left! I’m so happy! It’s been easier today because I have so much to write about.


I got to see rice being seeded today. They cut terraces into the mountainside and then they fill them with water and they till the mud and then they plant the rice. I don’t know if all rice is this way, but the rice in Vietnam grows in water. It turns yellow during harvest time. Here in the mountains they only get one harvest. In the rocky areas, they plant corn. They also have herb and vegetable gardens and the Mung plant quite a bit of indigo for their traditional clothes.


Duc tells me that around Hanoi they get two harvests and then in the Mekong Delta they get three!


I am excited to move South. I climb up to a waterfall tomorrow and then head to the airport for the next phase of my journey. Tonight I promised to try a sip of rice wine—40% alcohol! Yikes!


Oh! In one of the Mung houses, there was a Christian shrine. A few of the minorities are Catholic as a result of French influence. Most families have these pieces of red paper with a golden center hung around the house and on the door to ward off evil.


The children go to government-sponsored schools for free, but many minorities still find it difficult to attend because they live up in the mountains and it is too much of a trek to get down to the village school.