The Battle of the Hmong

Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

The trail from Sapa, in North Vietnam’s Hoang Lien Son Mountains, to the small village of Lao Chai is well worn. Most of the 550,000 international visitors to the area in early 2013 would have donned a raincoat; followed their guide, probably provided by their hotel and sourced from the local village, down the long, steep road, through the throngs of Hmong women aggressively hawking their wares, arrived at the rural village swamped by rice fields, and ironically thought to themselves: ‘its nice to get off the tourist trail.’

Is Sapa tour guide Xu aiding or hindering the future of  Black Hmong women? Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Is Sapa tour guide Xu helping or hindering the future of Black Hmong women? Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

As I followed my guide Xu, who was provided by the hotel and sourced from the local village, down the long, steep road, two Hmong women from the said throng decided I was worth following. Mai is seventeen and has a knowing look, like a tiger waiting to pounce; she knows her prey and where and when the inevitable will happen. Friendly and chatty, her manner is polite but impatient, as though she is weighing up the risk of leaving the group to pursue me and possibly make a sale or stay and hassle others till someone wealthier comes along. Ma is older, perhaps in her 60’s. She is obviously wiser and has known another life, one in which selling trinkets and hand woven goods to foreigner’s, was not the norm for these women. She winds the hemp strands around her weathered hands without missing a beat, but seems as though she would rather be doing this without the added distraction of my perceived love of woven cushion covers. It was at this moment I realized, ironically, that I was well and truly part of the tourist trail.

The Hmong people are part of what is known in the tourism industry, as an Ethnic minority. Along with the Flower Hmong, Tsao, Dzay and Tay, these tribes have become an attraction on South East Asia’s backpacker trail for their resolute stance against assimilation and maintaining their traditional way of life. The word Hmong translates to ‘free’. For thousands of years the Hmong people have been persecuted. The Chinese, from the beginning of the Han dynasty, have tried to wipe them out and over time forced them from the fertile lowlands into the mountainous areas they now call home. A Hmong legend tells the tale that during the Sung dynasty their race was divided into 5 separate groups, the flower, green, red, white and black, to ensure the Hmong were never reunited as a whole. This division stands today and there is still disunity between the tribes. The Sapa region’s Black Hmong are traditionally farmers, growing rice and corn but for most it is a subsistent lifestyle. The life of a farmer in this region is an endless cycle of sowing, reaping, maintaining paddies and sowing again. The remote and hardy terrain is not conducive to machinery; so only those lucky enough to own a steer have any relief from the spine curving labor.

As Vietnam slowly recovered from decades of war and started to embrace capitalism, the area opened up to tourists. The early 90’s saw North Vietnam become an ‘off the road’ destination for those backpackers looking for an experience richer in culture than the full-moon parties of Thailand. Sapa quickly became a major international tourist hub and a ’must do’ for those holidaying in Vietnam. 2011 saw over 6 million visitors to Vietnam, an increase of almost 77% since 1995. The Lao Cai province, where Sapa and the sleepy, but next in line for a large-scale commercial tourist venture, Bac Ha are located, recorded revenue from the tourism industry of $52USD Million, already up 53% on last year. For many villagers this fast shift in focus from local tourists, with no real interest in their culture, to relatively wealthy curious westerners was seen as a potential goldmine. While the men of the village tended the crops, the women of the Black Hmong tribe opportunistically trekked into town daily, previously only visited once a week for supplies. As the tourism industry exploded so did the amount of village women in the town.

Sapa is north Vietnams hub for exploring the Hoang Lien Son Mountains. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Sapa is north Vietnams hub for exploring the Hoang Lien Son Mountains. Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

Ten years ago the journey to Sapa consisted of a nighttime bus journey on steep, unpaved tracks in the rain and mud and just the arrival at your basic guesthouse was cause enough for celebration at one of the few restaurants. It was a smaller town and the attraction was the basic produce market and the Saturday ‘love’ market where young locals gathered in the town square to find a potential mate. The outlying villages were still something of an oddity and those Hmong women that ventured into town, some influenced by the opium plant, rife in the area, were often herded back out again to maintain the ‘look’ of the town. Now ethnic minority women can outnumber tourists and the pressure to buy their goods is noted among guidebooks as one of the drawbacks to visiting this area. The Hmong tribe has always been resilient and adaptable and it would seem as though their newest battle is not against persecution from the Chinese but where to position themselves within the industry that has taken over their land. Within ten years the numbers that flock to Sapa have seen an increase in Government investment into the burgeoning tourism industry. Over 60 guesthouses/ hotels now operate, a highway from Lao Cai on the Chinese border, now cuts through the once impenetrable mountains, power line towers are now anchored in farmers rice paddies and whole valley walls, once covered in lush jungle, have been ripped out to make way for power stations. One such station cut into the once densely forested Valley wall looks out over the Muong Hoa river, as it greets tourists and their guides as they enter Xu, Mai and Ma’s village of Loa Chai.

Loa Chai and Ta Van are the destination of most treks organized by the Sapa hotels that hire local guides. As eco-tourism takes a foothold in the market there is a greater call for minority group women to lead tours to their village. These women have the advantage of having learnt English from haggling with tourists and local insight into the area. Xu earns around $9 AUD for each trip and can do one a day. The work she says is ”not regular, but if no tours I go to the town and sell”. Business savvy, she takes a call on her mobile phone for a future booking, while Mai and Ma laugh and continue to wind hemp yarn into baskets perched almost permanently on their shoulders. With Xu’s shiny purple gumboots and poorly hidden parka under her tunic, this scene is one of varying contradictions.

“Xu thinks that the power plant is good for the area, providing “electricity to those that don’t already have it. “

Xu and Mai look out over the valley. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Xu and Mai look out over the valley that is their home. Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

She diverts us through her house, perched high in the Valley wall above the power station. Housing her husbands extended family it is divided into three areas: a storage room, a middle room with a large rudimentary weaving device and a room to sleep and eat. It has a loft accessible by ladder, stuffed with bags of corn and rice and bundles of firewood. It is dark inside the house bar some natural light, Xu flicks a switch and a single bulb lazily flickers into action barely illuminating a thing. She has a pedestal fan plugged in but other than that there seems to be no other use for electricity. The kitchen is still a fire pit in the center of the room, which also doubles as the heater. Hot water is boiled and even if there was reception there seems to be no need for a TV or radio. I ask Xu where is her husband, is he in the terraced rice paddies readying them for harvest? She proudly responds that he is helping a friend thatch a house to earn extra money as they are ‘extending this one (house) to make it bigger’. Xu says she will benefit from the new power scheme because it is only 200,000 Viet Dong ($9AUD) a month, exactly the price to have her guide me to the village for the day. While Xu is one of the fortunate ones who have the skills to make this sort of money, others in the village are not as fortunate. Ma walks the 16 kilometre round trip to Sapa everyday, sometimes twice. There are days when she does not make a sale.

Along with Lai Chau, the Lao Cai province is one of the two poorest in the country with over 70% of the population living under the poverty line. Agriculture still counts for 78% of the economic activity in the area even during this tourist boom. Buying goods from stalls is advised against, as the money supposedly doesn’t get to the local families, however buying directly from those hassling on the street is also warned against, to dissuade the Hmong women and their daughters entertaining it as an employment option. So is the tourist dollar helping or hindering the Black Hmong people? The apparent appeal of the dollar to the younger generation coupled with visible drug use amongst Hmong elders, (The Hmong people were for years farmers of Opium, but since the tourist trade became a major source of revenue, the government banned its cultivation, again inhibiting bargaining resources for the Hmong and sending its users onto the street.) and mass construction reducing the land available for farming, it seems as though the Black Hmong way of life, for so long resilient, is slowly and quietly vanishing. A trip further northeast to the sleepy hillside hamlet of Bac Ha reveals a story mirroring that of Sapa. Famous for its rural and raucous Sunday market it attracts smaller numbers of tourists wishing to see the local Ethnic communities barter, trade and celebrate as they have done for centuries. Hotels in this town have doubled in the last ten years and even though it doesn’t offer the same pristine mountain views as Sapa, the tourist trade here is growing. My guide for a day, Tsao is 22 and fresh out of finishing a Tourism course at University. Rather than heading to the more popular Halong Bay, Hoi An, or Sapa, he chose to come to Bac Ha, as it ‘has more opportunity for my work as a guide.’ While not as outwardly friendly as the Black Hmong, the regions Flower Hmong people, and their villages, are becoming popular as an attraction for those wishing to see something a little more ‘genuine’ than the theme-parked Cat Cat or Lao Chai around Sapa. After Bac Ha, the Northeastern area surrounding Ha Giang is next in line for mass tourism and visiting ‘real’ ethnic minorities. It seems that the want for foreigners to see that last frontier, is slowly eroding the notion that there is one.

Flower Hmong women at Bac Ha buffalo market. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Flower Hmong women at Bac Ha buffalo market. Is Bac Ha the next Sapa? Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

After bidding Xu’s mother-in-law farewell the four of us arrive at the bottom of the valley, and Xu notions to sit and have a drink. As she wanders further into the village searching for mobile phone coverage, a scripted Mai quickly pulls out a bag of cushion covers, wallets, bracelets and satchels to tempt me. As my guilt overrides my social conscience, I point to a small wallet and say ‘just one’. The haggle takes its usual route, money and goods exchange hands and Mai disappears. I don’t see Mai again until 2 days later. In the whirlwind of the transaction I forget about Ma who is slowly stuffing goods back into her bag. She looks up at me and notions that she is going. We walk together for a short distance and she stoops to pick a piece of bracken. Ma expertly folds the fern frond back over itself a few times and after a quick inspection hands me a horse sculpture, she smiles broadly, waves and continues back from where we came, toward the power station that now looks over her village.



The Power plant under construction in Lao Chai. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

The Power plant under construction in Lao Chai. Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

As developing nations embrace the world of tourism and start to utilize their previously hidden natural wonders and peoples to generate income, the balancing act between progress and tradition becomes infinitely harder. Travellers do not want to see traditional ways of life wiped out nor do they not want to be able to see them. Governments have societies to look after, but need income to do it. The Black Hmong need to feed their children but at what cost? It would seem as though Xu and Mai have found a solution for the time being, but a more permanent answer would need help from outside the village walls, hopefully before the deep rich black and blue tunic, so expertly woven by these proud resilient women, turns from a uniform of pride into a fancy dress costume.

Chris Hopkins



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