Girl with Grit: Mother, Entrepreneur, International Friend
We arrived in Lao Cai where Chi’s uncle met us. It was an hour drive to Sapa Valley, where Chi worked as a tour guide. She met us at the hotel she reserved for us. She looked different from the way she did just three years ago. She looked tired, less peppy and a lot less energy. As we were catching up, I learned that she married at age 26 mainly because in the Hmong community, she was becoming an old maid. She married a younger man and moved into his family’s home where she quickly had two children, both boys, a year apart.
The first floor of the local shopping mall housed Vietnamese vendors, while the dark and cramp second floor housed Hmong merchants. The elders wore headlamps so they could work on the intricate sewing they did by hand. We met Chi’s mother, who had a booth. We also met Chi’s youngest son, just a few months old, and did not yet have a name (we suggested Jim). More than half a dozen Hmong women approached me and tried to sell me an array of items. It hurt my heart to have to turn down these elders as I couldn’t buy from each of them.
As we exited, where we were promptly bombarded by merchants ranging from 5-year-old girls selling crafts to 70-year-old women selling fabric. Every step we took, we were asked to purchase items or hire a guide. Tourism was the number one way of making a living in Sapa, a Vietnamese city surrounded by Hmong villages. Hotels were constantly being built. Hmong villagers were offering their modest homes as “homestays” so westerners could experience what it was like to live in a home with thatched roofs and dirt floors. There were almost no jobs for the men except driving taxis, or offering rides on their motorcycles/scooters. Other men traveled to local construction sites to offer their services.
Chi took us to the home she shared with her in-laws. Her husband pulled up on the family scooter with their 2-year-old son standing and holding onto the handlebars. We climbed down a steep and scary mountain; somehow Chi did it with one son strapped on her back and holding her other son. I sat with Chi as she made a fire and lunch in the corner. They lived in a three room home with an outhouse, no electricity and curtains for privacy. But they had cement floors, an upgrade. They raised pigs, pigeons, chickens and had a dog running around (who had no name, they called him “dog”).
After a delicious home-cooked meal, we made our way back to town through the villages. I witnessed a lot of things I had seen in other Hmong villages I had been to. But there were a lot more westerners, many were backpacking and hired guides like Chi from the side of the road to lead them.
Back at our hotel room, we reflected on the amazing grit the Hmong women of Sapa had. They bore children, raised them on their backs while trekking, learned English just by working and listening to tourists. They were the breadwinners. They were, indeed, incredible women.