Hitchhiking Vietnam

On a solo journey through Vietnam, Karin Muller stops to take in market day in the backwater village of Sapa -- and witnesses the changes tourism has brought to the country.

By Karin Muller
May 27, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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Sapa was awash in concrete construction, mostly catering to the tourist trade. Everyone was getting in on the act: The main street alone sported a Bank Guesthouse, a Fansipan Mountain Hotel, a Waterfall Lodge, and even a Post Office Hotel, where rooms were available but stamps were not. Along with the building boom had come a glut of entrepreneurial, nonethnic Vietnamese who not only looked down on the minorities, but also by now outnumbered them.

The town itself had once been a French resort, perched high on a mountainside in the cool and comfortable Tonkinese Alps. An old, browning photo in the neglected museum showed wide streets, well-spaced houses, fancy fifties cars, and a central green for communal sporting activities.


Present-day Sapa was somewhat less idyllic. The larger grassy areas had deteriorated into grazing land for skinny packhorses. Cars had been replaced by flocks of motorbikes for hire, the gaps between houses filled in with pigsties and food stalls, and lawless chickens scratched among the streetside trash. A general air of boomtown money and shoddy, hurried workmanship hung over the piles of homemade bricks and construction materials that littered the sidewalks and backyards. Worst of all, every relationship seemed adversarial. The guesthouse owners disliked each other, the Vietnamese disdained the minorities, and everyone was trying to wring the last dollar out of the transient tourists before sending them back to Hanoi. Even the dogs were uniformly mean.

But just beyond the edge of town, a mere five minutes' walk from the busy marketplace, a rugged mountain landscape took shape. It was a land of bamboo groves, of gentle breezes and sinuous terraces, their careful geometry cut by tiny streams.


As twilight fell I reluctantly retraced my steps to town and intercepted the first likely looking man I found to see if I could hire one of those scrawny horses for a month-long trek into the mountains. His name, he told me, was Cham. He immediately squatted down into a comfortable, long-term bargaining position and arranged his face into an expressionless mask. He motioned for a suitable prop, a cigarette. I didn't have one. The corners of his mouth sank half an inch and he fell into a moody silence.

The horses, he said after considerable thought, were far too delicate to carry a big-boned foreigner.

I had seen them plodding into town with several hundred pounds of rice lashed to their wooden saddles. I hastened to assure him that I had no intention of riding the wretched beasts. I wanted one to carry my pack, a trivial item to say the least, a veritable feather on the back of these fine steeds.


He plucked a piece of grass and chewed it thoughtfully. How were they to know that I wouldn't just steal it and disappear over the nearby border into China?

I imagined myself wandering about the Chinese hinterlands with nothing but a bony stallion. No currency, no language skills, no visa. I pointed out that a foreigner with a horse would leave behind a superhighway of gossip and that I couldn't "disappear" if my life depended on it.


He thought some more, his eyelids drooping in an effort to focus his concentration. I suspected, uncharitably, that he might be dozing off, if that were physically possible while bent into such a tendon-snapping squat.

His eyes popped open with a sudden inspiration. Perhaps, he said, he should accompany me as interpreter and guide, as the Hmong horse owner would almost certainly speak no English and would insist on chaperoning his steed on such a hellish trek.

I studied Cham's face. His features were pure lowland Vietnamese, and he wore not a shred of native garb. I was willing to wager he spoke no Hmong, nor any other ethnic dialect. Since we were conducting the conversation in Vietnamese, I knew his English was nothing to boast about.


A man wearing such fine clothes, I exclaimed, indicating his wilted T-shirt and tattered shorts, shouldn't stoop to sleeping in mud huts and washing in the river. As much as I aspired to his services as guide and mentor, perhaps he would content himself with a hefty finder's fee and my eternal gratitude.

"You know check?" he asked with unexpected abruptness.

Check. Traveler's check. Chekhov. Checkers. Checkmate. I had no idea.


"Czech language," he said impatiently.

"No, I don't," I said, feeling a little ashamed of the fact.

He had apparently spent five years in Czechoslovakia, studying construction and women. He had managed to acquire no less than three girlfriends, all tall, plump, and European. They had convinced him that Asians would someday rule the world because, try as he might, he failed to impregnate a single one of them, despite fathering six spanking infants by his Vietnamese wife in as many years. The Western world was dying out, he told me. Their women were barren. In a few generations it would all be over, empty houses and fancy cars with the keys still in the ignition, and the sturdier Asians would simply move in and take up where they left off. He himself had his eye on a fine three-story house in Brno, if all went according to plan, for his grandchildren.

He looked at me with pity, and seemed surprised at my lack of concern.


"Fine," I said, "but what about the horse?"

The next morning was market day. The sudden appearance of hundreds of Hmong and Zao in their Sunday best was enough to temporarily banish all thoughts of mountain hikes and scrawny steeds. The minorities in their turn attracted dozens of itinerant traders, who set up their wares on long mats at the bottom of the market and did their level best to relieve both tourists and tribespeople of cash and kind.

The Hmong women all wore indigo-dyed hemp clothes embroidered with inhumanly intricate designs. The Zao held their own with elaborate stitchery and enormous red headcovers, layered and twisted into pillowlike pads that hid their shaven heads. Small knots of teenage girls ventured arm-in-arm among the food stalls, simultaneously attracting attention with their lovely costumes and rebuffing it with waving hands and averted faces. I saw infants less than three weeks old, their mothers having walked as much as fifteen miles to attend the market-day activities. The children slept endlessly, or looked upon the world with wide, attentive eyes. I never saw one cry.

Almost everyone was barefoot, their soles as hard as rhino skin. Those who could afford footwear had but one choice -- a cheap Chinese sandal, sold for the forbidding sum of ninety cents. I watched a bent old woman try on one pair of plastic sandals after another, enviously fingering the rigid straps and then shuffling away, unshod.


Everyone arrived with their purchasing power in hand -- a couple of carefully padded eggs woven into a tiny reed basket, a string of gnarled mushrooms, or a bulbous sprout of mountain orchid. It was the middle of winter and the life-giving earth was hard as iron. Planting wouldn't begin for several months, and attic stores of unhusked rice were already running low. Many families bolstered their meager resources by foraging in the forests for tubers and roots, bamboo shoots, tender leaves, and edible insects. They sold the excess and used the money to buy salt and medicines, blankets, kerosene, and a few iron cooking pots. If anything was left over, they wandered down to the traders' mats to pore over the latest gadgets and tempting trinkets.

Market day was clearly more than just a shopping trip. It was a time where villagers could meet and chat, where romances were kindled and conflicts resolved. It was a day without the usual burden of chores, a time to temper the rigid daily discipline with a few minor luxuries. Stalls advertised peanuts by the tinful, tangerines, balloon-size cabbage heads and tiny, prepared pineapples on a stick. Hot food vendors sold sizzling tofu, rice gruel, deep fried batter, blood soup, and fully developed chicken embryos, cooked shortly before hatching and served with fresh basil and a dash of chili.

Market day had functioned this way for centuries, filling the meager needs of its feeder population. New products occasionally appeared and traditional items faded away, but the market itself continued, unchanging.

Until now.


The tourists arrived in white minibuses, dazed and stiff-legged from twelve cramped hours on the winding, wretched road. Other, more courageous souls flooded the train to Lao Cai and got fleeced by the bus conductors on the long ride up the mountain. They arrived late Friday night and filled the rapidly expanding guesthouses to the bursting point. They left Sunday afternoon, their film duly exposed, each clutching some piece of intricate embroidery a tribal woman had labored over for many days. They left behind a small mountain of banknotes that was turning the economy on its head and affecting everything from dowries to death rites.

Virtually every Hmong woman carried a basketful of embroidered clothing on her back, ready for sale. They descended upon the tourists brave enough to forsake their balcony rooms for a ground-level view of the bustling market. They spoke not a word of English and only a smattering of French, enough to say "Jolie, jolie!" as they clustered around the towering white strangers, tugging on their sleeves and reaching up to slip indigo skullcaps on bare heads and tunics over broad shoulders.

Oddly enough, the clothes they sold looked nothing like the clothes they wore, lovely tunics with multicolored stitchery and delicately sewn seams. The tourist garments were a patchy shade of purple and made of poorly matched panels that puckered and sagged. I snagged one for a closer look and realization dawned. They were reworked secondhands. The women had torn the collars out of old jackets and cut the broad, embroidered edge out of their tattered skirts, then stitched the pieces hastily together. The sacklike jackets were then immersed in homemade dye to disguise the battered embroidery and clashing colors. The same was true for the popular skullcaps made exclusively in foreign sizes. The bumpy embroidered patch across the front was really an old collar, baptized in a vat of dye and stitched to a piece of plain blue cloth.

The Hmong did brisk business selling their grungy clothes to grungier tourists who seemed to welcome the secondhand look. I wondered how they kept themselves supplied with used clothes. Surely they had cleaned out their own rag bins months ago.

The answer arrived in the form of several men with bulging sacks who set up shop outside the apothecary. They were immediately inundated with native women who snatched up the best pieces, squinted at them briefly in the sunlight, and tucked them into their bodices before they could be seized by other dye-tinted hands. It was all over in minutes, the women drifting away from the tattered remains. I wandered over to have a chat with the frazzled-looking men.

They were from a hamlet on the far side of Lao Cai, they told me, and business was good. They had long since emptied the surrounding villages of old clothes and now traveled 200 kilometers on horseback through the mountains in search of new sources. Some of the skirts were fifty years old, having been passed on from mother to daughter. The traders were getting desperate, and rich. Dwindling supplies had pushed prices up sixfold, and even the most ragged clothing now found a ready buyer.

I asked if I could go with them on one of their treks if I brought my own horse and gear. They turned pale and shrunk in upon themselves, shaking their heads like angry buffalo and insisting that my mere presence would spoil business. Not even an offer to pay my way with tobacco and rice wine could bring the color back into their cheeks, and they didn't look healthy again until their bags were packed and they were safely on their way.

I slunk off, feeling rather unwanted, and tried to lose myself in the boisterous crowd of Hmong and Zao that gathered around the traders' mats. A close-cropped Hmong man squatted near a pile of small-animal traps, wistfully opening and closing their rusty teeth. He stood and shuffled off and another took his place. This man clutched several bills and motioned to a stack of razor-thin saw blades wrapped in twine. For the next thirty minutes he examined every single blade, testing each tooth with the ball of his thumb until his fingers were bloody and he had finally found one to his liking. He paid and was quickly pushed aside by the next eager customer.

Few of the items for sale were basic necessities. This, then, was the disposal area for the newfound wealth from the embroidery trade -- I had wondered where the money went. Certainly not for dental work, since most of the women had only a few token teeth and those that remained looked like they would soon be on their way. I wormed my way forward to inspect the mats.

An entire section was devoted to bangles and strings of plastic beads. Tiny bottles of dragon oil and hand-rolled pills were also quite popular, the brighter the better. The hardware section was exclusively male turf, and here the traders outdid themselves in their effort to introduce gadgets indispensable to every village household. A Hmong man picked up an old pair of barbershop clippers with interlocking blades. He played with them for a moment or two, then grabbed a friend's head and cut a broad swath of his hair to the crown. He seemed quite pleased with the result and immediately sheared off one of his own sideburns. His friends were saved from further impromptu barbering by the trader, who snatched away the clippers, shook them clean of hair, and shooed all but serious buyers away.

The market was winding down, the sellers packing their supplies onto lethargic horses and the buyers hurrying home with their new purchases secured to their backs or dangling from their fingers. I was retracing my steps to the guesthouse and a cold shower when I heard an imperative hiss from the corner of a chicken stall. Cham, my Czechoslovakian-speaking builder, gestured me urgently into the shadows. I followed, and we huddled like spies exchanging top-secret information.

"The horse," he said, and nodded impressively.

I didn't know whether to agree or not. "The horse," I said.

The formalities over, he pulled out a rumpled piece of tissue-thin paper with many eraser marks and a few holes. It was a bill, or rather a wish-list, for an overly optimistic Hmong. I scanned it and handed it back. He assumed that I hadn't yet acquired the basics of arithmetic and squatted down to walk me through it, line by line.

The horse itself, a virile young stallion, would run me 300,000 dong a day, about fifteen times the going market rate. By comparison, the horse's owner was a bargain at a mere 40,000 dong. Pound for pound, he was worth less than a third of his steed. My Czech-speaking friend, however, was a prized commodity, valued at ten strong Hmong men per day, or one and a quarter horses. The two companions he had chosen to accompany him would accept no less than 100,000 dong each, plus -- a penciled-in arrow led me to the small print -- thirty cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey, per man per day.

Of course, Cham added casually, a few important extras, like food and gratuities, hadn't yet been calculated. He looked at me expectantly.

Yes, I agreed. Food certainly was an important extra.

Cham tapped the total impatiently with his index finger to keep me on track. I reevaluated the list. "About the horse," I said. Three hundred thousand dong a day seemed a bit steep. And this virile bit was somewhat disconcerting. What if he should lose himself in the presence of a young filly and make off with my expensive camera gear?

A mare, he promised quickly. He would procure me a young female. Obedient and pliable, as all members of the gentler sex should be. He gave me a pointed look.

And then, I added, there was the small issue of his salary. Did he really think he was worth more than the horse? How much did he intend to carry?

He snatched back the bill and stared at it for a moment, then motioned for a pen. I found one and handed it to him. He carefully scratched out the 300,000 price tag for the horse and wrote in half a million. Then he stuck my pen in his pocket and handed the paper back to me. An ingenious solution.

I could see nothing else wrong with his arithmetic except the extra zero on the end of each number. I stood and wished him a good day. He called after me, insisting that I owed him a finder's fee, since he had spent an entire day writing up the list. I thought for a moment, then offered him a few token bills, but I was off in his estimation by at least two decimal points and so even that negotiation fell through, a victim of incompatible arithmetic and the vagaries of human nature.

Karin Muller

Karin Muller is a writer and filmmaker. Her first book, "Hitchhiking Vietnam," was excerpted in Wanderlust.

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