By Kristin Johannsen
It was our third day walking the mountain roads near Sapa, northern Vietnam, though we had yet to see any mountains. Dense white fog boiled around them and rolled down into the valley bottoms. We had planned to visit remote hill-tribe villages on a trek, but torrential rain had made the paths impossibly slick for two stumble-footed foreigners.
Now, with cold fog blotting out the landscape, even day hikes seemed pointless. The only signs of human life were eerie shrill whistles coming from high up-- H’mong kids calling to each other through the mist.
Out of the white, a figure materialized. It was a young Red Dzao woman, coming from a side path. Vietnam is home to 74 ethnic groups, but hers is surely the most colorful of all.
She wore black clothes completely covered in intricate red-and-white embroidery, kilos of clattering silver bracelets, necklaces and earrings, and a massive scarlet turban two feet across, decorated with rows of swaying silver coins. Her eyebrows and forehead were shaved, giving her a serene, downright medieval air. I made the most desperate efforts not to stare.
She smiled as she fell into step with us and began chatting with our guide. Her turban was truly astonishing, intricately tucked and folded, and several times bigger than her head.
I found myself wondering: How on earth could she hold it up? Wasn’t that jewelry awfully heavy to wear, too? And how could poor rice farmers afford such things? But I was cool and culturally sensitive, and didn’t pry.
We stopped at a roadside stand and bought sodas all around. As we sat with our drinks, two local H’mong women approached shyly, dressed in drab, deep blue, and began talking with the Dzao woman, who now looked like a peacock among sparrows.
She giggled, then laughed, then lifted off her headdress and handed it to them. The H’mong ladies hefted it admiringly, jingling the coins. Cautiously, they placed it atop their heads, offering her their little black hats in exchange. But she wasn’t interested in trying those on. Her own costume was something special, and she knew it.
That was enough for me-- cultural sensitivity be damned. As we started down the road, I got our guide translating: didn’t her neck get tired holding that thing up? (Yes, it felt good to take a rest.)
What on earth was it made of? (10 meters of folded cotton cloth-- it weighed more than 10 pounds.) Why did she shave off her eyebrows? (To be more beautiful, of course.) How much did all that jewelry cost? (It had been in her family for years, but many others had sold theirs to raise cash.)
She told us she was 23 years old, and was on her way home from a wedding. She’d walked a whole day to get there, and stayed up for three nights dancing and drinking rice wine. Now, seemingly none the worse for the wear, she was headed back to her distant village, carrying a bag of leftover meat for her three children and munching on a stalk of sugarcane to keep up her energy.
Then it was her turn. Where were we from? Were we married? Why didn’t we have any children? Did our people consult astrologers before getting married? Was it true our farmers had no water buffalo? She kept on until finally we came to a crossing. She waved just once, and set off down the path at the same slow patient pace. She still had six more hours to walk that day.
Sometimes, in our eagerness to show how hip we are, we miss out. Sometimes, what strikes us as exotic truly is exotic. Still, I have a long way to go towards true cultural cool. It wasn’t until after she disappeared back into the fog that I remembered: I’d never asked her name.