I officially moved to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) from Singapore in March 2020, just slightly before the Vietnamese government closed its borders as a COVID-19 measure. Ever since then, I’ve not left the country or done any kind of travelling, like most of you. It’s been a very odd and disconcerting year, but I feel lucky to be based in Vietnam where proactive steps are taken to control the on-going COVID-19 situation. Life is going on safely, pretty much close to what it was before, just with a lot more hand sanitizer and temperature taking!
Since moving here, I haven’t been on a plane, and this trip to Hanoi and Sa Pa was the first big trip. As shared on Indiigo Culture’s Instagram, I arrived in Hanoi for a couple of days, completely charmed by the city, before leaving for Sa Pa to immerse myself in its scenic beauty and rich cultural heritage.
Sa Pa, commonly used to refer to the surrounding area, is actually a town in the Lao Cai Province, Northwest of Vietnam, a mountainous region near the border with China. There are no nearby airports, the transport options are road or rail. My friends and I decided on getting tickets for a limo-bus and it took us about five hours on the new highway to Sa Pa.
Safety and beauty sleep first! Catching up on sleep on the limo-bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa.
Hmong Homestay: Ta Van Village
After arriving in Sa Pa Town, we set off for Ta Van Village in the Lao Cai Province. The village is home to different ethnic minority groups, chicken, ducks, and buffaloes run free amidst the stunning rice terrace landscape. We stayed at Indigo Snail Boutique Homestay, a homestay run by Sue, late-thirties, of the Hmong ethical group, at her beautiful house built in traditional style.
The Homestay built in traditional wooden style by Sue’s husband.
Bed linens hand-embroidered by Sue and her friends.
Sue’s family has been in the region for over 300 years and has lived on subsistence farming. In fact, all the rice we ate were grown by them! Sue’s four children were the first generation in the family to attend formal schooling, and the Homestay was her brainchild to support the growing family.
The best part about staying with Sue was her hands-on approach to hosting! Apart from providing us home-cooked meals, we had the option of going on guided tours and taking crafting classes from her. Of course, we took her up on it!
Sue took us on a five-hour hike across mountain paths, rice paddies, and creeks, to visit a neighboring village. We were extremely fortunate to get clear blue skies despite the October forecast of fog and rain.
The backdrop is simply breath-taking, and so was the long hike.
We had to take off our shoes to hike across this river. Sue somehow managed the entire trek in plastic slippers – amazing!
Hmong lady who joined us for part of the walk.
Sue heating up the wax used to draw designs onto hemp fabric.
First, wax is heated up over charcoal, and then using a small metal implement, Sue taught us to draw designs on hemp fabrics (the hemp is grown in the village and then woven into fabric).
While I only managed a simple drawing of a wolf, Sue regularly makes intricate designs with her deft hands. Once the design is completed, Sue then leaves the fabrics to soak in vats of indigo dye for about a day. After which, the fabrics are boiled to remove the wax, leaving behind the patterns amongst the dye.
Sue’s final work on the left versus mine.
I went away very happy with my wolf pouch and in awe of Sue’s skills and talent.
Despite the idyllic landscape and family-centered living, Sue’s village has been hit hard by COVID-19. Although over the recent years, tourism has brought development to the region, many of the businesses and restaurants are not owned by the locals or ethnic minorities, limiting their benefits from the tourism boom. Moreover, COVID-19 has limited visitors to domestic tourism, the reduction has meant that many villagers working remotely in neighboring cities, such as Hanoi, have been laid off and have had to return home to Ta Van.
These series of problems come against a bigger backdrop where Lao Cai province is one of the two poorest provinces in the country, with more than 70% of the population living under the poverty line. I was alarmed to learn that human trafficking is also a real problem in the region. According to Ethos, an INGO, ‘in the Sa Pa area, one girl disappears to China every five days’. Young women and girls are at high risk of being trafficked to China for sale as brides and prostitutes, many of them lured on the premise of getting a job elsewhere. Finding a sustainable and safe source of income close or at their villages would be steps in the right direction to prevent such horrors.
During my time in the Ta Van village, I saw the beauty of the local artisan’s crafts and am blown away by their incredible skill. We are finding a way for Indiigo Culture to work with the local women artisans on projects that will both adapt their crafts for the modern way of life and provide an alternate source of income.
A young Hmong woman embroidering a belt for herself to wear at the next Lunar New Year celebrations.