Waking up this morning, some of us were feeling a bit sad after learning of the death of David Bowie. To mourn the death of someone you never met can be a precarious thing. Most days, people line up to see Ho Chi Minh at his mausoleum in Hanoi. Is this because of obligation, patriotism, or even nationalism, perhaps? Or is it because he made a mark on their soul, filling a void in their lives that craves creativity, freedom of expression, and reinventing the paradigm, if ever so slightly, of their daily lives?
We believe it is important to ask these questions so as not to immortalize into heroes those who do harm and exploit. Fortunately, we see David Bowie sitting firmly in the second half of the equation. His immense creativity, willingness to challenge social norms, and a penchant for many things theatrical was an inspiration to millions. He is a hero, if just for one day.
As we begin our approximately eight mile hike near Sa Pa, one has to wonder if our guide Ca, a woman of twenty-eight, has heard of David Bowie. If she has, does she like his music? If not, would her life be richer for having known about him? What cultural knowledge does she possess that we do not? Would our lives be richer if we possessed some of the knowledge that she values? We believe so, and therefore embark on a hike that we hope is not too strenuous.
The mountains in northern Vietnam are sometimes called the “Vietnamese Alps.” We think this is for good reason. Like the European Alps, they are more rounded than the Rocky Mountains giving a more ancient quality to their peaks which can reach as high as 9000 feet.
The majority of people who live in this region are an ethnic minority group known as Hmong. Before visiting the Vietnam Ethnography Museum, we thought the Hmong people were exclusively from Laos. Their numbers in Vietnam are few, largely relegated to the Sa Pa region. Interestingly, there are more Hmong in the U.S. than Vietnam. Many of them live in Minnesota where Amy grew up and went to school with Hmong children. Giney’s experience with Hmong people extends back to her undergraduate days as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. Who would have thought that either of us would ever visit their native place?
It is difficult to describe the beauty of this landscape. It’s lush and green, of course, but the rice patties create an illusion that one could use them as a ladder to the heavens. This is intensified by the fact that the clouds hang at the mountain peaks adding an ethereal element to an already surreal experience. Once again, Amy thinks of David Bowie. A dear friend’s post on Facebook this morning featured a picture of the musician and stated, “Even the gods are not immortal.”
Oscar asks a really thought-provoking question. He wonders if this place would be as beautiful without the rice patties. They would be just mountains, right? People would hike by and say, “How pretty.” What makes Sapa so exceptional is that its beauty is both natural and human-made. The rice patties reflect ingenuity and technological and agricultural skills that appear to be harmonious with the environment. Yes, the altered landscape is for the benefit of humans but it appears to reflect efforts of sustainability. This adds to its beauty and is inspirational to us.
What really inspires us, however, are the people. While it is true Sa Pa has overzealous people approaching tourists to sell their wares, their overall kindness shines through. All of the women wore traditional clothing including hats and clothing made from hemp and indigo dye. The men mostly wore western-style clothing. Many young women and some girls carried babies tied to their backs, including two of our guides. Watching these petite women carry infants eight miles gained our respect.
The children are so beautiful. They are full of life, laughter, and are friendly. We visited a primary school in the village. It was colorful and welcoming. The kids were at recess playing soccer, badminton, and volleyball. Children have a lot more independence in Sapa. We saw toddlers wading in shallow water without an adult immediately nearby. Children also care for younger children. What a significant cultural difference this is compared to the U.S.
After lunch on the way to the bus, we visited workshops where the Hmong make their beautiful clothing, blankets, bags, and trinkets. We saw the loom where they weave hemp. We learned about the indigo plant used for dye. Amy even crushed indigo in her palm which transformed from Shrek-like green to silky, midnight blue. We also learned how they created colors and textures in their designs. Many of us left with souvenirs. Some of the village children were selling colorful bracelets that many of us sought to buy. Ca informed us that it is best to buy from the adults because if children earn money, they are more likely to leave school. Being that we all value education so much, we immediately stopped and chanted, “School is cool!”
As we make our way back to Hanoi for the final day in Vietnam, we possess an overwhelming sense of gratitude. We’ve learned so much about ourselves and Vietnam. Plus, Giney and Amy both enjoyed the great fortune of travelling abroad again which reminds us that the world and its people possess so much beauty. This far outweighs any fear of cultural differences that some people have.
We hope that David Bowie was able to approach his days on Earth similarly to our final days in Vietnam–with gratitude. Hopefully, he found beauty, love, and peace before he made the transformation across the universe into Ziggy Stardust.
Amy Young and Giney Rojas