SaPa is a town in northwest Vietnam. It is home to various ethnic minority groups such as the Hmong, Dao, and Tay. When I traveled to Vietnam with a youth study tour (see blog post on Vietnam), we had the opportunity to visit this beautiful town. However prior to arrival, we were forewarned by our guide that the Hmong ethnic women can be very persistent in selling their goods. We were told to be firm and to say “no” assertively if we did not want to buy anything. When we stepped off the bus, there was a large group of women who instantly swarmed the students pushing handmade goods in their faces, saying “buy from me.” Regardless of how many times they refused to buy, the women would not relent and even closely followed the students as they checked into the hotel. We thought that after a few hours, they would give up and go on their way but when they followed the students into a restaurant for lunch and sat down at a table close by, I can see the frustration and annoyance stirring in the students. Watching the scene made me feel a myriad of emotions – shame, amusement, pride, confusion, sadness – these women were strong-willed and smart but because of their sales tactics, no one respected them or their crafts. More importantly, they were my people. They were Hmong.
Therefore, I decided to talk with a few of the women in my native language. Since they spoke a different dialect and my Hmong is more like broken Hmong-lish, they couldn’t completely understand me nor I them, but they were happy to learn I was Hmong. I asked why they were so pushy, why they didn’t work together and sell their goods in a shop, and what the elders were doing to help the community as a whole. There was such a sense of desperation among these women that I assumed it was survival of the fittest and they were all fending for themselves. I learned they could not go to school, because they were working to sell their handmade goods. The men in the family are farmers and working in the fields, but agriculture is not bringing in enough income to feed the family. And with the rise of tourism in the area, the women are bringing in supplemental income. But since there is so much competition, they have to be fierce in order to make any money. I told them their approach was too aggressive and explained that they should change their tactics if they want Westerners or tourists to buy from them, yet they did not seem convinced. But really, what did I know? These women do this every day and probably have made some sales with this approach. Perhaps their methods offended me because it was not my norm and made me feel shame and pity, because they were being judged negatively and I took it personally. I thought about it afterwards, and realized who was I to judge? I am not living in poverty in a rural village trying to desperately feed my family of ten people. However, they listened patiently and respectfully, and were willing to hear me out, because I was Hmong just like them.
After conversations with the women, I gained more insight and learned there were inequities in SaPa and ethnic minorities weren’t able to easily acquire commercial loans from the Vietnamese government. Though I witnessed nongovernmental groups and individual citizens working with ethnic minorities to implement local development programs and improve their situation, there is still much more to be done and too many are still struggling. It was apparent because as we trekked through the village to our home stay, we were not approached by women but girls as young as five and six years old. There was a girl who followed us the farthest and longest, and inspired the following poem:
tattered clothing and dirty nails
begging for a buyer, with desperation
with no dignity and shame
I look away, not wanting to feel pity
for her people are that of strength and pride
how can she resort to such extreme measures
she keeps persisting, following strangers for hours
and receives glares of anger and annoyance
but nothing seems to deter her
I now feel shame for her and look away
with a heavy heart
In denial, I pretend not to understand
her pleas and shoo her away without a glance
fearing she would soon learn my secret
that I am a part of her
the little girl falls down, not noticing the rocks beneath her feet
blood flows from her knees, she quickly gets up
strangers next to her assist with her wounds
making her feel human
she follows them on their long hot journey
wanting to see and learn everything they do
amazement in her eyes and a glimmer of hope
that she can be like them, live their life
she follows them till she can no more,
and before returning home, pleas one more time,
buy from me?
As we travel the world, let us remember how tourism can both help and hurt the local community. Though we want to experience and learn about their culture, we should not only take the good, but also understand and empathize with the not-so-pleasant realities of their struggles. I will never forget the look in that little girl’s eyes- that of yearning and hope. The same look I see when I look in the mirror everyday. We are all connected, and everything that we do affects someone else. I believe this is what makes the world so beautiful.