words alexandra von arx | images daniel fontaine
It began even before the sun came up. I woke up, neck stiff, legs cramped, in my partially reclined bus seat, my bladder ready to burst. The bathroom breaks had stopped after hour three. It must have been my self-consciousness that shook me awake, because my body, battered and exhausted from months of traveling, would have given anything to relish any extra moments it could rest.
Almost everyone else was still asleep. The seats, packed three abreast, bunk bed-style, down the length of the narrow vehicle were strewn with blankets, limp arms, potato chip crumbs, tangled headphone cords, and discarded clothes. I groaned as I slipped down onto the floor, fumbling for my shoes in the darkness.
I slipped quietly towards the open door. I heard voices outside as I slipped on my sneakers. Through the near darkness, I spotted a circle of glowing cigarettes from which emanated small laughs and sharp darts of Vietnamese. The voices seemed to belong to our bus driver and a group of children. Slowly, I stepped off the bus and into a deserted market lot. The large stretch of blank pavement was scattered with bits of fruits and vegetable debris and echoed with the scratches of the claws of countless rats.
The pressure below my gut was growing worse. I looked around for any lights from surrounding shops or restaurants from which I could beg for the use of their bathroom. As I walked forward, I knocked into a pile of discarded soda cans undoubtedly left by parched vendors. Startled by the sudden clatter, the group of cigarettes bobbed and turned in my direction. Almost immediately, they were snubbed out, and in the newly complete darkness I heard five pairs of feet hurry towards me.
“Hello, what’s your name?”
“Where are you from? Where are you going?”
“What are you doing today? A trek? Do you need a guide?”
“Do you need somewhere to stay? You stay with me.”
“No, you stay with me.”
Looking down at the upturned faces of those I thought had been the children conversing with the driver, I realized that they were a group of H’mong women, the native people of the Sapa region. Although they varied in age, none of them was over five feet tall. They were all immaculately dressed in H’mong traditional garb, and the intricate pattens on their shirts and pants and the bright colors that flowed across their limbs seemed to move of their own accord in the darkness. The women were all looking eagerly up at me, and I, now both startled and confused on top of my desperate need for a bathroom, could stutter no more than the word “toilet.” Giggling, the women pointed over at a pile of steaming trash surrounded by a low brick wall. Too desperate to be disgusted, I hurried over and relieved myself of the six cans of Coca-Cola that had been all the bus had provided as hydration for the 10 hours we had been trapped on it.
When the H’mong women saw me returning, they drew me into their formation and plied me with the same questions. What is your name? Where are you from? Where will you stay? You stay with me. Cheaper price than hostel. Their English was almost perfect. Weary, I used my general tactic of pretending not to speak English. The women fell back immediately, souring towards me as if I were a juicy apple that they had just bitten to find that it had a rotten core. I clambered back onto the bus and into the hard palm on my bus seat. The boy behind me had removed his socks, and the smell seeping from his feet was slowly filling the stale atmosphere of the bus. I pulled my jacket over my nose and squeezed my eyes shut.
I was visiting Vietnam’s famous Sapa region during the lunar New Year in late February, and I had booked a two-day trek through the famed countryside. Sapa is as renowned for its idyllic terraced rice fields as it is notorious for being a veritable Vietnamese Disneyland. Although I was loath to be one more tourist to crowd the already exploited area, I could not deny my curiosity.
My tour group gathered in the lobby of a battered transit hotel. I was joined by three Danish businessmen, three Finnish teenagers, and an obese couple from Australia. Earlier, as I ate breakfast in the hotel’s cavernous dining room, I watched out of the windows as small groups of H’mong women began gathering at the gates of hotels all along the street. They chatted to each other in a slightly bored fashion, picking at the sleeves of their costumes. They were all carrying baskets on their backs and a few were absentmindedly stroking the shoulders of the babies that were strapped to their chests.
As our guide, a dusty Vietnamese man who insisted on smelling our breath to make sure none of us had been drinking, led us down the hotel driveway and onto the road, I watched a group of six or seven H’mong women who had been loitering outside our hotel’s entrance quickly gather their things and jog to catch up with us. Like a group of coordinated fighter jets, they assembled just behind us and then broke apart, each member falling away from the group to settle in next to a member of our tour group. My arm was tugged by a younger H’mong woman who looked up at me with a practiced, five-toothed smile.
“Hello, what is your name? Where are you from?”
I looked ahead at my companions, who were all being engaged in a similar fashion by our H’mong entourage. I had a feeling where all this was going, and I thought I already knew what was concealed in those baskets slung across the women’s backs. I felt a guilt tugging at my stomach at my instant deduction of these women’s intentions, but I made a judgment to act in order to not have to deal with the consequences later.
“No English,” I said to the woman, smiling with what I hoped was an empty politeness. Her visage didn’t waver. She wasn’t ready to give up that easily.
“Where are you going? How long will you stay in Sapa?”
I shook my head, smiling tightly and pretending to be confused. “No English,” I repeated, then turned my head forward and focused on the trail ahead of me. Her face fell into a look of neutral resignation as she called up to one of the older women, who was chatting pleasantly with the Australian couple. The older women threw a glace at me and then waved for the H’mong girl to join her. The girl rushed forward and settled in line next to the huffing pair, not looking back at me once.
I walked alone in the back of the group as we wound down the road that led into the countryside. Even here, urbanization had metastasized to the point where the hills were being chiseled away to make way for new hotels and souvenir emporiums. I paused as we passed by an abandoned construction site for what would have been a six-story casino. From one side, the building looked like a tumor lolling poisonously between the rolling hills and sloping mountains. From the other side, it looked perfectly in place against a background of what was slowly becoming urban sprawl.
We turned off of the pavement and onto a red dirt path. I watched as the H’mong women grabbed the elbows of the members of my group, helping them up the smallest inclines and calling at them to avoid a particularly tricky pile of sand. Below us, above us, and on the other side of the valley, I spotted several small chains of plainly dressed hikers—small brightly colored figures bobbing closely in their wake. Our small groups wrapped around the valley like a string of chairs circling a roller coaster or chains of maggots burrowing into a carcass.
We stopped at the peak of a small incline in the valley. As the H’mong women settled into the hillside and the rest of us dropped our bags, small faces began emerging from the bushes that surrounded the area. Small, dirty young H’mong girls began to crawl up the hillside and approach us, offering handfuls of small woven bracelets.
“You buy from me,” they whimpered, gazing up at our white faces. “You buy from me.”
Their hands were dirty and their faces were covered with snot. Their clothes were ripped and looked as if they had not been changed for months. They were so pathetic to look at, almost too much so.
“You buy from me.” It was an order, not a request.
Pity tugged at my heart, but practicality and the terrible knowledge that every sound and smudge was carefully practiced and rehearsed pulled me back and drew the words “No, no” from my lips, and forced my body away from them, away from their small army that was slithering from the cracks in the ground and the small spaces behind rocks and the spaces between the blades of grass, streaming towards us. I listened as the older H’mong women laughed and cajoled the rest of our group into looking at how cute the children were, how pitiful their condition was, how grateful they would be for our donation. I turned away.
We continued on. The chatter ahead of me was getting more intimate. I heard snatches of conversations about lost children, marriages gone wrong, struggles with impotency. The H’mong women were drawing these anecdotes from the white mouths with the skill of a doctor pulling infected stitches from a wound. The baskets strapped to their backs rattled ominously. One of the women’s babies was wailing. The Danish men she was walking alongside ignored him, so she did as well.
A few of the women looked back at me, walking alone behind the group. Their glances were mingled with curiosity and resentment. They knew I had figured out the game. However, they still had plenty of material to mold. If the group ahead of me stumbled or tripped, there was someone there to catch his or her elbow. There was always a H’mong person laughing at a poor joke, always a helping hand to carry a bag. But my eyes stayed fixed on the landscape that surrounded me, on the hills that soared over the valley and ached to tumble into its core, to fill this now septic sore. The terraces sparked with a bright, defiant emerald green glow, while the mud that tumbled from the boots of the endless tourist groups spattered across their faces like acne scars on a teenager’s cheeks.
Lunchtime was nearing: the crux of the journey was looming. As we approached a small village where we would rest, I listened to the high-pitched laments of the Australians that they would soon be parted from their new best friends, the women who had been so understanding, so helpful, who had so lovingly guided them through the past few hours, physically and emotionally. Phone numbers were exchanged, emails, promises to keep in touch.
We crossed a bridge and stepped into a large hut where other groups like ours had been herded. There was only one small door, guarded by two H’mong women, and no other way out. We were led to a large table in the corner and ordered to sit. I took a seat alone at the far end, while the rest of the group sat tightly together at the other side, chattering cheerfully. Our H’mong guides stood staunchly behind them, their expressions now serious. Our guide took lunch orders and promised to be back quickly with the food. As she walked away, there was a small lull. Then the H’mong women pounced.
From the baskets on their backs they whipped out scarves, bracelets, small tapestries, and bolts of cloth. They threw them over the shoulders of those they had been walking with, guiding physically and emotionally. They swaddled them in cloth, slapped bracelets on their wrists, draped tapestries over their shoulders. Then the chant began.
“You buy from me. You buy from me. You buy from me.”
The tourists, startled and confused, tried to extricate themselves from their bonds, but the women refused to unbind them. “
You remember, I helped you? I carry your bag. You help me now. You buy from me.”
“We talk together, I help you, give you advice. You help me now. You buy from me.”
“I forget to feed my baby because I help you on trek. You buy from me.”
“You buy from me. You buy from me. You buy from me.”
I watched as the women continued to drown the people that, just a few moments previously, they had been showering with affection, assistance, and understanding. They shoved their goods into their laps, into their hands, pointed at their wallets and repeated their chant until the terrified and guilty tourists threw them wads and wads of bills, grabbing at anything that they had been covered with.
The women snatched the money and dumped their wares quickly on the table before slithering silently from the room. I sat and watched as my group, now sparkling with silver and shrouded in brightly colored fabrics, sat stunned and motionless. At this moment, our guide returned with steaming plates of rice and meat. A small smirk crossed her face as she served the food to her shell-shocked charges. As she made her way back to the kitchen, she glanced at me, sitting alone and unadorned, and her smile turned to a pucker of distaste. The one that got away.
She looked from me out to the Sapa landscape. Her eyes focused on the next group approaching the lunch hall, and the smaller specks of the one that followed shortly behind. No matter. The system had an endless supply of fuel. The system would not fail again.