Finding Perspective in Sapa
I didn’t have many expectations from Sapa other than knowing I wanted to do as much trekking as possible. We organized a homestay on our own, and always unsure about how necessary it is to have a guide when were just talking about a day hike, we were somewhat on edge about getting a guide. What we ended up getting from May, an incredible 23-year-old guide from Sapa Sisters, was far beyond what I imagined.
May is a charismatic, energetic, friedly, beautiful young girl who I was immediately drawn to. Less than 5 minutes after she scooped us up from the Sapa Sisters office did I turn to Will and say, “I like her!” I guess I had a good sense because although Will initially responded with something like, “how do you know? What has she even said yet?”, I was proven right.
There was her impeccable English, surprising ability to comment on western movies and food (we need to get this girl to Chicago for some deep dish pizza), and quick wit, but beyond that we were blown away by how mature & strong willed she is. She as a mind of her own, challenging the status quo despite growing up and living in a community where the traditions of a male dominated culture prevail.
Given how moved we were by May, I think it’s important to share her stories and those of Sapa so that all women of Sapa (and beyond) can find inspiration in the strength and independence that May has. Over the course of our day long hike, May touched on the following::
Paternalistic culture: There are a number of societal norms that have persisted in Sapa that favor men. For instance, when a couple gets married the woman will go to live with the husband’s family and any land a family owns will be passed down to a son. The division of land was notable to me because it can function as sustenance if a person has no income (land = farming & food), thus land is equivalent to independence. With land automatically going to the men, the woman has to be dependent on a land-owning partner.
Trafficking: Sapa is very close to the border with China, and in asking about the relationship with the Chinese, May mentioned there is friction stemming from the history of Chinese human traffickers kidnapping women from northern Vietnam. It still exists but seems like people are more aware of the danger, and as a result less trusting of men they do not know. May unfortunately lost her own aunt to trafficking, they still do not know whether she is alive.
Education: Until recently, only one child per family could continue their education beyond middle school (as part of the Government paid education). Because of that, May couldn’t continue her formal education (mind you she can speak, read & write English thanks to guide work & also help from her church. She also paid her brother’s way through college despite not going herself, as noted below).
Early Marriage: Typically in May’s community women are married at 14-15 years old and have no say in the arrangement. May was able to avoid a marriage at 15 herself because she agreed to pay for her older brother’s college education.
Marriage Traditions: There is something known in Sapa called a ‘kidnapping’ wedding. This really isn’t too far off from what it sounds like. What happens is that an interested man will capture a bride-to-be (May said it happened to a fellow guide recently while they were trekking!) and take her home for a 3-day trial period. After the trial the woman can return home and discuss the arrangement with her parents. Unfortunately it can bring shame to the family if the woman declines, so often the marriage happens.
Alcohol / Drug Abuse: We talked at length about the overuse of alcohol especially. Unfortunately in the community many men drink too much and don’t work. Drug abuse (opioids) is also prevalent among young men.
Despite all of this, May was holding strong. We talked about travel, about work and studies. She doesn’t want to settle for marriage and realizes she is young and has a long life ahead of her.
I love traveling, and always have, but I have not quite figured out how to come to terms with the privilege my life has afforded me, while coming face to face with the realities of places like Sapa. At one point, May mentioned how much she loved Barbie when she was young. I couldn’t help but quickly say, “me too!”, excited to find common ground. I thought about the numerous barbie dolls I got to play with, the ones I would dress up and later shove into some toy box, the dolls my brother would break and torture to my dismay. As I was daydreaming, May continued, saying that she loved Barbies, but never had one until a group of tourists (French I think? Maybe traveling on a mission?) visited Sapa with gifts for all of the children, one of which was a single Barbie that made its way to May. She was overjoyed.
It’s moments like that in which I can reflect on my own life. I think about all the times I complain, about all the things I have, yet sometimes forget. I like to think I’m an appreciative person, but it’s easy to get lost in the desire for more.
I hope that in sharing this, I can be a conduit for stories of struggle and empowerment, enhancing my own perspective and doing the same for others.