Girls of Sapa

by Helen Conway, Oct 10, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Sapa

One cold, wintry afternoon, my husband, Sean, and I were sitting in Sapa's Bamboo Bar with two traveling companions. For the past few days, the fog outside had been so thick it was like flying through cloud in an airplane and we had seen nothing of the mountain vistas for which the town is renowned. The temperature that day had yet to reach double figures. On our earlier return from a two-day hike long, hot showers were necessary to re-circulate the blood to our extremities. Unfortunately, our less-than-luxurious hotel rooms were on the top floor and the showers elicited only a trickle of lukewarm water.

Our next attempt at inner thermal activity was to try a decent shot of whisky, which explained why we were in the bar early on a Friday afternoon. The Bamboo Bar is situated down a narrow flight of stone steps beneath the Green Bamboo Hotel at the southern end of town. True to its name, the bar's walls and ceiling are bamboo and the seats are made from logs.

We were the only customers in the bar. The barman was engaging in an animated discussion with a companion. Western music pumped out of the stereo system. Red lights cast an atmospheric glow on the walls. We willed the whisky down to our toes.

Eventually we realized a young girl was watching us. She had crept in the back entrance and stood inside the doorway, looking at us shyly. She was from the Black H'mong tribe, easily identifiable by her dyed indigo linen clothing. Her outfit consisted of a blue and gray striped t-shirt underneath a wrap-around dress, which finished just above the knee. Her glossy, straight hair was tied back beneath a black cylindrical hat. Her legs were clad in knee-length blue stockings with green ribbons wrapped round them. She sported only one pair of hoop earrings, denoting she was still a young girl (the older the woman, the more earrings she wears until often, daylight can be seen through the holes in the ear lobes). A flimsy pair of beige sandals was all that protected her feet from the elements. And I thought my toes were cold.

Having been in Sapa for several days, we were accustomed to the girls rushing up to us, asking us to buy their meager wares. This girl was not carrying anything to sell. She edged nearer to us but when we looked at her, she took a step backwards. We continued our conversation and after about ten minutes she stood behind our table.

We smiled at her and her worried face tried out a wary grin. It transformed her whole countenance and Sean was instantly besotted. When he held her small hand he was shocked by how cold it was. He rubbed it between his hands until he could feel a little warmth seeping back into it. We tried asking her questions in English, having been used to the usual bilingual- and often trilingual- fluency of the other girls in Sapa, but she just kept flashing her dazzling smile.

We pulled up a stool for her and she perched on it, her stockinged legs dangling inches from the floor. We expected her to ask for money, being used to the brazen tactics of the other girls in town, but she seemed content simply to sit and listen. We wanted to buy her a drink so we asked the barman to enquire what she would like. She seemed dumbfounded by the question; I don't think she had ever been bought anything before. The barman held up a can of fizzy orange drink and she nodded, shyly. We handed it to her, with a straw tucked under the ring-pull, but she made no attempt to open it.

After another hour, she was still sitting with us, the can of drink remaining unopened. We thought that perhaps she might want to take it home for her family to sell on. Sean wondered whether she knew how to open the ring-pull. So he opened the can for her, putting in the straw and handing it to her. She clutched it with two hands, as if it were an expensive doll, and took it to the corner near the door. She slowly sipped it, keeping her back to us. Occasionally she looked at us and quickly turned away again if we were watching her. Then, as silently as she had arrived, she slipped out of the door.

We left the bar to have dinner but returned later that evening for a free concert by the H'mong people. The performers were a young man and woman; the latter had a large green and red checked shawl tied around her back, in which was swaddled a tiny baby. Their assorted instruments ranged from a Jew's harp to a gum leaf.

Not long after our return to the bar, the young girl appeared. She headed straight for our table and held out her hands for Sean to warm.

During one of the interludes in the music, the female musician walked over to us and introduced herself. Her name was Dom and Sean's newfound friend was her younger sister, Tu. Dom had come from her village to live in Sapa when she was fourteen, quickly learning English and selling her family's handicrafts to the tourists. She was now eighteen; her husband was the male musician and their first baby was two months old. Dom explained that twelve-year-old Tu had only moved to Sapa three weeks previously, explaining why she could not yet speak any English.

Dom then looked at Tu and, as if on cue, Tu produced from her bag a Jew's harp in a small, embroidered case and held it out to Sean. Perhaps whilst we ate dinner Tu had been reminded what she must do when she encounters Westerners. Dom explained that Tu was selling it for somebody else and that she would earn a small commission. Sean asked whether Tu had her own products to sell, whereby she would earn more money. Tu did have a Jew's harp and after some gentle bartering, Sean agreed to buy it from her the following day.

On the way back to our hotel that evening, two tiny girls emerged silently from the thick mist and began to walk alongside us. They introduced themselves as Su and Lam and they were eight years old, although their small frames looked so much younger. Their hands quickly wriggled up inside the sleeves of our fleeces; the sheer iciness of them was astonishing. They chattered away in impressively good English and delivered us to our hotel. They said goodnight, gave us a hug and disappeared into the misty night.

They hadn't tried to sell us anything; they had simply wanted to talk. Their naïve trust astounded us. Was it a desire for some physical human contact or a brief respite from the cold? Whatever their reasons, we cherished it and hoped that they never befriended anyone with less innocent motivations.

Saturday is the main market day in Sapa, when the women and children come into town from the surrounding villages to sell their goods. It has become a tourist hotspot and is the place to pick up home-made clothing at incredibly cheap prices, as well as jewelry and embroidered materials, such as bed linen.

As soon as a minibus arrives in town, the Black H'mong girls crowd round like children with a candy jar. When the visitors alight, the girls arbitrarily latch onto them, telling them their name, over and over, so that it cannot be forgotten. They ask the visitors' names and the answers are locked into their incredibly retentive memories for the duration of the stay.

The girls are positively adorable and they are well aware of this fact. The more beguiling their smile, the more inclined the tourist is to part with their money.

Sean was first cornered by Cham, one of the older girls at fifteen. She asked Sean his name, where he came from, how old he was and whether he was married. What he was unaware of was that these questions now marked him out as her prey and that should he want to buy anything it must only be from her.

Over the next few days, I befriended a little H'mong girl, called Go. She claimed to be eight although she was always the smallest girl in the group. The H'mong girls tend to wear variations of their traditional costume but Go had a look all of her own. She had amassed some western clothes along the way, perhaps from other travelers who had also fallen for her charm. She stood out from all the others in a pale blue denim jacket, which hung loosely around her tiny shoulders. The dangling sleeves frequently provided a solution to her runny nose. She wore leggings, once bright pink but now muted with dirt and small black gumboots protected her feet. She wore no hat, her black hair hanging down her back, and her empty-looking satchel was slung over one shoulder.

She told me her family lived in Lao Chai. It was a run-down village to which we had hiked one day. Unused to the slippery, narrow pathways along the rice terraces, the walk had taken us a whole morning. I wondered whether she made the journey to and from town every day.

Go discovered our names and ages and followed us round, telling them to all her friends. We were now her property. When I told her I was leaving Sapa, she finally asked me if I would buy something from her. All she had to sell were two bracelets and a pillowcase. When I asked her how much she wanted for a bracelet she looked round to her friends for support. They shrugged unknowingly so she asked me how much I would like to pay. It was beautifully innocent.

We eventually settled on a price and shook hands on the deal. When the other girls saw my money, however, they all wanted me to buy something from them and I was soon swamped with little bodies, laughing and jostling.

It was so moving to be with these bright children. They just wanted to play and make friends and, essentially, have a childhood. Yet they were forced to learn the art of bartering at six or seven years old.

Sean also bought a souvenir: the Jew's harp from Tu. Unfortunately, when Cham saw us buying from someone other than her, she hurled abuse at us. She followed us up the street, loudly asking me why I had married such an ugly, nasty man. Some tourist had clearly thought it amusing to teach her how to tell someone to go and copulate with himself. When we paid her no attention, however, Cham eventually got bored and the abuse ceased.

This was the only negative behavior we encountered in Sapa. Nowhere in Vietnam were the children more delightful than these girls. As we left, they waved goodbye and then moved onto the next person, asking them their name and where they came from.

Even as I write this and you read this, Go, Cham, Tu and the others will be out there, flashing their sweetest smile and calling out, "Ello-where-you-from-you-buy-from-me." And someone will be out there, falling for their charms.

©Helen Conway 2002