Sapa, Vietnam

July 2016

Rice wine. A drink that is deceiving in its name. Made from rice and water, the process takes a long time and creates a drink that smells like straight vodka.. With a hint of rice. Not so much fun when you are convinced to take 14 shots of it in a row and then you puke it up (me.) But very much fun when everyone around the table is telling you to "boo-coh" (switch) glasses with them and then holds up their glasses yelling "joocuh!" (cheers). And so much fun when you are drunkenly laughing, hearing stories, attempting to learn a brand new language. Writing notes down in language that doesn't make much sense the next day.

Names are one syllable here, mostly just sounds, at least to my ears. So Mai has changed my name from Demetra to "Ma" (coming from Dema), and that's what everyone calls me.

We walk forever. On slippery mud that gets impossibly slippery when it rains, up and down and over mountains. The children run by in rubber sandals, sometimes rubber boots. Always more equipped to handle the terrain than tourists. Village to village requires hours of walking between each. Lucky people drive motorbikes.

Water buffalo turn over in the mud, happily chewing the grass. The purpose of these buffalo is to work the rice fields. Dogs, chickens, goats, pigs, cats, everywhere. They roam freely. When an animal is killed people eat the whole thing, sometimes taking shots of the blood.

There are 4 different tribes around, speaking different languages but sharing Vietnamese. They are friendly to one another.

Yesterday I was led by Mai's 6-year old boy, "Soon," after she got a call and had to go pick someone up from Sapa town. She told him directions and I was told to follow him. He showed me the way home, he took a knife half his size and chopped wood and made a fire and made us lunch. He made me noodle soup and rice, and we ate together, and he cleaned up my dishes. Then he looked at me and said "you waterfall?" And I nodded, and so I got my bathing suit and he showed me the way to the waterfall where I was able to shower. There's no running water at Mai's house, no sink. There is one tiny pipe on the entire property and that fills up the water used to flush the toilet. They bathe in the waterfall. I was so happy to be in the cold water in these mountains, to watch the dirt and sweat run off of me. Then this little boy led me back to the house, where we ate dinner made partially from leaves we picked while hiking. Mai did my hair the way she does hers and she showed me the way they get rid of headaches, by putting hot ashes in a buffalo horn and pressing it on my forehead, creating a mark that will be there for days.

Mai didn't go to school because her village was too small to have a school. (I wrote previously that she learned Vietnamese in school - I misunderstood.) Her boys go to school because this village does have a school. There is one school for ages 5-10 and another school from 10-15. These schools are free, but very few go to school after the age of 15 unless they have the money to do so.

People here grow their own rice and eat their own rice harvest. They don't sell it. Rice is eaten for breakfast lunch and dinner. They supplement with plants and sometimes meat too. They can go into the market in Sapa town (a 40 minute drive, or a 5 hour walk, because of the mountains) or they get meat from killing one of their own animals, which from what I understand happens on special occasions.

They make clothes from hemp which is such a beautiful and crazy laborious process that I cannot imagine possessing the patience necessary to create them. So many steps, everything takes so long. Every new year new clothes must be made. It takes them all year, and on the new year they wear the new outfit for 3 days. They follow the Chinese New Year, with the moon.

Mai gave birth at home. She has 3 boys, one 6, one 9, one 12. One of her friends gave birth alone in the mountains in the rain, shielded by a rock, because the baby came early.

Nothing is washed. Things that are washed are washed in the water I'm not supposed to drink. Everything is shared. It's okay.

What has struck me the most is the way we tend to view these people as so different, so removed from us, so "other." This experience has been completely different than my experience last week. Last week, in a home owned by an Australian man, we talked about the tribes as if they were very different from us, not really understandable. We talked as if we really admired what they did, but they were something to be observed. We didn't quite know how to react to the calls of "buy something, buy something from me." We did not know.

Staying with a family has removed me from the role of observer, slowly, harshly, but it's happening. It's hard when like yesterday morning I was so hungover, so nauseous, too hot, sick of rice, and was thinking that maybe I'm not built for this, it's fun but maybe I'll just stay the night and go back to a hostel more geared toward westerners. Somewhere I can shower, where everything isn't totally unsanitary, where I can tend to myself and feel more comfortable.

But I didn't do that. And as I adjust to the outhouse and the squat toilets and the little tiny table and plastic chairs and people touching my food with their chopsticks or hands and stepping in buffalo poop and the words of the language begin to make more sense to me I realize that we honestly, really, we are all the same.

I think very strongly that a big problem comes from this reaction of seeing others that live differently as non-understandable. And I do not even mean this in a sense of thinking, they are different, they're beneath me. I actually mean it also and more so in a sense of appropriation. Of taking parts of people's natural lives and thinking they're cool things we can add to our own lives, exotic items and ideas we would never come up with. It would be like me visiting Sapa and buying something and taking it home and saying, wow, look, people from the TRIBES made this, yes real people from the tribes and I saw them. Do you see the difference? It's the way we look at things. It is so different than me being here and buying and being given bracelets and appreciating them as part of this culture that I am trying to understand, to be a part of. Thank you for being willing to give these beautiful things to me, I say. Things from here are not souvineers we take home and say look, these people still exist, wow. Rather, they are memories of people who just grow up naturally living different lives than us but this is their culture and they are still the same people as us, not any better or any worse. They have the same feelings and desires, they laugh at the same things. They are just as intelligent. They just have their own culture and way of being. Other people's cultures are not something to be taken and looked at as a cool addition to our lives that's so much better than the way we live, just the same as it would be rotten to look down on it in any way.

And I think of this as I picture going to India and telling somebody there oh I taught yoga, I know all about it, I've worn bindis on my forehead. I think of what it would feel like to meet the shaman from Mai's village and say oh yeah, I'm a shaman too, I took an expensive training before. These aren't things that are so much better than our own ancestry, our own cultures that we need to steal from others to feel more interesting or authentic. These are just ways that people live. This is natural, there is no saying "ugh these people live so close to the earth this is way better than stupid America" just as there is no saying "why don't these people want to be more modern." There is no need to feel sorry for them just as there is no need to admire them. They just exist. They just are.

In a time where there is so much separation and violence happening in America I think it is of utmost importance that we recognize that people being different doesn't mean anything besides just that. It doesn't mean we cannot understand them. It doesn't mean we get to take parts of their cultures for ourselves, and not recognize their humanity. We need to stop talking about other groups of people as "other" and not like we are. It is good to call attention to the issues that need help - just like "black lives matter" is a very necessary statement while "all lives matter" doesn't cut it. But we need to be able to help other groups of people without seeing them as innately different. It's like when I was in Greece and there were other volunteers helping refugees but still talking about them as if they were people less than us that had to be helped. No. There is no group of people that is less than any other. There are groups of people who are treated differently than others.

I am staying here for a few more days because it is teaching me a lot about myself and a lot about the world. But mostly what it is teaching me is that the people that live here are not any different than me. They do different things, have different beliefs. But they are the same. We are the same. And that to view them as exotic or so far removed from who I am would be very, very wrong.


I'm filthy. I have tan lines on my feet I'm not sure are from mud or my sandals. There's dirt under my fingernails that I've given up on trying to remove. My only shower in 5 days has been in a waterfall, where I haven't used shampoo for fear of contaminating the water. My version of doing laundry is hanging sweaty clothes up to dry and shaking them out before I put them back on. The mud I've taken to going barefoot in is the ground people and animals share alike.

My wrists are overloaded with bracelets. My favorite white shirt has been dyed dark with indigo. I've drank way too much rice wine, let people prepare my food with their hands, swallowed water I shouldn't have.

"Vien-jow." Sister. "Doo-noo." Brother. I can count past a thousand. I can say hello, how are you, I'm full, thank you. I had an exciting moment this morning when I realized that "dieh" was water, so "dieh-ja" was waterfall. I think I know more words in Hmong than I know in any other language.

Pieces of my heart are left everywhere when I travel, not every place that I go, but with some people and in some cities, some mountains and towns. Vietnam already holds the most pieces; Sapa holds a big one. I love the mountains. I love the mountains so much. And I love the family I have spent the past 4 days with.

My heart broke a little bit when I was walking into town with Mai, on our way to get motorbikes, when she stopped suddenly and said, "Soong." (her 6-year-old.) "He asked me this morning to come and get him from the waterfall before you left so he could say bye. I forgot." I didn't even know he had told her that. We were already too far gone.

It broke some more when Mai's eyes teared up as she hugged me bye, as she and her husband sat with me in town for an hour and waited for my bus, making sure I was on it before they would leave me. It broke more when she told me that yesterday (on a hike with other tourists) she was excited to come home because "I knew Ma was there." (me.) "Today," she said, "my heart is really sad to go back."

And it continues to break as I think of everything that's happened. How I've opened. Stories from her friends, how one woman's mother had 14 children but only 7 survived. People I've met. Being convinced to take more and more shots of "happy water." (again, even though I learned my lesson from last time, I couldn't be rude). May dying my shirt this morning, asking me if I wanted to learn how they embroider their clothes. Patiently sitting with me, taking out my stitches, until I was capable of doing it by myself. Making me pancakes and literally laughing at me when I used a fork to cut them into pieces, reaching over instead and putting banana slices and sugar on top and rolling it up into a burrito and putting it into my hands. "My mom would have yelled at me for doing that when I was little," I said.

The kindness of her husband as he cooked and served each meal, filling my bowl with more rice even when I protested. His English not quite as good as hers, but his quiet role in the family just as strong of a presence. The sweetness of her boys, the little one saying "you? Waterfall? You? Lunch?"

My shock when Mai told me that she didn't even learn to speak English until 10 years ago, when she was in a village where tourists came. That she struggled to learn, because she never learned how to read or write in any language. So every English word she learned had to be stored in her head. Her frustration at not being able to read the emails in her account another visitor set up for her. Her appreciation in having them read to her. Her joy in talking about every person she remembers that's visited.

She had already given me bracelets, and I had bought even more of them from her, so she couldn't give me another one as a goodbye present, she said. I was sitting outside when she came out and asked me if it was ever cold where I lived. Yes, I said, in the winter it snows. She presented two cloths from behind her back and told me to choose one, and then wrapped it around my head and told me to look at my phone to see what I looked like (the first picture). This keeps you warm in the winter, she said. When it is cold here it keeps me warm.

I'm sad. I'm so happy, but I'm overwhelmingly sad. I don't want to leave Sapa, but I felt like it was time. I have 4 more days in Vietnam. I never ever want to leave Vietnam.