Hiking with the Hmong
Jun 12, 2023
Road trips

Hiking with the Hmong

soft_light / Shutterstock

A highlight of my recent time in Vietnam was a little side trip I took to Sapa, in the northwest region of the country. Sapa is known as an area that is home to many of Vietnam’s ethnic tribes – especially the Hmong and the Red Dzao.

My guide Yia, is Hmong, 36 years old and a mother of 4. She is also one savvy business woman (even though she can’t read or write). She learned her English by selling handicraft souvenirs to tourists. Before she became a tour guide several years ago, she never walked more than 3 hours beyond her home village.

Yia taught me a lot in the 3 days I was with her:

How to Make Luck

Besides being a mountain guide, Yia and her husband are also local shamans. I know this because she took me to her house for lunch and a massive alter took up an entire wall of the main room. The alter was covered with paper cut outs of chickens and pigs and cows, along with brightly painted red and gold paper, and some chicken feathers.

I asked her if she sacrificed chickens there and she said “yes.” That when her fellow villagers are sick or scared or angry, she helps them feel better by sacrificing an animal (either real or paper). The animal sacrifices are then eaten, while the paper sacrifices are either burned or cut to shreds. If necessary, she also cuts up images of people too.

Obviously, Yia is not someone to mess with!

I hung with Yia for 3 days. The first two days, we were with a lovely Australian couple Matt and Jo. The final day it was just the 2 of us, and sometimes Sheng, another guide. This last day was great because I got to have long conversations with her about her life in the village.

I learned for instance that her mother is divorced and that this is not uncommon in the Hmong tradition. I guess her father beat up her mother 3 times, then the local police intervened and awarded her mother custody of Yia on the spot. Her mother went back to live with her family. Swift justice.

Yia’s father now lives with another woman and recently embarrassed her in the marketplace by causing a scene. I’d hate to see what appears on her alter that day….

How to Make Dinner

While walking in the hills, we took paths that were higher up the mountain and where we saw few (if any) other tourists. On the way to our home stay that third night, Yia and I meandered so we could pick several plants that were then stir-fried with water buffalo meat for our dinner that night. Pretty tasty stuff!

Sheng also collected plants the next day. She spent about a half-hour pulling roots that she was then going to boil to use as a type of shampoo for her hair. It was amazing to see how these women still knew about the land and how to maximize the abundance that was around them.

How to Make Clothes

Yia also told us about the indigo dying process of the Hmong traditional clothes. The hemp fabric that the Hmong women make into tunics is dyed and dried every single day for at least 3-4 months. That way the hemp fabric absorbs the dye and turns a very dark blue color. The fabric is then rubed with rocks to make it shiny.

The tunics are adorned with needle pointed arm bands and belts. Each of these pieces of needlework take about 1 month to make and are a great source of pride for the women. In fact, when Hmong women greet one another, they often admire one another’s outfit and compliment their choice of design.

Each year Yia makes 5 sets of clothes for herself and her husband, 3 sets for her daughter and 2 sets for her kids. The new clothes for the family are all ready for the New Year’s celebration. It’s a lot of work!

I was especially lucky because Yia sold me one of her family’s tunics (and XXL one!) and later I bought two belts in the local Sapa village to go with it.

I just tried on my tunic the other day in front of a mirror and it looks fabulous! It was hard for me to see exactly what I was buying at the time because Yia’s sister-in-law sold it to me while on the side of a mountain. The Hmong have a strange sense of timing when it comes to selling you things. Usually a mountain trail is not the spot I would choose to shop, but hey, whatever works!

The Indomitable Yia

Yia has a dream of using her own house as a home stay option. This is actually a huge endeavor since a hot water tank and electricity – both very expensive — are needed to host foreign guests. But given Yia’s resourcefulness, I have little doubt we’ll all be staying at Yia’s Hostel by next year!

Erin Michelson is a social entrepreneur and world traveler. A self-styled Adventure Philanthropist, Erin is embarking on a 2-year global giving adventure called Erin Goes Global. Starting in Fiji on New Year’s Day 2011, Erin Michelson will travel to more than 70 counties on 7 continents during 2011-2012. Along the way, Erin will be volunteering with global non-profit organizations, including building wells in Uganda and tutoring young girls in Bangladeshi boat villages. She’s donated $25,000 and is holding monthly polls to see which worthy nonprofits receive the grants!