In the nature-filled village of Ta Van, lives a group of around 2,000 members of the Black Hmong ethnicity. Black Hmong people can be found all over Asia, in rural regions such as China and Laos. Those of the tribe that live in Sapa originally migrated from China, but the community has now lived in Vietnam for over 300 years. Despite the fact their home is in Vietnam, Geng and her community don’t identify as Vietnamese, they speak Hmong language and identify as simply people of the Black Hmong Tribe. Most villagers are unable to even speak fluent Vietnamese. The Village is situated in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, a 40 minute, pothole-riddled drive, away from the hustle and bustle of Sapa City. In it’s beginning in 1912, the heaving tourist city of Sapa, was a base for beautiful treks, but as time went by, the city grew larger, and now it stands prominently in the mountains with a thriving population of nearly 10,000 people, and around 3 million visitors per year.
In Sapa, members of the Black Hmong tribe commute daily to earn for many what is their only income from selling handmade goods to the crowds of tourists. With beautiful handmade Hmong silver earrings hanging from her ears, Geng explained to me this trade is a necessity for many members of her Village. The income from tourists living in economically richer, but arguably, emotionally poorer, countries, with their pockets full of cash, is now a compulsory source of income for the communities living around Sapa. Geng works as a tour guide, trekking around her village with people from across the world an average of twice a week, provided it’s not the high season of July to August, where flocks of tourists migrate to the beauty of the mountains, and income for many families in the village of Ta Van, and those that surround it, is high. When she was a young girl, living with her father and mother, of which the latter was very ill and self-medicated with opiates that are grown in the area, money was tight. Even so, she explained to me that the community always helped her and her siblings when there wasn’t enough food on the table. In an attempt to combat the families financial insecurity, Geng and her friends would commonly walk or motorbike to the City of Sapa and sell the homemade items that are sold in their thousands nowadays, to tourists. Ten or Fifteen years ago, when Geng was young (she’s now aged 25) There would only be 10 or twenty people selling on the streets of the city. Now, as your feet touch the solid ground of the mountain on arrival to the city, the same number of sellers approach you within your first five minutes there. With many of these sellers being young children with even younger children on their backs, Geng believes that the industry is deadly to the education of the community. She explains that she doesn’t agree with way mothers will make young children stay up as late at ten o’clock, with their even younger siblings on their backs to attract more empathetic tourists, and make more income. Her children, Ma and Ta, aged 7 and 5, go to the nearby primary school Monday to Friday, she has never asked them to sell on the streets and hopes she never has to, because in school they will learn English and other skills, that will perhaps take them to university in their later years.
Not only does Geng lead treks, but her and De have been renovating the house constantly over the past few years in an attempt for its wooden walls and concrete floor to evolve into a fully established homestay. Currently, she houses guests that sign up for a 2 or 3 day trek through the mountains with either herself or her sister, Na. Her house can currently accommodate up to 13 people, this meaning, however, that Geng and the rest of her family are forced to inhabit only one 4 meters squared room with one double bed when it comes to sleeping, but Geng and her family are dedicated to their guests and will bend over backward to provide for them.. When entering Geng’s home and seeing the beauty in its simplicity, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed that I’d let myself be fooled by advertisements. Embarrassed by all of the hundreds of unimportant possessions I own. Embarrassed by all the times I’d stressed that I needed something when there was no real necessity in my want, other than a need to feed my greed. The house was clear and simple; the first room consisted of 4 beds, a tv, a fridge, a water holder whereby the family boil enough water for the day in the morning and then use to drink from for the rest of the day, a wooden table, and a stack of plastic chairs. The rest of the home consists of a few small rooms, separated by either wooden walls or curtains. A year prior, the house was open, with no private rooms whatsoever; De, Geng’s husband has been using much of the money earned by Geng to improve their house. He next hopes to install a window to let natural light fall into the dark communal area. Beside the house, there is a toilet, shower, and a small kitchen with a table, and open fire on the floor. Furthermore, a mountain stream is diverted into a water pipe that constantly flows into a corner depression of the concrete floor, and then out through a hole in the wall. This acts as their washing machine, dishwasher, and sink.
When entering Geng’s home and seeing the beauty in its simplicity, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed that I’d let myself be fooled by advertisements. Embarrassed by all of the hundreds of unimportant possessions I own. Embarrassed by all the times I’d stressed that I needed something when there was no real necessity in my want, other than a need to feed my greed. The house was clear and simple; the first room consisted of 4 beds, a tv, a fridge, a water holder whereby the family boil enough water for the day in the morning and then use to drink from for the rest of the day, a wooden table, and a stack of plastic chairs. The rest of the home consists of a few small rooms, separated by either wooden walls or curtains. A year prior, the house was open, with no private rooms whatsoever; De, Geng’s husband has been using much of the money earned by Geng to improve their house. He next hopes to install a window to let natural light fall into the dark communal area. Beside the house, there is a toilet, shower, and a small kitchen with a table, and open fire on the floor. Furthermore, a mountain stream is diverted into a water pipe that constantly flows into a corner depression of the concrete floor, and then out through a hole in the wall. This acts as their washing machine, dishwasher, and sink.
The family also tend to the rice terraces they own throughout the year. Owning rice plants in Vietnam means the family has to spend very little of their income on food as they constantly have a staple food source. The family harvest enough from over a dozen terraces made of mud to feed themselves, their guests, and their relatives all year round. The terraces that adorn the steep slopes around Sapa are cleverly made by families so that water can be irrigated from nearby streams and can flow through the rice terraces like a slow-moving, food-producing, waterfall. This waterfall reduces the amount of work that has to be put in when weeding the plants, increasing the ratio of effort to gain during the farming process. Many members of the Black Hmong tribe also own corn fields, rows of indigo, and marijuana plants, which all enable necessities to be sourced from home reducing annual outgoings. Cornfields allow for the pigs they rear, that are generally only eaten at large gatherings, to be fed at very low cost. In the rafters of Geng’s home, they store 40 Kilo bags of dried corn that they transport over to a friends house that owns a large wooden corn mill. This mill grinds up the corn and turns it into flour to mix with rice and leftovers for the pigs to feed on. The rows of Indigo and Marijuana plants allow for cheap clothing to be hand made using hemp as material and indigo that is crushed and soaked with water to create a dark blue that dyes the traditional clothing. Decades ago, everyone in the village would wear traditional Hmong clothing, and each family member would be made a new outfit that would be presented to them as a gift to bring into the new year. Nowadays, however, the influx of cheap clothing that’s imported into the country has meant it’s more economically viable to wear factory-made items rather than spending the whole year making clothes.
The Hmong religion is traditionally animist (animism is the belief in the spirit world and the interconnectedness of all living things). This means much of its members commonly subscribe to the use of a shaman. This is a person, chosen by the spirits, to travel from our material reality into the spirit world to find lost souls and heal us. During my stay, I was permitted to observe a shamanic ritual as Geng’s friend, Pang, needed healing, and her day was free from treks and tourists so she had invited the Shaman to help her soul be found and freed from bad spirits. It took place in Pang’s wooden house, high in the mountains. This house was 20 mins walk from Geng’s, through slippery slopes that the water has paved, and treacherous ways of rock and mud. The surrounding views were astounding; clouds were bellowing around bamboo forests and the sound of water cascaded through to my ears. As we drew closer to the wooden structure that Pang and her family call home, the bells become louder and louder until my eyes made out the shadows of humans against the wooden wall, bodies highlighted by the sun. I then saw Hmong men surrounding a dead pig, cutting its stomach so that its insides could be seen from the outside. The pig was young and pink, it had passed away recently. Despite the sacrifice, it became clear to me in the feast that followed the ritual, that no part of the death was in vain; after using the body of the pig for the ceremony and lacing it with incense, the family used every last morsel of the pig for food. Head, brain, feet: all included. Not only this, but any leftover fat was used to make oil. Geng explained to me during the meal that they preferred to eat the younger pig, because it means that the fat and the red meat were mixed together, whereas in the body of the larger bovine, the fat and red meat would become separated meaning the meat is harder and less of the body can be salvaged for eating (although the fat that they don’t eat can still be used to make more oil).
While the pig was still being prepared, I quietly tiptoed into the adjacent room where the shaman, Mang, sat on a homemade wooden bench, known as a wooden horse, adorned with bamboo and a blanket, with buffalo horns on either side of him. Bells clasps between his fingers, much like that of flamenco dancers, bounced rhythmically on his knees, only stopping when he paused to roar and scream at the bad spirits, scaring them from the home. Around his head sat a brown piece of paper shielding his eye’s from any external occurrences such as the woman that was lighting incense in front of him or placing pieces of paper, in the shape of people, on the bench in front. According to Geng, these pieces of paper in the shape of people are used to ward away the bad spirits during sleep, half of them are burnt and the other half are placed under the pillow or mattress of those who need the bad spirits eradicating from their soul. The paper surrounding Mang’s head meant he was internal; he was only focused on the chanting and the replies he heard from the spirits that surrounded him. I found this so incredibly interesting, and began to ask myself why, in the west, we have lost this brilliant culture that celebrates leaving this realm for higher states of consciousness, states that are induced with chanting and sensory deprivation and even cautious use of drugs. Have we forgotten who we are and how we can connect with so much more, have we forgotten that we are not just these material people, living material lives, have we forgotten the true nature of our existence? During the three hours of chanting that I sat and observed, inside the sparsely lit building, I feel as though I remembered how we, humans, can be so much more than just a speck of material in a world that doesn’t matter, we are a part of this ever-expanding universe, and our mortal eyes see only a shard of glass in the massive stained window of dimensions and energy that surrounds us. Mang explained that he was chosen by unknown energy, some say, spirits, some say god, but whatever it is, he was chosen by something beyond this material realm that our bodies take rest in. One day he became ill, like every shaman that has ever passed through the lessons of shamanism in the Hmong culture, he began shaking and sweating uncontrollably. In response, his family took him to the current shaman of the village who explained that the reason for his illness was because he is to become the next shaman of the village. Mang did not want to accept the responsibility of becoming shaman since the job is one filled with a busy lifestyle and great expense; during December the people are in desperate want for healing and eradication of bad spirits so they ask the shaman to bless their house for the new year, meaning in these months the shaman has to travel to two or three houses to bless in one single day, since the village holds around 2000 members. Mang kept becoming ill, and only at the moment that he accepted the responsibility of shaman did the illness stop persisting on his already weak body. To become a master, the inexperienced shaman has to pay the experienced shaman roughly 10,000000 VND to learn the tricks of the trade, more of a reason for many shamans to resist the calling. Mang became a shaman at age 35, which is a common age to be asked by the spirits to become a shaman. Geng explained to me that if those who are asked to become a shaman deny the responsibility, they or one of their family members commonly die, so once you have been chosen, it is lethal not to accept, and most give in to the life filled with healing and expense that follows. For this reason, those who are healed by the shaman, often offer him or her money in return for their services, during the ritual I observed, the shaman was given around 300,000 VND in respect.