Sapa is a town in the north west of Vietnam. It’s one of the most prominent market towns on the map and home to several ethnic minority groups or ‘hill tribes’ such as H’Mong, Dao, Giay, Pho Lu and Tay. It has become somewhat of a tourist mecca to those wanting to see these people and their homes. Between 1995 and the time of my own visit in August 2005, tourist figures had increased around 30 fold – the majority of these Vietnamese.
My visit was prompted by a need for a retreat away from the frenzy of Hanoi. As much as I love that city, and admittedly its calmness given its status as capital, my journey there, from the chaos of Bangkok, via the culture shock of Cambodia, and an adventure-filled tour northwards through Vietnam from my entrance at Chao Doc, necessitated a rest. I was weary.
I retreated to my hotel room. I thought I would do what everybody goes to Sapa to do: the hill tribe walks. I thought I’d go trekking with the young female teen-aged tour guides, who tugged at my sleeves to persuade me to pay and join. But something didn’t sit right with me. These girls were so young. If they weren’t asking for money for a walk with them, they were selling ribbon bracelets – their eyes wide and begging.
My memory fails me on how I got from feeling unease and confusion about what to do with my time there (after all, it was a long overnight train ride from the now-familiar Hanoi), to how I became friends with a group of the young girls. It was one girl in particular, Zi, who firstly took me to the market. I thought, OK, she wants me to buy from stalls she will receive commission from. What a cynic. She, instead, took me right to the back where many H’Mong women were preparing food and ushered me to sit at one of the long wooden tables. I was fed, and no money was asked for. I bought her an umbrella, which she picked out herself, to say thanks.
After that, Zi would come and find me every day. It was always in the afternoons, as during the mornings she was taking other tourists walking to Cat Cat waterfall…a short distance from Sapa central. Some days she was missing all day; these were the days she was out on long walks around villages further afield, during which she may get to briefly say hello to her older family members who were at home.
The more we got to know each other, the more of a friendship we built. I asked her where she slept, given that she was always in Sapa so early in the mornings, and always returned there. She grabbed my hand and tugged me down a pathway I hadn’t even noticed before, despite its location besides an internet cafe I had been frequently using. It led down to some concrete looking buildings, like housing blocks. She took me to the door of one, and we went inside. Another girl – Ban, with whom Zi shared this accommodation – was lying on a single bed, clothes were hung up on a line, and there was a bowl of water for washing on the floor. It was windowless.
I gave them my camera, since they were so eager. They reveled in taking photos of themselves and each other, and another much smaller girl came by too. Their eyes lit up as they looked at the screen at photos of themselves – not for the first time, no doubt, but perhaps the first time they had become the subject of their own photos, and not the object of others’.
The fun they had got me thinking, and the research I subsequently did introduced me to the school of participatory photography. Cameras, in the hands of others, show what means the most to them. Zi’s and Ban’s photos show simple belongings – an umbrella, their clothes, their shoes; they show their friendships; they show their appreciation for me hanging out on the grass with them. They brightened, instantly, having fun and being allowed to play. They show a pride in what (little) they have, which is something we could all learn from.
I last heard from Zi in late 2006:
Sorry that I did not write you for so long. How are you? I miss you lots and lots.
How is your job going? Do you remember me or not??? Thank you very much for the umbrella. I remember you and me walking around. We had a lot of fun. Say hello to your family from me. When will you come back to Sapa? I had a dream about seeing you again. When you have time please write me again. I am very happy to find an email from you. Please send me a picture from you.
love from your friend and sister Zi
It’s been over 10 years now, and Zi and Ban will be in their mid-twenties, at least. Maybe they’re in the market, cooking. Maybe they have daughters of their own who are tour-guiding. Or maybe all their interactions with foreign tourists has given them the skills and confidence they need to fulfill their much bigger dreams. I still think of them, and hope they are smiling regardless.