Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Pride Comes Before the Fall
We just returned from two days of trekking in the mountains of Northern Vietnam that border China. During our time there, we visited three villages that were inhabited by minority populations of an indigenous tribe known as the Black Hmong people (as well as a handful of other smaller tribes). The landscapes of terraced rice fields that smother the steep terrain are visually stunning, but it is the kindness of their caretakers that make Northern Vietnam absolutely unforgettable. Vast numbers of Hmong women hike up miles of muddy hillsides each day, dressed in traditional hand-woven garments and multi-colored head dresses, to guide foreigners like myself to their villages where we are encouraged to learn more about their unique culture. They make this trek in the hope that we will help support their impoverished villages by purchasing products and supplies from their local artisans. Many of the women have an array of dye stains on their hands and faces from the hours of painstaking craftsmanship that they put into their beautiful creations. In addition to the female guides, men also assist in providing for their villages by plowing the rice terraces with water buffaloes and homemade blades. The fields are currently dormant and the Vietnamese New Year is rapidly approaching, so most of the men were off in the mountains gathering fire wood when we visited the towns. Every New Year, the Hmong people build huge fires and have a parade of sorts, where they flaunt their newly made creations for all of the village to see (sounds very similar to a fashion show). They then wear those clothes for the duration of the year, until it is time for the following year's "spring collection" to once again be revealed.
The villages were accessible only by steep dirt roads, stone pathways, and bridges that bounced questionably over rivers below as you traversed across them. Mariana and I welcomed the exercise after two days of gorging on fried spring rolls, but we sorely indulged ourselves with leg massages after only our first day of hiking. The second day of hiking was an all-day affair, which due to a perfectly timed thuderstorm the night before, became more like a slippery mine field of red clay puddles. I refused the help of my guide, as I assured her that I had been hiking many times and that my strength of balance was excellent. I did not want to offend her by telling her that she was simply too small to be of help to me anyway. She then offered her guidance in regards to which pathways to take, which I again refused. Always "take the road less travelled by" has been like a mantra to me for the last few number of years, and I sure wasn't going to change that to follow the orders of an 85 lb woman with blue dye on her face. That thought was going through my head right around the same time that my feet gave out from under me. I proceeded to fall directly on my ass in to red clay muck and slide uncontrollably down a steep slope. I was laughing uncontrollably as I came to a sudden halt when an extremely strong hand set an iron-clad grasp around my wrist and pulled me upwards. I wanted to thank the kind man who helped me up, but when I turned around, I saw no one. That's when I looked down and saw a petite woman with darkened skin and a partially blue face accompanied by a gentle smile. My guide did not shame me or even tell me "I told you so", rather, she firmly took me by the hand and led me safely down the remainder of the muddy mountain. I realized two things at that point: 1) Pride always comes before the fall and 2) My 85 lb female Black Hmong guide had FREAKISH Hulk-like physical strength and an even stronger heart.
The Black Hmong people truly have an amazing culture and Mariana and I feel extremely blessed to have experienced it first hand. The land that they live in is breath-taking and we will post more pictures of their surroundings via Mariana's Facebook.