In the Summer of 2009, my travels took me to the hills of Sa Pa in North Vietnam. Unlike the rest of Vietnam’s smoldering Summer heat and pollution, Sa Pa is a refreshing escape, with a cool, fresh breeze and an average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. Characterized by green rice paddies high up on the mountain-side, a midst the spray of the clouds, its like a heaven on earth.
Sa Pa is predominantly inhabited by the Hmong people, making up around 52 per cent of it population. Outside of Vietnam, the Hmong also have significant populations in China and Laos. Although Hmong society is traditionally rather patriarchal, there seems to have been a shift in female attitude in the mountains of Sa Pa. A possible cause of this change in mindset may be down to the daily interaction of the Hmong girls, who mostly work as tour guides, with Westerners. Not only does their English improve, but they also seem to be changing attitudes about the role of women in society. In the Hmong sisters bar, where many of the girls relax after work, and enjoy the company of foreigners, I played pool with some of them. When they played against male competitors, they seemed to enjoy beating them even more, as they jeered at their male opponents, whilst being more respectful to female ones. Even in Western society, we don’t often see women mocking and challenging men in sports, but the Hmong girls seemed intent on crushing whatever ego the men had. This could be their way of expressing their freedom outside of their home, where they may be expected to act in a more submissive way with men of their own tribe.
Whilst walking with a Hmong girl and two male trekking partners, the female guide expressed that I should not let men treat me in any way disrespectfully. She made it quite clear that she regarded women very highly and that they should be treated with respect. She said she wanted to study and go to university too, showing the ambition of Hmong girls to eventually leave Sa Pa. The level of English of the young Hmong girls was astounding, considering that they had only learnt it from tourists. As a fellow woman, I found my stay in Sa Pa very comfortable. Even male tourists there seemed to enjoy the feisty, energetic personalities of the Hmong girls, as a stark contrast to the stereotypical, quiet, shy Southeast Asian girls. I will leave you with these images of the beautiful landscapes and people of Sa Pa.
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