“Show me your hands!
They are all blue, how come?”
“Because you Dutch, me Hmong.”
It took us 13 hours to arrive in the mountain village of Sapa. A long and remarkable overnight train ride from Hanoi. Trying to sleep while the train spared no pain to climb the steep mountains, meandering its way from valley to valley. Bugs and other insects grasping the opportunity to enter and hijack the train, invited by the original designers who deliberately forgot to put windows in it.
But as the train was climbing, the air got fresher. We quickly forgot the humid and stifling air of Hanoi and started to imagine the mountain tribes we would soon encounter. We were about to unwind, moving away from the strenuous way of living in Hanoi and where you have to run for your life when you cross the street (you don’t want to be hit by one of the zillion motorbikes).
Steel weels on the track squeak, screaming and resisting to stop after 13 hours. We arrived in Sapa, north-west from Hanoi. Far away from the Vietnam we just experienced and close to the Chinese border.
We met mountain tribes. At first we saw them passing by quickly, not wanting to notice the group of travelers unboarding the train (we were definitely not the first to visit). Their red decorated hat caught our attention. This was a clear sign of a tribe that wanted to distinct itself from others through clothing. Here in the Netherlands we have some local villages where the way people dress sets them apart. We believe it is old-fashioned, but when you compare it, it is actually a persistent way of being proud.
In the center of Sapa they all gathered at the local market. People descended from the mountains, buying their necessary food and at the same time selling other food and handicraft. We felt happy to watch the colorful clothing, the gathering of Asian mountain life and the feeling of being on a different planet.
Strolling the streets of Sapa we also caught eye of people wearing indigo colored clothes. But not earlier as the next day, when we went out for a hiking trip into the mountains, we really learned about the indigo people.
The indigo people color themselves by creating an indigo world, the Hmong world. This is the Hmong tribe. A lot can be read about the history of the Hmong people in Vietnam. They are called the Black Hmong, all though I prefer indigo… They seem to have originally lived in China but moved southwards in the 18th century due to political unrest.
This is a different face of Vietnam. I guess every country owns a group of people that refuse (or better: withstand) the influences of modern life. Maybe it is because they live isolated, maybe they just want to protect what their parents and grandparents built.
When we met them back in 1999, many of them seemed to be happy to get in touch with….well, with what actually? With strangers? With money spenders? Or with people that could give them a glimpse into a different world?
To a certain extent we Dutchmen were not that different from them, the Hmong. We looked at each other with interest and eagerness. The only difference is that we, as Dutchmen, had to travel far, while they could just stay at home. Or at least their new home since the 18th century. Who’s the lucky one?
We say goodbye to Vietnam now. Mesmerizing, remembering great times, and, most importantly, wonderful people.