Chai Pi cuts a strange figure sitting quietly in the five-star surrounds of the Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa. Dressed in traditional dress, dark blue fabric supporting a riot of embroidered colors, she stands apart from the visitors to the mountain town of Sapa in northern Vietnam.
It is Chai Pi, however, rather than the Gortex-clad guests, who belongs here. Sapa, in the Vietnamese highlands, may have become a tourist town for visitors eager to flee Hanoi for the fresh air and trekking, but the town and its villages are home to a number of ethnic minorities.
The Black Hmong tribe
Chai is of the Black Hmong tribe — one of the many sub groups of the Hmong ethnic group, indigenous to the mountains of China, Laos and Thailand as well as Vietnam.
She is somber and traditional in the hotel lobby, but once on the road leading to the day’s trek into the valley Chai’s personality bubbles over as she chats in superb English, punctuated with her sassy smile and frequent laugh.
The effervescent 19-year-old is a fascinating guide as the day reveals as much about her life as it does the surrounding countryside.
“From seven, eight years ago to now most people work as a tourist guide,” she says, illustrating just how much the area has changed over the last decade. “I wished I could do the same to get a little money to help my family.”
Deciding not to work in the family’s fields and home, Chai started working as a guide in 2006 and is clearly a natural.
“I enjoy it a lot,” she says. “I meet people and learn languages. I know a few words in French, Spanish and Japanese. I know English the most.”
Her English is astoundingly good for someone who has never had a formal lesson. Colloquial and natural, she laughs, jokes, explains, and all this simply from absorbing the language from her contact with tourists.
In her village of Lao Chai, the education system is primitive. No English is taught in the primary school’s lofty classrooms and flag-flying courtyard.
But even in Sapa’s secondary school, education is limited when it comes to locals. “For minority people most girls can’t go to school. Only boys,” she says.
“So we stay home and work on the farm, make clothes, cooking, looking after the family, many things.”
On the way into the valley we pass the family home, a two-room mud-floored wooden hut with space outside for two pigs, three ducks and two dogs.
It doesn’t look like it takes much maintenance, but with such a relatively large family there are always chores. “Sisters work the farm, brothers get the land. When boys marry their parents give them the land, shared between the brothers.”
We pass her father’s shop, and go further into the valley through paddy fields, past water buffalo, and plenty of local women toting souvenirs. In the village primary school her little sister is playing in the courtyard with her friends.
Chai’s stories of village life are the soundtrack to the trek that takes us through paddy fields, along streams, over bridges, and through tiny hamlets.
It’s a well-trodden route for tourists, and at the bottom of the hill two or three day trekkers peel off to continue, staying at homestays.
We carry on until we hit the road and she negotiates two motorbike taxis to putt-putt us back up to town. Chai in her traditional dress, behind a driver in jeans and a T-shirt, flies up the road in front of me.
But the biggest contrast of all comes when we stop at an Internet café back in Sapa.
The first Hmong on Facebook
Chai is straight on to her Facebook page, laughing in pleasure as she opens messages and checks out her friends.
“I started using Facebook in 2007. I was the first Black Hmong in Sapa with a Facebook page,” she says proudly. “I like it because I can see friends’ photos and talk to them.”
Chai works too hard to see her friends frequently. Although it took a while for the rest of her friends to catch on, with Internet cafes rife in the touristy area Facebook has become the way they can most easily stay in touch.
Looking over her shoulder there’s plenty of YouTube posts, messages in Vietnamese and also in English from previous trekking clients. This is just one of her links to the outside world, and more come through movies.
“’Home Alone’ was a very funny movie. The little boy was so cute. The big house for a small family must be very hard to clean. Big family, small house, that’s us,” she smiles.
Keeping in touch with tourists is her way of keeping the dream of traveling to other countries alive, surely a real possibility with her enterprising spirit.
But Chai has moments when she’s as traditional as her dress. “I’ve been to Hanoi a few times, but there’s too much traffic and pollution,” she says. “Maybe in the future I will live in a stone house, or go back to the village, work on the farm and have many children.”
Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hotline: (+84) 972004080