Within minutes, the air became tangibly cooler. The sweet smell of rain filled my nostrils as my heightened senses assessed the changing conditions. Life in the highland communities is intrinsically linked to weather. Indeed the weather changes so quickly and so often that a stormy morning may turn to clear blue sky in a matter of minutes. Heavy rain serves to cleanse the air of particulates, and without haze, the Hoang Lien Son Mountains shimmered a vivid emerald green in the clarity of the crisp dawn. The colossal peaks of mount Fansipan towered overhead with great trees adorning its rugged slopes like marvellous jewels. Swifts darted through the morning sunshine catching insects on the wing while giant bamboo fronds swayed slowly in the morning breeze.
My bed for the night had been in a homestay, a purpose built lodge that can accommodate up to twenty guests. Nestled between the traditional homes, there are six other such homestays in the village. The term 'homestay' is perhaps a misrepresentation as staying overnight in a minority house is illegal without governmental permission. Indeed permission is almost impossible at attain, so the purpose built lodges offer tourists the best possible compromise.
As many as a thousand tourists a day trek through this valley, mostly to observe the ancient and peaceful lifestyles of the many minority groups in Northwest Vietnam. It seems strange to me that after almost 15 years of tourism expansion, the villages remain so poor. Whilst the tour companies who send visitors on prearranged packages have become incredibly wealthy, the paradox is that those whom we all pay to visit have gained so little from tourism. They put up with the crowds, the litter and the intrusive photography in their own villages, yet struggle to earn enough to allow their children a balanced diet or access to basic healthcare. Malnourishment is common and infant mortality is high.
Breakfast for those in the homestay was an all you can eat feast of banana and honey pancakes with plentiful tea or coffee. With a backdrop of verdant rice terraces and a crowing rooster as a soundtrack, it really did feel like a little piece if paradise; an alternative world at piece with itself. The irony is that most backpackers who tread this route don't have the time or inclination to gain any real detailed knowledge of local culture, traditions or hardships. After everyone has had their fill, there are pancakes to spare. I wonder how many of those full bellies take time to consider that just over the limestone ridge in the next valley; almost every child suffers from a lack of protein, malnutrition and walks around in dirty rags for clothes.
I'm in Lao Chai to attend a funeral. The three and a half year old nephew of a friend took ill two weeks ago and after the local hospital sent him to the nearest city for treatment, the family were told he would need to be taken to Hanoi, the capital city. They simply did not have the finances to pay for such a trip, so instead, brought him back home. His chronic lung problem rapidly worsened, and he slipped into a coma and died. The simple truth is that in the west his illness would have been cured. Death is more common here and folk law, music and stories are often used to cope with grief. When I asked about his death, the story I was told was heart wrenching yet uplifting. Hmong people believe that every living entity has a spirit. The little boys’ spirit was adventurous and playful. He was a mischievous child and a wanderer who loved to explore. His spirit went walking one day and found some new parents up in the sky. As his little spirit spent more and more time with his new parents, his earthly body weakened until he died. His spirit lives on and is happy. Every culture copes with death in their own way, but no story, however beautiful could mask the wails of pain emanating from his mothers house on the day he died. It's a haunting memory and one I will never forget.
A Hmong funeral is a three day event with burial on the fourth day. While his tiny, pale body lay on the mud floor inside his home, three men crafted a basic wooden coffin. As news of his death spread by word of mouth, friends and relatives arrived to pay their respects. Gifts of rice, chickens or pigs from those who could afford it were gratefully accepted. The tiny house was filled with more than a hundred people, several of which were carrying small bamboo chalices and bottles of rice wine. Within seconds of entering the home, I had a full glass in my hand and was being encouraged to drink. I obliged and the glass was immediately filled again. Apparently, custom determines that after drinking, it is your prerogative to find a willing volunteer to take the chalice and drink next, thus sharing the cup amongst the mourners. This practice helps people bond and serves to alleviate saddens. As it happened, I found the fingers on my left hand being wrapped around a second glass as I was busying myself trying to offload the first to a young woman who had just arrived with a chicken. Needless to say, a huge volume of rice wine is consumed at funerals.
Most of those paying their respects on this occasion were family from the Ly Thi clan. As the shaman beat out deep, rhythmic notes on his buffalo hide drum in the dim firelight, two other men began to chant in the direction of the little coffin placed in the centre of the home. Although clearly intoxicated, the wine fuelled chanting was pulsating and enchanting. Although the true meaning of the words escaped me, I was transfixed. Mourning the loss of a child is laden with great sadness, but there was no doubt that many of those in attendance shared in the belief that his little spirit was now free to wander with his new parents in the sky. What a beautiful thought.