I should’ve packed an extra set of clothes. We were headed to the remote village of Ta Phin, Vietnam, so I saw it fit to cram my day pack with water and bread. Oh, they had tons of that over at my homestay. They even had enough beer and rice wine to kill a couple of cows. What they didn’t have were spare clothes, a fact I had to learn while drenched from the rain in fifteen-degrees Celsius weather. I sought refuge next to the fire pit under the pretense of helping out in the kitchen, all the while thinking, I definitely should’ve packed that extra set of clothes.
Getting to Sapa was a cumbersome affair. It was hours of airplane-, van-, and train-commute followed by days of waiting in between, peppered by the odd conversations of strangers trying to hook up with each other. And all this was before the actual assignment of trekking 15 kilometres to Ta Phin.
I had steeled myself for the idleness. I was ready to embrace the moments in place of today’s modern distractions. What I wasn’t ready for, however, was the onslaught of pressure sales tactics the moment I stepped foot in Sapa.
All it took was a simple hello. Before I knew it, I was swarmed by women garbed in traditional attire. “Where you from?” they asked. “What your name?” They smelled blood. “You buy this. Hand make. I have family. No. You buy.”
My photographer had his own set of problems, having taken pictures of the locals earlier, and subsequently had to fend off proclamations of “One picture one dollar!”
A particularly persistent woman tried to sling a hemp bag across my neck, and upon my refusal, she said, “You bad guy! You no buy, you no good!” I couldn’t help wondering how high she’d have soared, had she been in the MLM industry back home. Probably make the diamond leagues, easy. Perhaps so.
We met up with our guide May and she shed some light on the situation. The mountain tribes rely heavily on the rice harvest, and during the off season, they’re left with little avenues of income. Many travel to town looking for jobs, but are turned away due to the lack of education and lingual abilities. Oftentimes, families can’t afford to send their children to school, and even if they could, the nearest one might be a two-hour walk away. One way.
How different would life have been for them had they grown up in circumstances that offered more opportunities? Would they have stood enough of a chance to earn a living in the main cities of Vietnam? Perhaps so.
In line with those thoughts, I pondered my own upbringing. How would things have turned out had I been born elsewhere? Growing up, I’d dreamed of being an aggressive in-line skater, an MMA fighter, and a professional gamer, among many other ambitions. This was fifteen years ago, where opportunities to pursue these dreams were non-existent. Today, a handful of my countrymen have emerged as big names in those exact fields, and I wondered if I would’ve been one of them had I been born in America or South Korea. Perhaps so.
Of course, it could’ve gone either way. I could’ve grown up under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, or been born in Japan and not have an affinity for the English language at all, but I digress.
I was boarded with a Red Dao family, one of the ethnic minorities in Sapa. My hosts led a minimalist lifestyle, with wood for walls, tarpaulin for blinds, and packed dirt for floors. All the electricity goes to power their three light bulbs and a refrigerator. Such an arrangement had me feeling somewhat guilty for charging my phone.
When my host wasn’t busying herself with chores or tending to her animals, she embroidered. I watched as she worked on a jacket, stitch by stitch. Would she have been a fashion designer had she been born in Paris? What if she grew up in Hong Kong? Was there a vulgar businesswoman behind all this quiet demeanour? Perhaps so.
As twilight turned to darkness, I finally came face to face with nothingness. I couldn’t read a book, or journal the things that transpired throughout the day. Not that I wanted to; I wasn’t going to leave the comfort of my blanket. Besides, I had hung my clothes to dry, and was naked under the covers.
I’d always wanted to lead a quiet, minimalist life, but the stay in Ta Phin had crushed what little romance I’d harboured for it. Maybe it’s not what I really want in life, and maybe if I was born in a different place, I wouldn’t have pursued MMA, skating, or gaming anyway.
I tossed and turned the entire night to the throes of a minor existential crisis, but when daylight returned, I reached an epiphany. I had it all backwards. It really does go both ways: if people like Coco Chanel or Mick Jagger grew up here, would they have appreciated all this serenity, beautiful views, and a rich culture?
This piece is a companion to the feature I wrote for the magazine. Read the original here.