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“Why you don’t have baby?” the 10-year-old asked with a sidelong look, surprised that after more than six years of marriage we have no children.

“I do have babies. Just because they’re hairy and a little retarded doesn’t mean I don’t love them.”

Long pause. “We have a dog and a cat.” Silence. Deadpan is dead here, I thought.

The little girl, smart as a tack, a bright little bulb, redoubled her efforts.

“You don’t have babies, who take care of you when you’re old?”

“Hmm.”

“You don’t have baby, who respect you when you’re old?”

“Hmmm. Probably no one. Just like now.”

“You know what I think I think maybe you trouble.”

“I think maybe you right.”

“You selfish.”

“Now I know you’re right.”

Thus ended the exchange. The girl, about 3 feet from the ground foot to head and dressed smartly in the traditional black Hmong tunic with red, white and green beadwork, gave up trying to sell me a bracelet or mouth harp or indigo-stained pillowcase and edged away.

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Our guide in Sapa, Ma Yai, had somewhat less traditional views. She is a 19-year-old Hmong with a very modern outlook on sexual politics. “I have boyfriends,” she said, emphasis on the plural. “But I don’t let them marry me. I don’t want to get married. Then I won’t be able to do what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is continue her thriving business as a guide, at which she makes a few hundred dollars a week, a very comfortable living. That keeps her from having to sell trinkets to tourists. But it doesn’t stop her from flirting all day on her cell phone with boy admirers.

But she refuses, rightly, to settle down. Not just yet.

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Ma Yai

From north to south, from rural villages to urban centers, Vietnam is on the cusp, economically and politically, of becoming a dominant regional power. By some measures it’s already there. With that change naturally comes a reassessment, a readjustment, of social mores.

It was fascinating to see this stage of Vietnam’s development: the brimming modern city of Hanoi, the sweeping mix of culture and history and rapid change – and then run to the hills, where economic and social change has been much slower in coming – but where it has incontrovertibly taken hold.

We hopped an overnight train north out of the capital city, leaving the honking horns behind, and woke up on the Chinese border. Piling into a bus, we climbed the twisting roads for an hour-and-a-half deep into the territory of Vietnam’s indigenous peoples, among them the Hmong and Zay, toward Sapa which in the last ten years has become a tourist destination almost beyond its capacity.

Sapa is an idyllic little town nestled on a steep hillside in the Hoang Lien Mountains facing Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest peak at 3,143 meters. This time of year the peak, and the town, are often shrouded in mist day and night. As it was during our three-day visit. Strange to say but Sapa felt to me like a ski resort town, somewhere in Summit County maybe in the off-season.

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We met up with Ma Yai, from a neighboring village, and explored the area on two daylong treks. We marched down mountainsides into long green valleys of terraced rice paddies, hopped stones past wading water buffalo and children. We crossed rickety bamboo bridges on the backs of xe oms. We were deluged by merchants selling indigo-stained pillowcases and wall hangings until their signature phrase – “You buy from me:” sort of a cross between the interrogative and the declarative – lodged firmly and permanently in our brains.

We traversed a quilt of multitiered terraces interspersed with tin-roofed barns and red-roofed schoolhouses; rivers laced with bamboo thick around as cannon and waxy-leafed green-tea trees; sinuous trails dusty in the dry season; villages in the shadow of looming water towers. We peeked in the windows of bamboo houses on stilts with

satellite dishes poking out of their thatched roofs.

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We spoke with women hauling textiles to market; women hauling water home; women carrying great baskets of sugarcane, children toddling after them, nibbling on the fibrous stalk. Their fingers were permanently stained green and blue from indigo.

The men didn’t speak to us at all.

hmong-2.jpgThe government gives these people nothing, unless it’s grief. And taxes. They have nothing besides tourism, and rice. But tourism is booming. Tourism, the Dao Tuyen, the Flower Hmong, the Nung, Red Hmong, Tay, Thai, Tu Dithe White Hmong and Zay, think and hope is the answer to the poverty they’ve seemingly always known.

Ma Yai thinks so. She’s happy: she has a neverending supply of out-of-shape turistos to drag up and down the aptly named Tourist Mountain. And to tease mercilessly in a sweet beguiling way.

Like when she informed me that if I did two things I could find a Hmong wife: never mind that I already have a non-Hmong wife, and a pretty good one: shave my chin (few Hmong have beards), and substitute rice wine for beer.

“Beer make you fat. Rice wine make you skinny but crazy,” she said. “Americans like beer too much I think.”

“Americans are also very sensitive about their weight I think.”

“Too sensitive I think.” Big smile.

Big smiles all around.

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