Hitchhiking Vietnam
a Zao village
"The path down to the Zao village of Tafin wandered through rolling hills sculpted into terraced paddy. My horizon was the edge of the heavy fog no more than a dozen feet away. Two women materialized, walking fast and flat-footed, their heads down. I followed them on little more than a nodding acquaintanceship, along terraces filled with the stumpy stalks of long-dead rice. They never faltered, their legs churning under heavy baskets bulging with a week's supplies. The fourteen mile trip to Sapa was obviously nothing to them, nor was the steep, slippery trail that led up to their forest home.

They lived in a typical Zao hut - massive, dark, with leaky cathedral ceilings to accommodate the rising smoke from several fires. It was made entirely of overlapping planks, the cracks stuffed with old rags, plastic and bits of grass and mud. There were no windowpanes, and the fire did little to combat the icy mist pouring in through the open doors.

She led me to the guest fireplace and deposited me there beside a sedate old man..."

"The old Zao roused himself and leaned forward to collect the blackened kettle from the fire. He filled two tiny cups with tea then settled back, his water pipe in one hand and his teacup in the other, and began to talk.

He was the patriarch, the head of a clan that extended well beyond the walls of the hut. Four of his five sons were married and two had begun their own households no more than a stone's throw away. His daughters still lived at home, though one would soon be wed and leave the village for her husband's clan. An indeterminate number of barefoot children scurried in and out, invariably stuffy-nosed and carrying a younger sibling on their backs. In all he was directly responsible for nearly two dozen people under his own roof and was titular head of a dozen more."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Follow any woman in the market who happens to be wearing a red headpiece and nods when you say "Tafin?".

Apparently the Tonkinese Alps were colonized in waves- the firstcomers got the fertile lowlands and successive groups had to settle into the higher, more inhospitable slopes. That would put the Zao at the bottom of pecking order, since Tafin is near the top of a mountain and seems to grow little more than an excess of boulders.

It rained the whole time I was there. It was also foggy enough that I couldn't see more than a dozen feet in any direction during my hike in. The village dogs had a field day.

A few things they don't tell you in the guidebooks: Zao huts have no windowpanes and it gets bloody cold up there on the mountain top so they tend to shut everything up to conserve warmth. The houses don't have chimneys, so the smoke from the fires and tobacco pipes descends like a thickening fog. That's why they all sit on three-inch stools. Within a day my clothes were reeking of ashes and my nose was bleeding almost continually.
"The mist lay dense and heavy over the fields. Clothes hanging from the beams sagged with moisture and my tiny cassette deck squealed and died, despite vigorous shaking on the part of several frustrated sons. Everyone got restless, and smoked more, and tracked mud across the packed dirt floor. Only the matriarch, a tall woman with a smoothly plucked forehead, high cheekbones and thick pair of reading glasses, seemed immune. She sat motionless for hours but for one flickering hand, embroidering a pair of wedding pants."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

  1. The Zao huts are impressive. For one thing, they're huge. For another, the entire structure is built without a single nail...
  2. Some of the women pluck their heads under their red headresses.
  3. When you look at a piece of Zao embroidery you are supposed to be able to tell not only what village it came from, but what family. The five colors they use are representative of their world belief system and the patterns are also symbolic.
  4. French ruins are scattered throughout the area.
  5. The river rice threshers are simple, ingenious, and ancient.
  6. The children are happy to take you around and are entertaining companions - they can run down the steepest slope like gazelle, leaping from rock to rock.

They cook, clean, take care of all the livestock (pigs, chickens, geese, dogs, water buffalo), gather and chop wood, husk corn and rice, grind grain, weave, sew, embroider, and raise children. And they talk about sex and money...

The men? I never did quite figure out what they do. They play cards a lot, something that looked vaguely like poker. They roasted peanuts and smoked incessantly on a water pipe that they all shared. They poked around the fire a bit and waited for the women to bring them meals. They were very attentive of the huge wok of fermenting rice that they were coaxing into whisky.
When it was time to go...
"I shared one last meal and shouldered my pack. They seemed almost not to notice when I took my leave, accepting a discreet gift of cash with barely a nod, their hands never faltering over their chores as I said good-bye. Only the children followed me down the trail, leaping like young fawns and laughing at my clumsy steps. I hiked back up the path to Sapa with the comfortable feeling that this was the proper way of things, and if I should return in ten years they would greet me with a similar nod and offer me a cup of tea."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Central Highlands || Halong Bay || Hanoi || Highway 1 || Mai Chau

Mekong || Saigon || Sapa || Sapa Valley || Son La || Tafin || The Loop