La Mai stands in front of Sapa Square, the main gathering point for local people and tourists in the popular mountain retreat of Sapa. She sets down her bamboo basket that has been turned into a makeshift backpack. A small grin appears as she pulls out a sweet bread roll and begins to eat. In between bites, she chats with her friend, who is fiddling with her red, triangular shaped turban adorned with red tassels and silver coins. In comparison, La Mai’s headscarf is simpler: a scarlet-coloured piece of cloth tied with a plain, white canvas strap.
La Mai is a member of the Red Dao ethnic minority group, known for their distinctive red headdresses. When done eating La Mai brushes the crumbs off her black and white embroidered blouse and indigo-dyed cropped trousers. On the bottom of the back of her shirt she straightens a square piece of fabric, which symbolises that she is a child of God. She readjusts her embellished cross-body purse that has been shorted with a safety pin to fit her petite frame. With a little effort, she puts on her bamboo rucksack, leaves her friend and begins to walk around looking for customers.
Every day La Mai and her fellow villagers trek down from their homes surrounding Ta Phin, a major community of ethnic minority groups, to Sapa town, located 10 km away. ‘It takes one and a half hours from my village by foot to get here. It’s good for the health!’ she says.
On this day, fog and clouds cover the picturesque mountains that surround Sapa. La Mai looks at her muddied purple rubber boots. ‘They’re so dirty!’ she exclaims. Her daily walk to Sapa involves traversing through muddy rice fields, crossing bamboo logs that have become makeshift bridges and dodging herds of cattle feeding off the land.
Her basket is full of hand-embroidered tablecloths, wallets and scarves that she hopes to sell to tourists. ‘It’s difficult,’ she says as she wanders around Sapa, looking for customers. ‘I can practice English, so it’s okay.’
Now, at 41, she considers herself a bit of a polyglot, speaking the Dao language, Vietnamese, English and some French. ‘I learn English by talking to tourists,’ she says proudly. ‘Sometimes I take tourists to my village. We practice together.’
As the day wears on La Mai gradually takes off layers of jackets. There is a hint of drizzly rain in the air. Her cheeks are flushed from the walking and talking. She wipes away the moisture from her face. It’s hard not to notice her trimmed hairline and shaved eyebrows, both signs of beauty and marriage in the Red Dao tribe.
‘After I was married I started to come here,’ she said, making the journey almost every day to sell her goods since the age of 19. She has four children to support - two sons and two daughters. ‘They’re so big!’ as she stretches her arms out wide.
La Mai spots two young girls coming out from an alleyway. ‘Hello! How are you today? Where are you from?’ she says with little breath in between. The girls stop and smile. ‘We’re from Iceland,’ they respond. La Mai quickly pulls out some embroidered wallets and bracelets from her purse. ‘I made these.’
As the girls feel the needlework, La Mai sets down her basket backpack and pulls out a loom-woven scarf. ‘My friend made this. Very beautiful!’ The Red Dao women sometimes trade their handmade items with other ethnic minorities in order to offer more variety to potential customers.
La Mai puts the scarf on one of the girls. ‘You look beautiful! It feels good too,’ she coaxes. ‘I give discount for you. OK? 250,000 dong. Very cheap! Very good quality.’ The girls whisper to each other, then nod in agreement. La Mai pulls out a plastic bag, puts the scarf in it, and then hands it to one of the girls. ‘Thank you!’ she shouts as money is exchanged.
By early afternoon La Mai is ready to go home. The gloomy sky that loomed over Sapa earlier remains. She has made only the one sale today. ‘I try,’ shrugging her shoulders. ‘But OK.’ Occasionally the Red Dao women agree to share their profits with multiple families to avoid the frustration of selling and competition.
Walking home, La Mai meanders through the rice terraces. She uses her umbrella walking stick to help her up and down the muddy terrain. She sees a friend who is heading to Sapa town for the evening tourists. ‘Puong tay! (hello in Dao)’ they say to each other. The two quickly chat then say their goodbyes.
Two hours later, La Mai is home. Piles of wood greet her at the front door. As she enters, high ceilings, a hallmark of a Red Dao dwelling, makes the space feel big. Huge sacks of rice, a Red Dao staple, occupy the rafters.
Even though it is late afternoon and all the doors and windows are open, the house is dark. There is one light bulb for the entire house that is powered by a small and sometimes unreliable generator.
A fire is constantly burning at the back of the house for light and warmth. A piece of meat absorbs the smoke as it hangs from above the flames. Nearby, La Mai’s mother-in-law is hacking mustard greens picked from the garden outside.
La Mai’s eldest daughter, Linh, sits by a window stitching. She keeps brushing her long, black hair out of her face as she carefully studies her work. The embroidery is tricky because the design appears on both sides of the cloth. Linh’s red and gold butterfly hairclips and white Converse knock-offs are a stark contrast to her mother’s appearance. La Mai eventually joins her daughter to check on her progress.
The men return to the house. They have been farming all day, tending to the family’s water buffalo and caring for the pigs. Specks of mud can be seen all over their long, indigo trousers. La Mai’s husband, Co, and their two sons take a seat by the fire. Co grabs a bamboo smoking pipe and takes a big inhale. All of La Mai’s teenaged children no longer go to school, instead helping out with chores around the house.
Everyone helps with the dinner preparations. La Mai is making spring rolls. One son is sautéing tomatoes by the fire. Linh is setting up the table. A big pot of rice bubbles away.
Dinner is soon served. Bowls of rice and plates with an assortment of vegetables sit on a table nearby the fire. Everyone quickly finds their place, grabs chopsticks and hurriedly begin eating. Sips of homemade rice wine are drunk between bites of food and conversation about the day’s events.
When the meal is finished and the table is cleared and cleaned, the family scatters. La Mai’s husband soaks in a hot herbal bath, a Red Dao specialty that revitalises aching muscles and joints. The herbal potion had been brewing for several hours. The women try to squeeze in some more stitching before bedtime. The boys play a game of marbles.
But the evening ends early. La Mai makes sure everyone retreats to their beds. The fire is put out for the night. The house goes dark as silence engulfs the rooms. La Mai recounts her day then closes her eyes. Tomorrow, she will go back and do it all over again.