The Harsh Reality of the North
My visit to Sa Pa was short. The small village was flooded with tourists who had arrived from Hanoi by night train. After driving two days in the mountains, the concrete hotels, Italian restaurants and Irish pubs of Sa Pa made the place look insipid. It was like arriving in Mont-Tremblant from the great north of Quebec. Everything looked staged.
Before heading back on the road, Trung and I went to the Sa Pa market. On either side of the aisle were stalls of fruits, vegetables and crafts of all kinds. In the past," my companion explained, "you could find genuine H'mong handicrafts in this market. Today, he said, most of what we find there has been manufactured in China.
We returned to our motorcycles to prepare for our departure. Our next destination is Ba Be, a region known for its majestic lake surrounded by high limestone mountains. On the way, we will pass through villages populated by some of the 53 ethnic minorities of northern Vietnam, including H'mong, Tày, Khmer and Dao. It will take us two days to get there, with a stop in the town of Viêt Quang.
The first day on the road went smoothly. In front of me was a landscape that was becoming more and more familiar to me. I didn't always understand it, but I began to recognize it.
The simplicity in which people live in the north is confusing. In the villages, the houses are open despite the cold weather. Sometimes they are made of brick and concrete, sometimes of wood and bamboo. It is not certain that they have running water and electricity is intermittent. In some cases, you can see the backyard from the street because they have no doors. In fact, some don't even have four walls.
My reaction to the living conditions of the North Vietnamese has evolved over the days.
At first, watching these people live in such material deprivation gave me a shiver of horror. My first reaction was one of anger and indignation at such misery.
But this reaction was very superficial. There was nothing empathetic about it. At the sight of this unusual spectacle, I had simply projected myself into the lives of these people and felt the discomfort that I would have experienced living in such poverty. Despite appearances, my initial reaction was inherently self-centered.
This reaction gradually faded and was replaced by another. One evening, Trung remarked to me that despite their poverty, the people here find happiness in this simplicity. I too began to think that it was possible to be happy living in these conditions. I was soon convinced that these people were living a happiness that I simply did not understand. I even caught myself thinking, "It's kind of like living in a trailer park. It's probably not as bad as it sounds."
This reaction, however, was as self-centered as the first. First and foremost, it allowed me to relieve my discomfort with the spectacle of poverty that was unfolding before my eyes all day. By making me believe that these people were happy, I disengaged myself from the reality around me.
Several times a day, Trung would stop to ask for directions. Each time was an opportunity to interact with the locals. To talk to them. To observe them.
Up close, you could see that their bodies bore the marks of the harshness of their lifestyle. Some of them scared me. All had bloodshot eyes. Their skin was worn and wrinkled from the sun. Their teeth were unhealthy, and sometimes non-existent. Some had bent backs from working in the rice fields. You could see them blowing their noses, coughing, and spitting out the pollution they breathed in daily.
Traveling by motorcycle allowed me to penetrate another Vietnam that is normally not accessible to tourists. The raw Vietnam of its inhabitants, not the one embellished for foreigners. The one that is ugly, dirty, polluted and forgotten.
In the last days of our road in the mountains, a new emotion came over me. Having been able to put faces on this poverty, I could now feel a deep empathy.
This was very different from my previous reactions. It was characterized by two things. Rather than denial, it was recognition of the suffering these people were experiencing. And rather than anger, acceptance of my powerlessness in the face of this reality.