She was standing in the middle of the square. A small woman, dressed in blue, with an embroidered headdress. I recognised her instantly, having carried her business card in my pocket from one end of Vietnam to the other, from a greasy bia hoi stall in Saigon to Sapa, where we finally met. Her name is Ker.
Ker is a Hmong guide. For three days, I followed her as we trekked around the mountains that mark the border between China and Vietnam. She was tiny, and had the look of a forlorn child. I felt safe with her. She knew every stone, every tree, and every path snaking off into the undergrowth, every mountain peak. It wasn’t until the end of the first day when I noticed she was pregnant. Five months, she said, it will be her second child.
Trekking to the Hmong Villages is one of the biggest tourist draws in the mountains around Sapa. The Hmong are a hill tribe living in the mountains separating the South East Asian peninsula and China. Throughout centuries, they have maintained their culture, language and traditional clothes.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA secretly recruited many Hmong to fight Communism. Since the end of the war, many Hmong have suffered persecution and were interned in re-education camps.
Tourist access to Vietnam started in the Nineties, since then, Hmong women have begun to leave their villages in the morning, loaded with handicrafts, to sell in the main square of Sapa. After a few years of this, a group of women decided to offer their services as guides, others followed, and now there are hundreds of Hmong women guiding trekkers around Sapa every day.
Often, they work for agencies. Tourists pay hundreds of dollars for a tour; the guide receives only a handful of dong. In 2009, a group of Hmong women and two Swedish travellers created Sapa Sisters, a collectively owned travel agency that allows guides to connect with tourists, without the involvement of middlemen. For more info, visit sapasisters.com