Posts Tagged ‘Hanoi’

embroidered trousers

The very trousers I bought

I’m not sure what it was but it took me a long time to start enjoying Vietnam. Maybe it was just a bit of an anti-climax after the never ending variety and daily surprises of China, maybe it was the feeling of being  constantly on my guard or maybe it was just the weather – mostly grey skies with hazy indistinct views and surprisingly cold! Herrumph …I was hoping we’d finally left that behind.

In the mountainous north where I just know the scenery would have been amazing if only we could see it, the temperature was bone chilling. The titchy electric blanket was very welcome but it did mean the only warm place was in bed.

So we swiftly headed for the coast and were looking forward to enjoying the world Heritage karst islands of Ha Long Bay. We had two tempting days of sunshine to enjoy the kayaking and the seaside before a still becalmed grey chilliness set in.

sea, islands, boats

Ha Long Bay

The floating town of over 4,000 people who make their living from the sea around here is an impressive sight but it does mean that there’s hardly any marine life to look at. Snorkelling? Not much point.

house boats

Floating town

As we went inland we had more tantalising glimpses of magnificent karst mountains rising up from rice fields, rivers and fishing villages. The people there again make their living from the water – ducks, fish and rice, but we couldn’t see a lot of it. But I should stop moaning about the weather – what about Vietnam itself?

Well I can only speak for what we saw (northern parts) but it was … just a bit boring. The countryside is despoiled with industry and half-finished road and building schemes, the towns are scruffy with piles of rubbish and construction materials, and ugly great shop signs everywhere.

lady selling vegetables

A typical scene in Hanoi

The people look just a bit boring too – no glitter and glam like in Uzbekistan, no embroidery and polished indigo like the hill tribe people, no exotic robes like the Tibetans, not even any goths or punks or daft emo haircuts like in China. Almost everyone wears an anorak (puffa jackets by the thousand!) and jeans, and drives a scooter and wears a face mask. The most exotic it gets is the occasional woman wearing one of those archetypal bamboo “coolie” hats.

So I have to admit I was feeling just a bit disappointed by it all until we got to Hanoi. Finally I was charmed. The old part of the city is full of slightly dilapidated colonial architecture – tall yellowish buildings with green shutters and little balconies, old neighbourhood temples, markets and street cafes where you sit on a mat or a tiny plastic stool at best. Hanoi manages to retain the charm of old Asian city street life which used to exist all over Asia, and which China in particular has been assiduously demolishing as fast as it can.narrow alleyway

So there it is – Hanoi, city of a million motorbikes and every one of them seems to be coming towards you at the same time!

So now I have to choose a textile to represent Vietnam. Most of the population here is Vietnamese but the problem is they don’t really go in for handmade textiles – unlike everywhere else we’ve been. Yes, there’s a bit of hand embroidery and some silk production but it doesn’t compare to the countries around it.

There is another population living in Vietnam though – around 55 different ethnic minorities, mostly living in the north, and they are a very different matter. Just like in China, they wear and make stunning costumes.

So my chosen textile is a pair of embroidered trousers which I bought from a red Yao woman in Sapa. She may live in Vietnam but she probably doesn’t speak much Vietnamese or feel that she belongs to this country, and as a minority she and her family are not treated the same as the Vietnamese.lots of ladies

Sapa was the first place we went to. We crossed the border from China over the Red River and climbed a steep 38 kilometres to Sapa, which was used as a hill station by the French back in those pre Vietnam War days. We stepped out of the minibus into thick drizzly fog and it was freezing cold – well everyone told us it would be.

There’s a lake, a church, a market, and lots of hotels, cafes, restaurants, and French bakeries for all the tourists. Most strikingly there are hordes of extremely colourful hill tribe women.

They waste no time in letting us know what they are here for and what we should be here for. “Buy my blanket, cushion, very cheap, look mister, very beautiful, why you not buy one from me?”  

The women here are mostly Black H’mong who wear pleated skirts, black turbans and polished indigo jackets or Red Yao with fantastic embroidered trousers, big hoop earrings and huge red headscarves. What they all have in common is that they are tiny, undernourished and they are not wearing enough warm clothes. On their feet they’ve got cheap wellies at best or plastic bags and flimsy plastic sandals at worst.

two girls wearing tribal costumeSome of them can speak pretty good English, and for me this is the first time I have been able to have a conversation with a hill tribe woman. So I start to get involved.  “For goodness sake go and get warm.” “You buy something from me!” “OK then, lets see what you’ve got?”

That’s it! As soon as you show any interest they’re all on top of you.

If there’s anything I can buy I will, but with the best will in the world I cannot buy something from the whole lot of you and I absolutely will not buy any of those hideous bright yellow and green over dyed cushion covers you keep waving in my face.

So I buy a few embroidered bags – but this only leads to “You buy from her, you buy from me”.

Finally somebody has something that makes me stop and look – a pair of traditional embroidered trousers. A bit dirty and patched but the embroidery is very fine and oh joy! they have escaped embellishment with bright pink or fluorescent green wool.

So now our protracted relationship begins.  “How much for the trousers?” – a ridiculously high price from her, a ridiculously low price from me – gasps and laughter from the crowd. Can I really be bothered with this?

As I walk around town she’s still trailing me, hanging around while I get my lunch in a lovely warm cafe. Another slightly lower price from her and a slightly higher price from me. “They make by my mother – she at home, long time to make, she angry with me if I sell too cheap. I been here three days, not sell anything. You buy from me and I go home.”  Talk about emotional blackmail! But look at her, she’s cold, it’s cold, and maybe if I buy them it will make her day.woman selling bags

Finally a mutually acceptable price is found. I hand over the money and wait for a smile. “You happy now? Good – now go back home and get warm for goodness sake”.

Half an hour later, I go into a shop selling ethnic costume and see a pile of embroidered hill tribe trousers, very much like the ones…. How much are they?

Exactly the same amount I have just paid – all without the haggling and the bargaining, all without being trailed and hassled and all without feeling extremely guilty. But also I suppose without getting some insight into the life of a dirt poor hill tribe woman trying to make a bit of money on a cold and foggy winter’s day.

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