Traveling with the Women of Vietnam

Traveling can teach you many things. My recent visit to Vietnam provided me with new insight about the lives of women in the Sapa Valley region, their ability to live close to the land in very difficult situations and what we can learn from these strong women. Vietnam Rice field waterfalls-johatcherretreats.comAs with so many places when we travel as tourists, we get a mere glimpse into other people’s lives. I don’t pretend to know much at all after a few days journey into a small region of Viet Nam.

Yet the experience made me pause and think about how we live our lives. These women live so differently than me and yet I felt a sense of connection with them and their lifestyle.

I’m always interested in the women. Women of VietnamHow they live their lives, what they eat, how they mother their children, if they are in an arranged marriage or free to choose, how well they are treated by the men in their lives, by their families, and by their spouses’ families.

Su MayMy guide, Su May, a young woman of 26 and mother of 2, was delightful in every way.

She had a bright smile that made me want to know more about her. We trekked into the rice fields of Sapa Valley, the region in Vietnam’s northwest corner close to the Chinese border.

It was an 8 mile walk through some of the most gorgeous land I’ve ever seen with high peaks, rivers, valleys and hillside terraced rice paddies. We trekked through ethnic villages across streams and by waterfalls. The beauty of the lush rice fields took my breath away.


Another woman unexpectedly and without invitation joined us along the trek. She began walking behind us, quietly and with no acknowledgment of the fact that she was on the journey with us or any introduction of herself. We learned her name was La and that she was 60 as we walked together.


Su May told me La is Black Hmong, one of the many ethnic minority people of this region living in much the same way as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Jo-La

Su May belongs to another tribe…the Red Dao. Their languages are different so I don’t think they understood that much of each other. La continued in her silent way, just walking along side us.

Su May works in the rice fields when she’s not a tour guide. Her day begins at 5:00am and she works until 6:00pm in the rice fields with her family.

She told me her tribe grows one crop per year of rice and that the family will keep the rice for themselves to feed their families. A family normally consists of three generations. They live together in the same house.

My time with Su May was special.  I asked questions and she replied in her well-spoken English.

“How many children do women have, SuMay?” I asked. “Nowadays, about two to three,” she replied. Su May is one of 8 sisters. Her mother has 14 siblings. I’m not sure what has changed that they are having less children.

Red Dao womenSu May is not in an arranged marriage. She told me that some men when they want to marry “kidnap” (those are her words) the girl, bring her to his home for 3 days. The girl has the option to refuse marriage if she doesn’t like it there.

All girls are required to learn how to sew and embroider before leaving home.Vietnamese girls

The bright clothes Su May wore are what she wears everyday…trousers embroidered with intricate designs, an indigo hemp shirt, and a pillbox hat embroidered with rich red colors.

The cloth is made from the hemp grown here which is split, made into thread and then woven into fabric. Hemp handsShe showed me the barrel of indigo leaves used to dye the hemp cloth in. The deep blue, almost violet color was exquisite.Indigo

Babies are now born in a hospital but Su May said that unless you have money to pay the doctors, the care is limited.

I was saddened to hear that the mothers give the baby formula for the first 2 weeks, then they breastfeed. It’s puzzling why they do this and I was unable to get a straight answer about it. Vietnamese baby

SuMay’s diet consists of mostly rice and some vegetables with a little chicken or pork only occasionally.

Along our trek, she bought duck eggs from another Hmong woman.

Duck Eggs-EThe eggs were wrapped inside bamboo leaves for carrying. When we arrived at a local restaurant for lunch, Su May disappeared into the restaurant kitchen, then to my surprise, she reappeared with the scrambled duck eggs for me. They tasted similar to chicken eggs but a little stronger.

Su May told me that the religion of her tribe is ancestor worship. This is also the religion of the Okinawan people, where I live.

I imagine the life here is hard. People work everyday in the rice fields.

And yet there is calmness about these people, a stillness that seems to match the land. As I walked through the rice fields, I felt at peace, calm, and rested, despite only a few hours of sleep the night before from my overnight train trip here.

After the trek, much later that night back in the small town of Sapa, Su May found me wandering the streets. She gave me gifts she made for my grandchildren.Colorful handicraftsShe handed me one of the small embroidered caps she also handmade for my grandson who will be born next month.

The trip for me was invigorating and energizing. From my stressful job to this scenery, this land, I was lulled into a state of peacefulness.Jo in Sapa

The people in this land are stressed, too, I imagine, but in a different way.

Stress comes in so many ways, doesn’t it? We Westerners are stressed staring at computer screens all day, drinking coffee for energy, rushing to meet deadlines, worrying about all the things on our to do list.

In Vietnam, their stress would be in making sure they have enough food to eat. That their animals stay alive. That the rice crop yields enough for the whole family.

Su May walking

They are poor. We are rich.

They aren’t rushing around. They are in sync with their land.

There is a deep quietness to their nature. I think we could learn a lot from them.

What I came away with is to be in beauty is important. In fresh air, in connection with others, with family, with the earth…all those things make for serenity and contentment.

Thank you, SuMay, La and the women who allowed me a glimpse into your lives.

Over to you:

When and where have you discovered others in tranquility and peace? What do you think we can learn from these women?

Please share what you know about stress, about the different kinds of stress. I love your comments.

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  1. Great article and wonderful pictures!

    • Jo Hatcher says:

      Thank you, Rosemarie! It seems some how you must have fixed this by leaving your comment. How did you do that? The comment box did not show up before.

      So appreciate your help,

  2. I believe that these women are at peace because the image they have of the world, of their lives is identical to how they experience the world and their lives. I believe humans derive peace from this element of stability. Today, most of us are confronted everyday with a world we do not know and often don’t approve of. Whether it is examples of paternalism for some or feminism for some others, conservatism for some and liberalism for some other, we keep being shocked by blows to what we would like the world to be. These women know what the world is and are able to explain it in simple terms.

    Viet Nam is also of particular interest to me as a male feminist because before everything went to hell it was the country with the highest percentage of highly educated women. A model in some ways that would be good to understand.

    • Jo Hatcher says:

      Thank you, Patrice, for your insight. I think it’s true, about stability and predictability in the world leading to more of sense of peace. I did not know that Vietnam once had the highest percentage of highly educated women. Very interesting. I’m wondering what others think about this?

  3. Beautiful post Jo. The pictures are sumptuous and absorbing. I felt peaceful taking time out from my crazy and stressful day to take a moment and read your thoughts and learn. I can’t wait to head over there in a month! Especially after seeing this.

    It reminds me of my time in Africa and the same thoughts went through me. There is something, I think, about living “close to the ground” as indigenous people do that help us “1st world” people to see what we may be missing. We have wealth, as you say, but we also lose something precious in the bargain. And yet, stress is everywhere and with everyone. Living is challenging and therefore stressful. It’s good to get out into the world and go where it’s unfamiliar. Thank you for sharing your travels.

  4. Your pictures truly are lovely – rich, colorful, and telling.

    I think Patrice might be on to something. One of my favorite quotes is, “Comparison is the thief of Joy” – Theodore Roosevelt

    Possibly the way they believe and expect their world to be and what it ends up being are very similar, therefore they don’t have to struggle with comparison and unmet expectations.

    I also think there’s a physiological impact to spending a lot of time outdoors. The mental health and physical benefits of spending time in nature is well documented. Though the agrarian lifestyle can be hard and precarious, I believe they’re benefiting from this simple life in very measurable physiological ways.

    • Jo Hatcher says:

      Thank you, Elena, for your comments. On this day when I walked with these women, I found myself naturally relaxing as I took it all in. I think you are so right about being outdoors and the simplicity of it is nourishing all the way round.

      I’m curious how their having cell phones and more tourists will impact their lives. Already there is a curiosity about the US and two of the women told me they would love to go to America. SuMay told me that she knew of a woman who had married someone from Hanoi and was aching to come back to this region. It’s a whole other conversation, isn’t it about who is exposed to what and how it will change things.

  5. Leila August says:

    Jo, this is a lovely article. I feel I know these women a little now. I think walks with my husband are peaceful. We don’t have to talk all the time so we can just enjoy our surroundings. Being in natural beauty is wonderful, I agree. It’s what I love about going to the coast, and what I miss most about not going. Keep writing please, your articles are fabulous!”

  6. What a vibrant post, Jo! I was intrigued and inspired to read your post and view the stunning photographs of your trip. Now I have another location to add to my travel wish list. I also, have long been interested and invested in women’s studies. I spent three months in India in 2007 working with the women and children in the impoverished slums of Pappankalan. Most did not know how to read or write, were married very young with several children … and did not know their own birthdays. Their idea of birth control was that they would simply decide not to have anymore children.

    I was shocked when I took a trip to the Taj Mahal and brought them back pictures, assuming that they would recognize their own monument. They asked if it was my house! I felt terrible. I went there as a struggling single mother. By no means did I live in a house like the Taj Mahal–yet, my 3 bedroom condo was still more than they would ever see in their lifetimes.

    The greatest challenge I had with these women was getting them to understand the concept of dreams or aspirations. In India, women are born into their “caste” or roles. The concept that they could dream, visualize, or become something else in life than what they were assigned was nearly incomprehensible to them. But the beauty to watch them unfurl!

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I simply must see this corner of the globe!

    • Jo Hatcher says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Leila, about the women in India. It’s startling to see the contrasts. It’s quite sobering, isn’t it? I hope you get to Vietnam soon. I think you’d love it.

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