The saga of Sapa begins in the small hill tribe villages, whose civilizations have yet to reap the benefits of modernization. They have recently been inundated with tourists, however many of the traditions of the Black H’mong and Red Dao people persist. In particular the traditions that dictate love hold strong and the courtships of very young villagers are short and arranged, but I learned from our young trekking guide Coo that it is a little more complicated than that.
At first glance Coo looked like the twelve year old daughter of one of the travelers in her bright pink, rhinestone studded jacket talking on her cell phone. Upon closer examination I could here that she was clearly speaking in a foreign tongue, wearing a traditional skirt and had long, silky black hair to her knees. As we began our trek I hurriedly caught up to Coo as I had lots of questions for her, much to my pleasure she was happy to chat and eager to share her life with me. We became fast friends.
She was only sixteen years old, but clearly wise beyond her years. She had gone to school up until high school as her family could no longer afford to send her and she could contribute more by supporting her family as a trekking guide. It was clear that her dreams lie in Hanoi where she could get a proper education and have some independence before she married at 25 rather than fourteen like many of her peers that by sixteen already had one or two children. She was rare in the villages surrounding Sapa with her hopes of delaying marriage and going to school, but the constant Western influence of trekking tourists surely swayed her opinions.
As told by Coo the traditional path to marriage in many of the small villages surrounding Sapa started with a “kidnapping” of the fourteen year old soon-to-be-wife to their future husbands home to meet his family and gain their approval. A dowry was arranged for the girl, which often included a combination of money, animals and textiles. The steps that followed were quick, starting with the new wife taking up residence in her husband’s family’s home and then quickly moving into child bearing and child rearing. Love may or may not ever be part of the equation at any step in the process. Her feelings on the subject were clear, fourteen was much too young to marry.
The more we talked the more complex it got; for those of her friends that didn’t have a traditional path to marriage they risked being kidnapped and sold just over the border into China. With China’s strict laws on having just one child, many people abandon girls in hopes of having a boy. This has created an abundance of boys with no prospects for marriage. Girls in Sapa may also be considered a burden or embarrassment to their families because they were not married off. All of this is slowly changing and Coo is an example of that, but she was still saddened when she spoke of friends that had disappeared, presumably to China.
All of this sixteen year old drama was interrupted frequently by her cell phone buzzing, which indicated another incoming text message. One from a Singaporean she had guided on a trek a few months ago and another from a local boy telling her he loved her and wanted to get married. All of this made me a little more suspicious of her dramatic love stories, she may be wise beyond her years, but she is still “sweet sixteen.” All of my conversatios with Coo led to one clear conclusion, village love is certainly much different from courtships and weddings at home.