“Sometimes if a man wants to marry a woman, but she doesn’t want to marry him, then he kidnaps her. The man and his friends will go to her house and force her to come with them to his house. Then, she’ll stay there until she agrees to marry him.”
We’re sitting on plastic chairs around a small table outside our homestay family’s house. There are eleven of us altogether – two Irish couples, a Canadian couple, three Belgian girls, Ashleigh, and me. Over the sounds of dogs barking and cicadas mating, we listen intently to our guide, Zue, as she explains aspects of Black Hmong culture to her trekking group.
“Of course, it’s not really kidnapping,” Zue adds. “The woman is free to go whenever she wishes. The only thing is that she has to sneak out, usually in the middle of the night. And if the man’s home is far from hers, she might have to steal a bicycle to get back home. But sometimes she doesn’t know where her home is, so she may be travelling for a long time before she can make it back.”
As we sip our Tiger beers in the moonlight, we are all aghast, listening to Zue tell us lighthearted tales of kidnapping and marriage.
Our night train from Hanoi was four hours late, so we were taken to a guesthouse, only to find that our trekking group had left already. After some confusion, two hotel staff agree to drive us to the lunch stop, where we will meet the rest of the group.
While waiting, hordes of Hmong women carrying baskets full of hand-made goods approach us. For an hour, we are subjected to the sad eyes and coy smiles of young girls and old women feebly holding out friendship bracelets and reciting the litany of English phrases they have learned.
“Buy from me, make me happy.”
“You want bracelet? Hand bag? Skirt?”
“Special price for you, lady.”
I feel my palms getting sweaty, my throat closing up, my mouth getting dry. Ah, yes… the symptoms one gets before caving under pressure.
“Ashleigh,” I whine. “Don’t let me buy anything. I don’t want to!”
“OK. Then don’t.”
Ashleigh goes off to find a bathroom. When she comes back, I have a hand bag and two bracelets. I am pathetic.
When our group finally arrives, we are introduced to Zue, a bubbly 26-year-old Black Hmong woman with perfect English and a welcoming smile. We have a quick lunch and then leave behind the sounds of aggressive sales pitches and the chorus of “Buy from me, special price for you.”
For the rest of the afternoon, we are treated to views of lush green rice terraces, muddy ponds filled with families of ducks, and cattle roaming the hillsides for fresh patches of grass. I spend most of the trip trying not to crush fragile rice plants with my canoe-sized feet and avoiding heaps of buffalo crap. I fail miserably, and soon both of my boots are fully covered in animal excrement.
I fall far behind the group as I snap photo after photo of the green landscape in front of me. An irritable buffalo glares at me as I trample its food. I take a photo of it, and it spits up masticated grass remnants on my boot in revenge.
We finally arrive at our lodging for the night, Zue’s family’s home. It’s a comfortable wooden structure with beds on the top floor for homestay guests. After dropping off our stuff and cleaning up, we help Zue out with dinner: thinly sliced potatoes fried in a grotesque amount of oil, vegetables chopped up and mixed together, and steamy noodle soup resembling ramen.
As we eat our home-cooked meal and drink cans of pop from the freezer, Zue joins the group, answering all of our questions about Black Hmong culture and traditions.
“Not all marriages are because of kidnapping,” Zue continues.
“For example, my husband saw me at a festival, and decided he liked me. He asked around the village, trying to find out who I was. Then he passed me a note, saying he wanted to marry me. I refused at first. I didn’t know who he was, and I didn’t find him that attractive,” she laughs.
“But then, he persisted, and eventually, I agreed to marry him.”
She looks around at our rapt faces with shining eyes.
“You know, it’s funny. Whenever I tell Westerners these stories, they are always so shocked. They say, ‘How can you marry someone you don’t even know?’ Well, for us, you know what we think? Westerners may date for years, really know their partners before marriage, live with their partners for a long time. And then, five years later, they get divorced! That’s what is shocking to us. We think, ‘How can you love someone for that long and then get a divorce?’”
Touché, Zue, touché.
At that moment, Zue’s husband comes by. He greets us with a low nod of the head and a shy smile. He’s embarrassed that he can’t join the conversation. Clearly Zue is the main breadwinner of the household, with her perfect English and her artisanal skills.
He passes their daughter to Zue, who tenderly pulls the sleepy girl to her chest. The couple looks at each other and shares a few soft words in Hmong. Zue laughs and playfully punches her husband on the shoulder. Then, he nods at us again and backs into the house.
Kidnapping or no kidnapping, that’s definitely love.
To see more photos from northern Vietnam, go to my album on Flickr!