buy a little pair of earrings from one, and
that's it. I've lost control completely. "Why you buy
from her you no buy from me? You joking me!" says the
littlest, badly in need of a tissue.
"How old you?" asks another, and, when I
answer, replies sweetly, "Oh, very young. You very pretty
girl." She looks at me sideways with a universally calculating
twinkle. I raise an eyebrow back at her and she laughs.
"You husband? You children?" No. No husband.
No children. They look concerned. I see them thinking--I
am very old to be single. I am single beyond repair.
at my arm--"You want this? One dollar!" The little girls
think maybe jewelry will console my poor, poor heart.
I have found another universal here in Sa Pa. "Oh, Ka-lane!
[Karen] You buy from me!"
"Maybe later, Ta-mai."
"Maybe? You say 'maybe' you no buy!" They
trip me up. They crowd me. They hold my hands. They learn
quickly. They know my name. And I learn theirs. Yin. Ta-mai.
Lila-mai. I am simultaneously enchanted by their intelligence
and irritated by their persistence. The feeling is very
familiar. I have fallen in love.
heart is bursting...
in the day, once the mist clears the morning mountains,
the sun shines brightly in a blue, blue sky. I can see
for miles upon lonely miles. Tiered rice paddies slope
towards the horizon. A cold river slices through the valley.
Cattle paths wind up the hills and out of sight. It is
beautiful and wrenching. My heart is bursting. I wish
I could capture this moment forever. I will realize later
that I have.
the sun is setting, the shadows long and lengthening.
I am standing against the wall in the village square,
waiting for the festivities to begin. The adult, married
women cook rice and cabbage and pork in the centre of
everything. The men sit and smoke and drink and talk.
The various tribes have their own little cordoned-off
area--there is very little intermarriage. Tribes have
made hours-long journeys on foot and by pony from their
villages into Sa Pa. They will sleep overnight in the
a high school dance...
try to blend into the shadows as the ritual
begins and soon realize this is not as foreign as I thought
it would be. The marriageable children (about 10 to 16
years of age) huddle in groups just like at the high school
dances of my youth, the girls seated on a bench, the boys
trading courage on the fringes. There are whispers and
glances and giggles. After the shyness subsides a little,
the first brave boy approaches little Lila-mai's sister.
He takes her hand and she smiles at him. For the most
part, that's the last they will look at each other for
the night, but they will not let go hands once. Eventually,
there are many boy-girl pairs punctuating the crowd, but
the conversation is still all girl-girl, boy-boy.
the singing begins, signifying the end of the evening.
A lone voice calls out a pretty, plaintive melody, a love
song. The voice is met and matched. The form is call and
response-it is not sung in unison. The song becomes a
round. The crowd participates, one sweet voice at a time,
overlapping, and surprisingly in tune. It is lovely and
haunting. I am drawn into its embrace. I close my eyes
and begin humming along.
I am suddenly on the receiving end of about 30 surprised
and open-mouthed stares. My mouth snaps shut. I have disgraced
myself. I practice a look of horrified apology. There
is laughter. A faux pas, but a funny one, so all is forgiven.
bride, many gifts...
singing dies down. The women pack up. The families retire
to their blankets on the floor of a covered section of
the town square. They will return home tomorrow, some
with an extra little girl in tow. In the Dao tribe a boy
who likes a girl will take her to his house, lodge her
in his room, and bring her food and gifts for three weeks.
If, after that time, they still like each other, he can
ask for her hand in marriage, give her parents gifts of
money, livestock, or silver jewelry, and set the date--a
love match made in Sa Pa on a Saturday night. Others will
have to wait until the next Saturday. Or the next. But
certainly not forever. There are no old maids here in
Northern Vietnam. As an observer I can't help thinking...
ah-h-h, if only finding a husband was that simple where
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