The Old Lady at Sapa

Before she embraced me the old lady at Sapa had already started to cry. We stood beside the street near the Church next to the post office. The tears had caught me by surprise. Sapa sits in the mountains of Vietnam near the Chinese border in the Hoang Lien Son mountains, the last peaks of the Himalayas. What had I done to cause the tears?

The local mountain tribes have never had an easy life. Because of the altitude and the harsh climate they are only able to raise one crop a year of rice or corn, not enough food to feed them. We devastated the area with bombs during our invasion before eliminating the crops through defoliation and leaving the land parched for years. The birth defects caused by Agent Orange have continued to devastate the area by overburdening medical facilities, not plentiful in even the best of times. Before the tribes’ people could reestablish themselves from our invasion the Chinese military hoarded cross the border causing the farmers to flee. Farmers still work the beautiful but steeply terraced hillsides with water buffalos and wooden or iron plows and the women sell trinkets or needlework to earn extra cash to buy food in order to get them through the winters.

The old woman might have been Dzao, H’mong, Black or Red Thai, I did not know since I had only arrived hours before. Clothing designates the tribes, like deep red headdresses for the Red Dao. She wore mostly black.

I suspect she had been having difficulty selling her tattered blanket. Cataracts had clouded her eyes and her sewing was less than accurate and could not compete with the fine needlework showcased by the younger women. Tourists had passed her blanket with little more than a cursory glance before cuddling the cloth of other brightly colored wares from energetic hawkers waving blankets as a bullfighter might his muleta. The cloth that held the stitching was worn in places and it had been unevenly dyed, dark blue in places and lighter blue in others. The blanket had seemed in contrast to the other wares being sold.

Women work an entire year intricately stitching a blanket, their only source of income. I bought her blanket at the asking price of 3000,000 dong – about $28 dollars. Tourists seldom pay full price for anything in Vietnam and all tourist guides state how much the Vietnamese and Mountynards enjoy bargaining. I find they are much happier if you just pay them the price they are asking. Attempting to knock down $28 to something lower for a year’s worth of manual labor seems rather arrogant. The money means nothing to people with the means to travel yet tourists take sport in their ability to buy an object for as little as possible and it is the single most popular topic of conversation in tourist hotel lobbies.

The beauty of Sapa had hit me like a Turner painting and I had not expected the old woman or her blanket. Mist had clung about the hills that morning as I rode in on my Russian Minsk motorcycle. Rivers follow the highway between Lai Chau and Sapa and waterfalls fall like braids from the mountains. Several times I had wadded into a creek to cool down and enjoy the sun and fresh air. Vietnam had caught me by surprise and I was suffering my own difficulties. Filled with guilt and anguish over the war I had refused to return to the country. Even then I thought it was beautiful. I had never accepted what we had done there, how we had used our entire military might to destroy a peaceful third world people who wanted only the freedom to run their own country. How could the U.S. government have launched the might of their propaganda machine on their own people in an effort to make these decent and loving people into a vicious blood-thirsty enemy? And worse yet, how could any thoughtful intelligent American have believed it or have allowed it to happen? I needed that soaking quiet time in the rivers, watching the motorbikes and busses drive past, to gather my thoughts and emotions together.


I started my explorations soon after arriving in Sapa. A walk had seemed in order and I worked my way through Cat Cat Village and down into the valley. Other villages awaited me but I had yet to sort them out. People dyed cloths in vats of indigo in one village and stacked piles of hemp outside of houses in another. Young boys chased dogs with sticks and one of them had captured a young bird for a pet. He had tied a string to the chick’s leg and it sat on his arm like a tiny falcon.

Walking down the sidewalk I almost bumped into the old woman. The top of her headdress did not reach my chin. Her cloudy eyes seemed to hold all the grief we had inflicted on the country and the people. She lifted the blanket like an offering of peace, her creviced hands and fingers clutching it as if holding a baby. Her lips quivered as she moved closer. I was tempted to step back but could not move. Her eyes held me and I felt as if all my sins had been forgiven.
I examined the blanket out of politeness. The cloth had been torn in places and pieced together. In the cloth I saw rice paddies, some barren, some fruitful. There were fields of napalm, crying children, starving families. Tracers ripped through the threads and I saw arms raised and blood and red mud and fields of bodies and women crying over their dead children. Then I saw it all come together under the careful threads of the old lady, patched, folded, thin and peaceful. Her hands had placed all pain in the past, something to be remembered but not something to be reserved. The blanket was a part of the past, not the present.

I gave her the money and she wrapped her arms around me and started to cry. I had difficulty holding back my own tears. I patted her on the back. She folded the blanket neatly and tenderly like a flag and placed it against my chest. I sat quietly with her for a few minutes on a bench under the shade of the church, the blanket resting in my hands, her hands on top of mine. I looked at her one more time as I walked away. She did not need to sell the blanket. I needed to buy it.


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