Ha Giang (Vietnam)

HOW DID WE END UP WORKING IN HA GIANG? (pronounced “ha zang)

Let’s begin from the beginning.

In August, 2011, Anh Sawyer read an article in the NY Times about a group of young Vietnamese tribal women who were kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to China for forced marriages and sex labor. Many of them were returned home, but some were not accepted by their community and family because they were “no longer pure”. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/world/asia/17vietnam.html?pagewanted=all)

The rest of this story is in Anh’s own words:

With the vision of the blue tarps on the mountain sides where the outcast women called homes, and inspired by a mysterious love extending back to my childhood, that also touched my family and friends who encouraged me to “go” and find the women, I set out in early April 2012 on a journey without a map to look for a group of people I had never met.

After three weeks of searching and inquiring, I traveled hundreds of kilometers from Hanoi to the northern tip of Vietnam, even crossed the border into China. Finally, in late April, I found Mrs. Mai, the woman who was mentioned in the article, and who trained some of these women as well as other women in her village, to pound flax and weave it into linen fabric.

Here we2012_04-Anh&Mrs Mai are, Mrs. Mai and me in a juice bar across from Van Mieu, the beautiful Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

She was tickled to know I have been looking for her since August 2011. “Like you, many people have been looking for me, too. They came to my village and showed me the article.”

We shared our stories. She told me about how the husbands would come to her factory and beat up the wives, so she had to get the authority to send police to protect her women. But to save the husbands’ face, she invited them to come to the factory on pay days. As she handed them part of the money their wife earned, they had to sign a paper that they allowed the women to come and work everyday. Great lesson about grace!

Quite the story teller, Mrs. Mai’s description of her women reminded me of the women I met on the mountains, with a roll of flax tied to their waist, using their fingers to shred the fibers into thread or wove them into decorative strips while herding their cows or carrying great bundles of vegetation on their back.

With so many tourists, Mrs. Mai and her two factories have become very busy making souvenirs. But there are so many more women who still need help.

Did I find the ladies who live under the blue tarps and were mentioned in the NYTimes paper? Yes.

Did I meet them? No, not yet!

Mrs. Mai invited me to visit her factories where the ladies work, and where many tourists also came to visit. “Come with me tonight,” she said. “We will take the bus and will be in Ha Giang tomorrow….”

This was the second time I had been invited to visit the two factories where I would have met some of the women who lived under the blue tarps, and who I had been spending weeks trying to locate, BUT, both times, something in my heart nudged me to “wait”.

“We need your help with the women,” Mrs. Mai had said in our meeting.

“I’d love to help,” I told her, and promised to see her again.

Later that night, there was a voice in my heart asking me: “What would you do when you see the women, if you were to leave tonight to visit them?”

I replied, reasoning with that quiet voice, “I would like very much to see where the ladies work, how they live, what they look like, talk to them… And take photos of them for my blog and share the stories with my friends in the US.”

“Then you are not any different than the many tourists who flocked to Mrs. Mai’s village to take a peek at the women…. Be patient. Why not come back with a tangible offering to help them and their families, and be there for them?”

* * * * * * *

 For months, since August 2011, and especially the first three weeks of April 2012, not knowing where to go or who to ask about the women, I am grateful beyond words to have been led to many kind strangers who took me to their homes, fed me, helped me find them, and, most importantly, helped me to realize the purpose of this journey.

Thu Ba and me in Hanoi, in front of the restaurant where we had roasted pigeon!

Among these people were Mr. Thang and Thu Ba at PLAN International, and the leaders of Ha Giang province, Quang Binh, Meo Vat and Hop Tien villages, who proposed to me a possible project for helping the women who have not yet been helped by Mrs. Mai. These women are desperate to find a way to make a living, and the government is doing their best to help with the economic development for the province, especially these villages who are the poorest in all of Vietnam.

Another group, a French humanitarian organization, who share the same concern and who have been funding Mrs. Mai’s factories, also met with me the day before I left Hanoi for the U.S. to discuss about having Philip and me to conduct workshops on creativity and striving for excellence in making their tribal handicrafts marketable in a very competitive global market, while maintaining their traditional values, designs and techniques.

On the plane to Hong Kong, en route to the US, my heart burst with this big fat joy knowing that my clueless journey to Hop Tien was not a silly act, but purposeful beyond my imagination, and that I will meet the women.

That little voice in my heart was right. “Be patient,” because this is a lot more than just an experience.

Oswald Chambers wrote, “If we have only what we have experienced, we have nothing. But if we have the inspiration of the vision of God, we have more than we can experience.”

The runner in Chariots of Fire said he felt God’s pleasure when he ran. That’s exactly what I felt every moment I was in Vietnam during this trip. I think God doesn’t need me to make the world a better place, or to “save” people. Actually, most likely I would screw things up if He gave me the job. But, God has led me by the hand to places and people where I can feel His heartbeat and love for them. And for me!

It’s true that God knows our hearts, but it’s truly mysteriously exhilarating and utterly satisfying to know God’s heart! It’s a blessed peace to sojourn with God through this chaotic world. Thank you for walking this journey with me, too, via this blog. Maybe, next time, you can come along with us!

Much love to you

Anh  xoxoxo


Postscript:  On the plane back home to the US, and almost every day since then, I have thought of the people I met in the mountains — their peaceful way of life, their unhurried walk to the markets and back home on those winding mountain trails. They seemed content and at peace in spite of their poverty, of inheriting a hard land to cultivate, of the lack of shoes and clothes for the children.

Do I have the right and wisdom to tell them to “improve” their life? I would not dare. I cannot help but remember their dignity!

Now, back home in the US, with a fridge full of food, and closet full of clothes, how I miss being with them and slowly savoring the un-hasty life among the breathtaking beauty of their mountains and skies!

But then, I also remember Thuy, the “gentle fox among the sheep” at PLAN, also a Hmong, and a college graduate, who told me the tribal children need the opportunity to go to school, to learn to read and write, to have food in their tummies, warm clothes in the winter and shoes to walk on the rocky mountain paths…

You bet, I will take her advice! She knows her people best, what they need, and what they don’t need.

According to Thuy, Thu Ba and Mr. Thang, at this moment, this is what the children in the mountains need: shoes, warm clothes, blankets, papers, pens, medicine, uniforms (the parents could not send the kids to school because they can’t afford the uniforms…).

You and I don’t have to give up our Starbucks coffee today to help these children to go to school, to carry fire wood, and herd their cows and pigs without having their feet cut by the rocks.

A dollar will get them a pair of bee hive shoes (the Vietnamese version of Crocs), $5 dollars can buy a kid uniform, or school supplies, blankets, coats and sweaters.

It costs so little to make life easier for these children, and help provide for them their basic needs and opportunity to read and write, and who knows, to go to college, like Thuy did!


In October, 2012, my husband, Philip, and I, returned to Vietnam, and Ha Giang and Hop Tien. That story, and our resolve to more formally do something, can soon be found on our Ha Giang Program page.