What strikes you first about Chinh is the huge, vibrant personality packed into such a tiny frame. Standing not more than 5 feet tall, our group of backpackers silently questioned whether this tiny wisp of a lady would be the best guide for our three day trek through Sa Pa, a region in Northern Vietnam.
We quickly swallowed our doubts, however, as she started up the steep and precarious trail with the ease and swiftness of a tiny animal. While we huffed and puffed, Chinh sang and crafted gifts for us out of long grass. When she wasn’t teaching us about the nature, wildlife or villages which surrounded us, Chinh happily poked fun at us tired, helpless foreigners and motivated us with promises of “happy water” (rice wine) waiting for us at the homestay.
During the three days of walking we grew to know and love Chinh (though we naively thought her name was “Jane” as the pronunciation was very similar). We learned that she was married and lived with her husband in a small Hmong village in Sa Pa. She told us how she misses her husband and extended family whom she rarely sees as she sometimes spends six days of the week leading tourist groups through Sa Pa. Children, though she longs to have them, hardly seem feasible. Indeed, as we trekked we met other female guides who were pregnant or even trekked with babies strapped to their bodies.
When she’s not working, Chinh said she is busy cooking, sewing clothes, and taking care of their animals. I asked if her husband ever helps with the domestic tasks. Chinh replied yes, he does, though just a few years ago this would have been unheard of. (One small step for Chinh, one giant leap for womankind!)
Having backpacked Southeast Asia for three months, I participated in many tours, treks, and climbs guided by locals from the respective countries. However, the journey through Sa Pa. Vietnam, was the only one led by a female. Women now represent 80% of tour guides in Sa Pa, though the career path is still met with disapproval by some men in the traditional communities.
The issue of women’s rights in Vietnam is complex. Though the government has introduced laws on gender equality, the inequality remains widespread. Women earn less and sons are still strongly preferred to daughters, making abortion rates alarmingly high. These issues are magnified in mountainous regions such as Sa Pa, where the poverty rate is three times the national average. Educational, economic, and healthcare opportunities in these regions are also very limited. And while some complain about the overwhelming increase in tourism in these regions in Northern Vietnam, the Hmong women do not. Chinh certainly seems to enjoy her job, as she says it gives her the opportunity not only to improve her English but to be a role-model for other women in the Sa Pa communities.
Women’s rights in Vietnam have a long way to go, but as Chinh and the other brave tour guides trek through Sa Pa they are forging paths not only for tourists, but for equality for all women.
This piece was written by guest contributor and solo-female adventurer Katrina Martin. Read more about her travels at katrinabrooke.com