When I travelled to Vietnam with my Australian friends Genimaree, Jo and Barbara some years ago we had no fixed plan apart from starting our trip in Hanoi in North Vietnam. We had booked accommodation in a cheap hotel for one night and we would play the rest by ear.

After looking around Hanoi for a few days we decided to take the train to Sapa on Vietnam’s northern border with China. I have a great fondness for train travel. However, this particular train journey was pretty hard going. I normally sleep like a baby on trains, but the overnight train to Sapa swung wildly from side to side as it slithered around endless bends and struggled up into mountainous areas. Sleep was out of the question. I had to hang on to the side of my upper bunk for dear life all night to avoid being hurled out of it.

Bleary-eyed we arrived at the closest railway station to Sapa the next morning. To get to the town itself we had to travel by bus further up into the mountains for another hour. Through a grey mist we could see lush green rice paddies that had been laid out against impossibly steep mountain sides and down in the valleys.

Arriving at our hotel we asked the receptionist how we would go about getting around the area. She suggested that we employ a local guide. The rate that she quoted for a guide was very cheap by Australian standards and we accepted without hesitation. She called over a young woman who was standing in the foyer chatting to some of the other guides. They were all dressed in the distinctive traditional clothes of the Hmong people.

“This is Chai,” the receptionist said. “She will be your local guide.”

Chai looked to be about eighteen years old and communicated with us in broken English. It didn’t take us long to discover that she was a cheerful and smart young person with a strong sense of humour. Over the next few days, as we visited different places of interest and trudged up and down muddy mountains in the drizzle to spend a night in a remote Hmong village, we found out a little bit about her life.

She had numerous siblings and her father, a rice farmer on a smallholding, used to have a single mature water buffalo and a calf, but the calf had died from some disease. This would leave him with no animal to plough with if anything were to go wrong with the remaining buffalo. The price of rice seeds had sky-rocketed, placing a great strain on the finances of the local rice farmers. Her family’s livelihood as rice farmers appeared to be quite precarious.


Chai had left school at an early age, as her family could not afford the costs of her ongoing education. She must have been a very good student because she had good numeracy skills and could read and write in Vietnamese, despite her limited years of formal schooling.

“Where did you learn to speak English?” I asked her one day.

“Oh, I just picked it up from tourists who passed by our area,” she answered nonchalantly. “I also speak bits of some other languages – German and French and such like,” she added.

There had been no future for her in the rice paddies, so she had walked to Sapa, where she had asked at a hotel whether she could become one of their local tour guides. Even though her English was nowhere near perfect, the hotel manager agreed to try her out as a guide. Chai is very personable and the enthusiastic feedback from the tourists whom she had shown around quickly ensured her future as a local guide.

I worked out how Chai went about expanding her English vocabulary. When one of us had used a word that she was not familiar with, she would ask what it meant and afterwards she would weave it into her own conversation a few times to embed it into her vocabulary. For instance, she overheard one of us referring to a helicopter and she asked, “What is a ‘helicoppa’?”

“It’s a ‘helicopter’, Chai.”

Then we would explain what a helicopter looked like and how it could hover and pick things up from difficult terrains. She had never seen a helicopter nor ever heard of one. She asked us to repeat the word and practised until she could pronounce it properly. A little while later, as we were trudging along a muddy path along the side of a steep mountain slope, Chai warned me, “You must be careful not to slip, Tim, otherwise you will slide all the way down there and a helicopter would have to come and pick you up.”

Wherever you travel in Hmong country, the assertive Hmong women will hound you to buy their local wares. They will follow you relentlessly up and down steep hills for long distances, insisting, “You buy from me! You buy from me!” Once, when no-one else was around, Chai sidled up to Genimaree and suddenly barked at her, “You buy from me! You buy from me!” before breaking up in uproarious laughter.

On the minibus back to Sapa on our last day there Chai suddenly started singing a Beatles song. I was astounded. “Where have you heard Beatles music Chai?” I asked

She rolled her eyes. “On the Internet of course, Tim, on YouTube.” Then she explained that in the town, where she shared a room with one of the other female guides, there is an Internet café where she had learnt how to use the Internet.

I have boundless admiration for someone like Chai who, deprived of the opportunities that young people in Australia take for granted, has nevertheless managed to improve her prospects through gritty determination and against all the odds. I can only wonder what she might have achieved if she had grown up in Australia, with her formidable intellect and her eagerness to learn. No doubt she would have achieved an impressive career in some field far beyond that of a local tour guide in the remote, muddy little town of Sapa, high up in the mountains of Vietnam.


 Tim and Chai

 (Photo by Genimaree Panozzo)


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