Thursday, November 30, 2017

Vietnam: Begging, and the craft of Cat Cat girls

Cat Cat girls (Sapa)

Black Hmong girls, Sapa
Cat Cat girls are dressed in black 
Baskets and babies on their back 
Calling in gay cacophony
"Hello, Madame, buy from me!"

Dressed in devilish costume, the Black Hmong tribe girls haunt the streets of Sapa seeking new blood. Howls of delight and the pattering of feet meet the arrival of fresh tourists. After a day they know I will not buy and they leave me alone.

They are poor girls, from remote villages, and they (as in other Hmong tribes) learn to embroider as babies. They sell bags, hats, purses, scarves - only a few dollars each - that must have taken hours or days to make. They know they are worth more, but it’s a better option than begging, and they manage to seem both humorous and dignified.

Lee-fin, Sapa
The Red Dzao are different - shaved forehead and tall red turban, proud and exotic. They know they are begging, and it makes them angry, they feel demeaned. Lee-fin is thirty, has a gold tooth, and is beautiful like a wicked elf. She agrees to be photographed for 40,000 dong and we make an assignation. She tells us to recognise her by her jewellery, and indeed she has four thick ropes of silver around her neck. Like pirates these women carry their wealth with them - silver jewellery and their best embroidery.

The next morning we find Lee-fin by the square. She jumps up, eager for the deal, and her colleagues jump up too - 'I friend of Lee-fin! You photo me!' It seems to them such an easy way to make money, but no, we want only Lee-fin. As she faces the camera she becomes awkward, finds it hard to smile, wipes her mouth - is she worried it is dirty? Three shots and we hand her 40,000 dong. 'No! 50 thousand!' she demands. No, Lee-fin, this is what we agreed. She turns her back, haughtily - we are of no further use.

Begging (and other monetary matters)

Of course there is begging - as there always is wherever a disparity in wealth is evident. In poorer communities (such as on the Mekong Delta) it seems less visible, but in both cities and towns it takes various forms. I prefer to donate to charities than street beggars, and never haggle too hard at markets, but there is not always a simple formula.

We are upstairs at Dalat market eating lunch and an old woman approaches. I fumble in my purse and offer a note. I am not quite used to the currency yet, and she laughs in my face when she sees the note, it is an insult - 500 dong (2.5 cents). True, it is almost worthless, but surely better than nothing?

A man wanders Sa Dec market holding out his cap. He too is old - what history he would have seen! We give him 10,000 dong to take a photograph. Later we are told that the Mekong Delta brick kiln workers earn 10,000 dong an hour. Mostly we just take photographs and do not offer money - advised by our guide to offer smiles and thanks, it seems demeaning to offer ‘tips’ for everything, emphasising our privilege, when what we want to do is show respect for them and their home.

In the mountains, the tribal women pursue tourists like a flock of chattering predators, pressing handicrafts onto us, some of them very charming, and insist that we buy. The prices are so low - it is more glorified begging than a dignified living.

In some situations tips are expected - but how much? Through our journey we offer tips ranging from 500,000 dong ($25, for our Mekong Delta guide) to 10,000 (50 cents) for taking photo, carrying bags, other small assistances, but are never sure if we have it right. After a meal at an ‘Ancient house’ on the Mekong Delta we offer the old couple 100,000 dong to purchase a calendar from their wall. It’s a strange request, but they seem happy. And after a few days stay at a hotel we leave the same amount as a tip for services such as booking tickets and calling cabs. So we are later surprised at a demand from a tout for a 100,000 dong tip for one minute of assistance onto a train. Resentfully, we end up paying 60,000.

On the same trip one of the train guards, a sweet-natured young woman, asks for a dollar when we alight, and I think she is expecting a tip. I offer 50,000 dong ($2.50), my smallest note, and she shakes her head. ‘No, a dollar, for souvenir’. Oh! She wants an Aussie dollar coin! but I don’t have one, and apologise. She takes the proffered note reluctantly and with thanks then says - ‘Wait!’ She runs back onto the train, and a minute later emerges with a gold coin which she presses into my hand - it is an Aussie dollar!

No comments: