Morningtime with Mama Xung

Location: A H’mong village outside SaPa, Vietnam

I woke up just after dawn broke. My back was sore, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the bed, which was just a woven hemp mat over wooden boards, or from the hike. Mama Chi’s three kids, who had all slept in the other double bed in the room, were already up. So was Mama Chi, and when I wandered through her bedroom, she nodded at me before continuing to berate Papa Chu, who was laying in bed, holding his pillow over his face.

“Papa Chu tried to kiss Mama Chi all last night!” She told me, shaking her head. I laughed, wondering if that was a euphemism but deciding not to dwell on it.

Instead, I wandered outside, making my way past Mama Chi’s garden, through her bamboo fence, and onto the pathway that led to Mama Xung’s hut, gardens, and rice paddies. I found the little lady sitting on the edge of the steep, dirt-coated, concrete steps that overlooked her home. She was simply gazing out over the valley, the steps carved with rice paddies, and at the mountains facing her plot of land. I watched her for a moment, the way her eyes softly took in the view, one arm wrapped around a knee, her blue-stained fingers and chipped nails knitted together. She was so elegant, so tranquil.

When she noticed me, she waved at me to join her, calling out my nickname.

"Come here Mama Cat! Meow, meow!" She giggled.

I sat cross-legged beside her in the red dirt, watching stray clouds cast shadows over the land and feeling the sun warming my back and shoulders.

That morning, I bathed in an icy waterfall that was just a short walk from Mama Chi’s. Children played in the pools below, one naked toddler climbing the rusty skeleton of an old bridge and another leading a water buffalo around with a stick. They scrambled up sharp, steep, slippery ledges without fear. As I walked back to Mama Chi’s, I saw several villagers standing over two large pigs that had recently been slaughtered and blooded. They were scraping something over the skins. Mama Xung later told me that there was to be a wedding the next day; the whole village would celebrate with a feast.