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Plastic Mountain: A Journey Through Time With The Hmong

When we headed up in the mountains on the northern border of Vietnam, the last thing on my mind was plastic. It was the Hmong people who drew us here.

We were seeking to revisit their villages and trek through their terraced rice paddies together as a family. We wanted our kids to learn the wisdom of an ancient ethnic culture that Thinh, my husband, and I had fallen in love with in 1996.

We were on a "roots" trip to explore our family's connection to Vietnam with our teenage children, discovering their heritage (and the food!) of Vietnam. My husband, Thinh, escaped Saigon when the south of the country fell to the communists in 1975 and settled in California. We had traveled, lived and worked as aid workers in Vietnam as a couple, but never visited with our children.

Caption: Sandra Harris, ECOlunchbox founder, shown here with her children, Nikolo and Mabel Vo, trekked through Hmong villages. So, who is shown here leading them up a narrow mountain trail in northern Vietnam, is a Black Hmong guide seeking to reduce plastic pollution. Sandra's husband, Thinh, is shown in top picture (far right).

So with hearts in our chests we anticipated our visit and sharing the idyllic sights and experiences we had savored with our children. The last time we’d come was by bus. It had taken 13 hours and at one point all of the passengers had to get out so we could push the bus through a big mud puddle.

Those many years ago we’d arrived in the middle of the night. The cobblestone streets of the little town of Sapa inky dark (no street lights!) and filled with smoke from the fires that were heating (well, sort of) the homes and small inns. I felt like I’d arrived in a desolate outpost forgotten by the world. In some ways, my feeling was apt. After all, the Hmong people had been cast aside for decades following the rise of the communist government.

So it was with shock when our van rolled into Sapa, Vietnam after 20 years of absence and we found that the quiet town nestled in a deep valley crowned by soaring peaks dotted with rice paddies was now a city!

It was virtually impossible to recognize Sapa’s downtown, which was now overrun with hotels and honking cars. Long gone were the bicycles, the wooden, low-slung buildings and the quaint central market filled with tribal village people dressed head to toe in elaborately stitched, homegrown and hand-spun hemp clothing.

At first I regretted coming. It felt like everything had been ruined, but we hadn’t met So yet. So was going to be our Hmong guide on our trekking adventure we’d set up with the mission-based tour company ETHOS-Spirit of the Community, run by a husband-wife team. Soon over a hand-and heart-warming cup of tea speaking with Hoa, the founder of ETHOS and her husband, we were settling into the new reality of Sapa and setting up to head out on foot into the mountains.

Not even close to five feet tall, our lovely guide So was a powerhouse of energy and information. We were in great hands. So with daypacks and lots of rain gear, we headed out into the mountains to experience first-hand life in a traditional Hmong village.

Our first stop was the new market, a block concrete building outside the center of town to pick the produce and meats for our menu that So would prepare for us in her home. Imagine my surprise when out of her bag So pulled Tupperware containers so she could buy our meats and other wet ingredients without using any disposable plastic bags. Even now, with awareness of the perils of single-use plastic known all over the world, in Vietnam choosing reusables is a practice that has been forgotten over the last 20 years.

Gone are the banana leaf wrappers for snacks and the drinks served in coconut shells. Vietnam, along with this northern outpost in the Hmong region, has adopted traditional international habits when it comes to plastics. Lots of plastic bags are used in the markets to tote vegetables, meats, snacks, and everything else!

Yet So was refusing to use plastic bags, instead bringing her own containers for shopping. Her next request was even more wonderful to hear: “Please don’t buy candy for the kids in the villages, the sugar isn’t good for them and they’ll just throw the plastic wrappers on the road.” She suggested tangerines as a great sweet treat that came in a biodegradable wrapper. So we stocked up on tangerines!

This was the beginning of our trek and a conversation about plastic pollution in the mountains. So, who is in her 30s and is illiterate, having never had the opportunity to go to school, could remember a time when plastic was absent from her village. Banana leaves were the traditional wrapper, not plastic, and water bottles were made from bamboo. The bamboo bottles she grew up using were reusable for years - so long as they weren't stepped on by a water buffalo and broken!

This is a movie I filmed with my phone telling about So’s concerns about the plastic pollution in her mountainous village and her desire to be part of reducing the use and disposal of plastics in her community. It’s an inspirational tale of turning to centuries-old traditions for solutions for the future.

Why can’t we make water bottles out of bamboo and food wrappers out of biodegradable plant materials? What’s to stop us? With imagination and innovation based on a wisdom of traditional ethnic culture, like the Black Hmong in So’s village, we can move forward with grace and love for our planet.

The Hmong people are largely retaining many of their customs, fashion (traditional dress) spiritual (worship of nature, including spirit trees and rocks), creative (spinning, embroidery and origami with reeds), cultural (arranged marriages), architectural (homes are still made to be disassembled and moved if necessary), yet somehow plastic has made its insidious way into their everyday lifestyle.

So is trying to figure out how, in addition to education, to stop this mounting problem. Can she ban plastics in her village? Can she set up recycling and refuse stations at the entrance to her village and require that all plastics be deposited there? Can she ban plastics from entering her village? As a young woman, can she sway the tribal elders to back this cause? So many questions. She’s asking the right questions, but is open to ideas and support from all lovers of our beautiful planet who care enough to try and stop the spread of plastics!

I hope you enjoy this report from the field and encourage you to share your comments and ideas. We’ll pass them along to So if you request it!  

Written by Sandra Ann Harris, the founder and president of ECOlunchbox.

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