Shu feeds her daughter, Ngoc Chau, at a dinner with her Hmong co-workers and trainees in Sapa, northern Vietnam.
I’m breaking all the rules this week. It’s Thanksgiving, this is a food blog, and I’m not posting a single holiday recipe. Gasp! I know. But the truth is, I’m thinking more about life and less about recipes right now. I’m just not into it—the mad scramble of cooks and scribes to achieve the richest pumpkin pie, the choicest cranberries, the moistest bird. Don’t get me wrong, I will eat and rejoice. But the feast is not my responsibility this year, and my mind is on other topics.
Which is why I’m telling you about Shu. You might recall the story of a little Hmong girl I met in northern Vietnam 11 years ago. You might remember that the two of us lost touch until, last year, when that little girl, now grown into a beautiful young woman, stumbled across my story of her and the photos of us. She Googled her name and found me.
So earlier this year, Jerry and I returned to northern Vietnam and reunited with Shu. That story will appear in our forthcoming book, This Way More Better. But I wanted to share a bit of it today because it’s Thanksgiving week, and I give thanks to Shu for all that she has taught me in life. This little girl still speaks in the same high-pitched voice, but now her words are full of maturity. Shu runs Sapa’s only Hmong-owned trekking business under an organization called Sapa O’Chau. She has started a school for Hmong girls. She’s training them to be tourist guides, to speak English and to achieve independence. Shu is teaching them “a new way.”
But Shu is in trouble. She needs a new building for her Cultural Learning Center, which teaches some 50 students and houses the poorest kids who otherwise would walk the streets as roving vendors. Next month, Shu says, her landlord will reclaim the property that now shelters the school and turn it into a backpacker hotel. Shu and her partners have found a new building, but they must pay one year’s rent in advance: $5,400. If they don’t find the money, Shu could be forced to close her school. Sometimes readers respond to my stories, saying they would love to help but they don’t know how. If you feel so inclined, in this season of thanks & giving, Shu would love to hear from you directly. You can email her at email@example.com. Or, email me and I will send you a pdf press release on the organization, its financial troubles and banking information.
Here, I offer a slice of our reunion with Shu, last May, when she invited us to dinner with friends and colleagues at the hotel where they all worked:
The views around Sapa, Vietnam. Mountains, paddies and Hmong villages.
It’s late afternoon and the sky dims above a light rain. Together, we meander the cramped corridors of Sapa’s main market. Shu noses her way through piles of greens, roots and chiles. She plucks an armload of lime-green “cat cabbage” with spiky, oak-like leaves, then selects the freshest scallions, tomatoes and tofu. She angles next toward a table laden with freshly butchered pork. After inspecting each piece, she selects a thick, pink slab of clean meat.
The rain stops by the time we reach the hotel, and Shu sets to work on cleaning the greens, removing their roots. She places her tiny wooden stool on the veranda’s burnt-orange tiles, still slick from the afternoon showers. Big, billowy clouds flirt with the mountaintop across the way.
Shu prepares greens for dinner.
The kitchen is just a few steps from the porch, and a couple of Shu’s trainees are here for their evening work. This hotel provides more than a job for a dozen or so youngsters. It’s a place to eat and sleep, a respite far from their village homes scattered throughout these hills. Every night, every employee gathers for a family-style meal, served on one big table. It is Hmong custom. No one eats alone. Everyone is family. And we are included in the invitation.
“In your country, you have tofu?” Shu asks.
Yes, I say, but it’s not as good and not as varied.
“OK, I show you how to cook tofu.”
Shu cooks tofu in the hotel kitchen.
She lights a gas burner and pours vegetable oil into a wok. Then she grips the long, rectangular block of tofu in one hand and slices it into cubes, sliding them into the bubbling oil. Plop, sizzle. Each piece, fried until golden brown, perfectly maintains its shape. “You know, I usually cook a lot for my tourists,” Shu says. She removes the tofu and lets it cool while she chops tomatoes and scallions.
Meanwhile, in the back corner, a young woman stuffs the pork slab into a blender—instant pork puree, to be mixed with the scallions, rolled into wild betel leaves, and fried until fragrant.
“OK, we go,” Shu says suddenly, unexpectedly. There is much more to prepare, but she has other plans. Her life is a constant balance of duties. A California filmmaker is here to interview Shu about her culture, the Hmong and the recent unsettling trend of disappearing hilltribe girls. By the time we return to the kitchen, an hour or so later, the greens have been fried and the tofu sits in its ruddy stew.
But it’s not yet time to eat. An hour of relaxation is upon us. We watch a spectacular dance of clouds across the mountains until the sun droops and the night grows black. The staff then lounges through a TV show until, finally, it is time. We are all called to the table. Dishes of tofu, greens, and betel-wrapped nems sit among a tureen of broth with medicinal leaves, a platter of fish wrapped in pickled greens, and another plate of garlic with fried greens—different greens from the cat’s cabbage, which is deeply bitter and evocative to me. I realize I ate that cabbage almost daily during my grad-school days in Hanoi, 14 years earlier. Shu tells me the leaves are eaten for good health, as most bitter vegetables are.
We fill our bowls with plump, nutty grains of mountain rice and serve each other bits and bobs from the array before us. We eat until we can eat no more. Then the women leave to relax in their rooms while the men linger around tiny cups of hot green tea. We admire the foggy night, and the colorful light show on the streets below….
Nighttime fog in a rainy Sapa.
Shu’s mother sells her handicrafts in the Sapa market.
Hmong farmers work their fields on the steep hillsides surrounding Sapa.
The buffalo still pulls the plow in northern Vietnam.
Shu walks with a friend to her mountain-high village.