The Long Wander in Vietnam © Sahand Sedghi

Opium Grandma

Sapa, Vietnam


Elderly H'mong woman © Sahand Images

"Psst…pssst. Smoke, smoke. You want opium?"
"Huh? No, no... No, thanks!"
"Haha, you've got it all, huh?"
"What? You want hash?"


Just this afternoon, she was pushing pillow cases and tribal jewelry. As the sun loses its grip on the blue sky and the stars appear out of emptiness, so do her invites for opiates. Walking home from dinner, her "Psst…" cuts through the mountain mist as she materializes next to you with a matchbox full of opium. If opium isn't your craving, perhaps a palm-sized baggie of marijuana or hash.

Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I have been met with many a breed of drug dealer. The Mexican gangsters near the Northridge mall. The hippies selling incense sticks on Venice Beach. The parking attendant at the Buddha Bar club on Sunset Blvd. The guy that didn't surf but was present at every high swell in Malibu. Even in Bangkok the dirty tuk-tuk drivers that were more concerned about the quantity than my destination. All of these characters matched my view of what a drug dealer was to look like, until I arrived in Sapa, Vietnam.

Sapa is a hill station in Northwestern Vietnam. Situated only a few miles from China, the mountain top views of cascading rice terraces will steal your breath as quickly as one touch of the cold, night, mountain air. The Vietnamese from Hanoi come to escape the heat, the tourist come for the surrounding hill tribe people that gather for the morning markets. The H'mong are unique, walking among the Vietnamese in their conical hats and tourists in their winter woollies. The H'mong tribe people wear simple black jackets and indigo or baggy trousers with striped borders or indigo skirts and silver jewelry. Sashes are worn around the waist, and embroidered aprons draped front and back. Most women wear their hair in a large bun wrapped in seven layers of cloth atop their head. The H'mong usually live on mountain peaks or plateaus, and can be found in Southern China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

Green hands of H'mong vendor © Sahand Images

The soft-spoken, elderly H'mong ladies wander the steep streets of Sapa calling to tourists to purchase the embroidery for which the tribes are famous. Their hands are shaded different hues of green and blue from the natural and unset dyes of their goods. They quickly memorize your name and hotel and follow you around town until you buy something. A common sight is a whirl of H'mong women clamoring around a hapless backpacker to hawk their goods, which range from colorful, ethnic garb to opium stashed in matchboxes.

After leaving Sapa and returning to Hanoi by train, I added an additional entry under the drug dealer category: Sweet, smiling, green-skinned grandmas from the H'mong tribes of Northwestern Vietnam.
"Psst...smoke, smoke?"

P.S. No, Mom! I didn't buy any drugs!


Sapa's high altitude makes it a chilly place. We left Saigon sweating in our shorts and T-shirt, and arrived in Sapa wearing Jeans and a sweater. First thing we did was find a place with a fireplace: Lotus Hotel.

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