She inspired me to share stories

Shu Shu is a 34 year old woman that I met in Sapa, north of Vietnam. She belongs to the Hmong tribe, one of ethnic groups from that region. As tradition dictates, she is married – arranged when she was 16 – and a mother to four children. Her youngest kid is the cute baby you see in the picture and the eldest is a 17 year old boy who is already married. Most probably, all women from that region share this same biographical description. But there is more to tell about Shu Shu.

I came across this woman when I was planning to do a short trip to Sapa, along with two other friends. As Shu Shu hosts tourists at her family home and takes them on trekking tours, we stayed at her house. I recall that my friend, who wanted to trek in a harder terrain, wondered if she, as a woman, would be able to provide us a tour as tough as a man would.

Here is where things got interesting!

Was she as tough as a man?

On our second day there, we went trekking up to the Sapa Mountains. It was a beautiful trek, lush with greenery, but very steep and slippery. To our surprise though, Shu Shu was trekking wearing just her flip flops, carrying her little boy on her back and an umbrella to protect him. The most unlikely things to see when trekking: flip flops, a baby and an umbrella!

We probably trekked for almost 4 to 5 hours, which to me felt like an eternity. I slipped four times, despite my trekking shoes and, there were moments we were worried about her and the baby. But guess what? Shu Shu was the one helping us climb rocks, waiting for us as we were too slow and asking me if I needed a break. And she did it all with the sweetest smile.

Dinner for 10

When we went back home at the end of the day, I was exhausted! My body was hurting and my legs were shaking. I could barely see what I was stepping on. All I wanted was a comfy bed and a warm shower. But for Shu Shu, it was not over yet!

Shu Shu still had to prepare dinner for her guests and her family – a total of 10 people! To make things worse, due to my slow pace, she didn’t make it to the grocery store in the village. So, to provide us dinner Shu Shu had to kill a chicken, skin it and cook a meal for everyone before it got dark. At the house, the kitchen was outdoors and she only counted on natural light. In the meantime, she took care of her baby, who cried when he was hungry. She breastfed him and carried him around while doing all these chores. After a 5 hour trek and taking care of weaklings like me, she still had the energy to do all of this with the tenderest look on her face. She was a superwoman to me.

Learned English to feed her family

No one there spoke English except for her. But Shu Shu didn’t go to school when she was younger. She learned English from tourists in order to be able to tour them. This activity is vital to the family as it is their main source of income. Surprisingly there are people in Hanoi with way more resources than her, dealing with tourists on a daily basis, who couldn’t speak English as well as she does.

I left Sapa feeling this deep admiration for Shu Shu and women like her. She reminded me of my grandmothers and their generation, who were mothers, sisters, wives and workers in the most challenging conditions. Shu Shu is one the first women I came across with who inspired me to start writing about the strength and beauty of being a woman.

What would Shu Shu had accomplished if she had had the right opportunities, like access to education and freedom to decide who she wanted to be?