When pastoral life beckoned

By Phan Duong   October 3, 2020 | 08:35 pm PT
Tam An quit her job in Hanoi, packed everything and headed up north to the mountain town of Sa Pa to live in a village.

An, who is from Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands, was working as a designer for a big company in Hanoi and sold agricultural products like nut milk and vegetarian food.

But she was tired of the rat race and decided to resign in November 2018 and head for the countryside to start farming.

When she submitted her resignation, her manager asked her to work as a butler and cook at his homestay in Sa Pa. That was when she arrived at the ethnic Mong village of Y Linh Ho.

Tam An has a love for agriculture production and organic farming. Photo courtesy of Tam An.

Tam An has a love for agricultural production and organic farming. Photo courtesy of Tam An.

Local children could not hide their curiosity at seeing a strange woman from the city. So they began to come every day to play in the homestay yard to watch An arrange flowers and cook. On the third day she broke the ice by asking them to collect trash from tourists visiting the village.

Since then she has always told children to gather trash instead of littering. Every four days she would take a huge bag of trash to a spot in town a couple of kilometers away.

An recalls: "Initially the locals did not welcome me. When I ran out of rice and asked around, no one would give me. But gradually, when they saw that I treated them well, they opened their hearts."

They called her "Miss Lang" and soon began to treat her like a family member.

People helped her carry trash into town, and, just like her, started reducing the use of plastic bags.

The village’s eight households have more than 20 children, who were excited and curious when An played a guitar for the first time. Seeing the happiness in their eyes when they listened to the music and touched her instrument, she decided to begin a guitar class. Twelve children came daily to the class.

Gradually they became close to each other.

On a rainy and foggy day in December 2018, she was carrying firewood up the hill to her accommodation. During her third trip she saw the children waiting for the class and told them to go home and eat dinner so that she could finish the work.

"They obeyed and went down the hill to go home. But when I went down for my fourth trip, they were carrying some firewood for me. I burst into tears."

Local children help An carry firewood. Photo courtesy of Tam An.

Local children help An carry firewood. Photo courtesy of Tam An.

On days that were not cold she heated water for them to shower. "I boiled a large pot of water with leaves for those having sores so they will not feel itchy."

In the evening the children did not want to go home, and instead stuck around with Miss Lang to learn the guitar and listen to her bedtime stories.

In summer 2019 An coordinated with some friends to help the villagers sell their textile products and earn VND7 million ($302) with which they bought a popcorn machine for children.

One day she took a water filter to the village chief's house, saying it was for the children. The villagers, who had been drinking water straight from streams, always yearned for clean water but were too poor to buy a filter.

They did not know that she had noticed it as soon as she came to the village and secretly saved money to buy the machine and give them a surprise.

Another surprise was when she received the first payment from YouTube for her cuisine videos. She is a famous YouTuber with 207,000 subscribers.

She pooled the payment money with a contribution from a kind-hearted donor to install a 1,000-meter-long pipe to bring water directly from a waterfall to the village, according to La A Pao, the village chief.

An has now been adopted as one of them by the Mong people. She encouraged them to stick with traditional weaving techniques and showed them how to grow vegetables without using chemicals; in return, they showed her how to grow local plants, produce fabric and dye them with natural ingredients.

Pu, 95, Pao's grandmother, walked up the hill to An's house and gave her food every day. But she was not the only one to do so.

An said there are days when she did not know where to sleep or eat because "three households invited me to eat with them, and three children told me to sleep with them."

In winter 2019, she quit her job at the homestay and moved into Pao's house with him, his wife May, Pu, and six children.

On Christmas night the temperature was -2 degrees Celsius, and she was woken up by Pu covering her with a blanket to keep her warm.

She sometimes cannot understand what Pu says, but her actions always touch the young woman’s heart.

"That was a family moment, a moment of a grandmother taking care of her grandchildren. People can only feel that from their family members, but I can get it in a place far from home, in a poor village."

In her home town in Dak Lak, her parents rarely asked her to visit home. One day her father sent her a photo of a hen taking her chickens under her wings, and she understood he wanted his daughter to return.

Saying goodbye to her new family in Sa Pa, she cooked a huge pot of curry for the whole village. They all cried and walked down the hill with her.

Older children, walking with her to the road, promised to learn English to develop tourism in their village in future. When she left, they all burst into tears.

Pao says: "Miss Lang is far away but she cares so much for the kids. Last week we received sesame salt with macadamia from her. She helps me pay the tuition fees for my older daughter and buy food for others at home. She also supports other families."

An wears traditional Mong outfits with Pu and local children. Photo courtesy of Tam An.

An in a traditional Mong outfit with Pu and village children. Photo courtesy of Tam An.

It has been eight months since An returned home. She has built a wooden house with patterns used by the Mong, and an empty plot next door has been filled with vegetables and plants.

They speak to each other every day and never stop saying they miss each other. On video calls, they show An the spots she used to sit in, and often plead with her to return to Sa Pa.

"I was in Sa Pa for a year. It was short but lovely. I did not only get experience, but also love."

This time last year An was helping the village children make the first lanterns of their lives for the Mid-Autumn festival.

Now it is a memory that makes her happy and sad at the same time.

She has promised she will return.

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