Overheard: Selling Girls at the Market


Overheard is our series of snippets/conversations that we have with other travelers and/or locals along the way.

My was the name of the tiny young looking girl who was our guide around Sapa. In actuality, despite her petite frame, My was 18 and had a better grasp of the English language than any other guide we'd ever had.

us and our guide

My was like most other 18 year olds around the world—texting with her boyfriend, watching the latest music videos on her cell phone, and staring hypnotically at the television at our homestay.

At first we thought the only thing that made her different was her clothes—the traditional indigo velvet leg wraps and colorful skirt of the Hmong. Unlike some of the other women, My didn't wear the jacket and chose instead to wear a "Western" top with her traditional skirt. She also didn't wear hoop earrings, nor did she wear her hair in a crown-like setting upon her head. The former is because it was "too hot," the latter is because she wasn't married.

We learned a lot about My in the three days we spent with her. She never went to school—at all—and learned English by following around the tourists who came to her town. She made most of the money for her entire family, but she didn't feel like it was a burden, given that being a guide was "very easy" compared to working in the rice paddies. And she was married—in China.

"What?" I asked, thinking I had heard incorrectly.

"I have a husband in China," she repeated slowly, as if I was incapable of speaking English.

"In China?" I asked. "But how did you meet him?"

"Oh..." she said. She paused for a few seconds. "I didn't really meet him," she said. "He bought me."

Then, in a matter-of-fact way, constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure Rob didn't hear the conversation, My told me what happened to her when she was 16.

She met a boy at the market in Sapa. He convinced her to run away with him to the mountains around Lai Cau, a town 35km down the mountain (a distance that must have seemed great). She went.

"I thought he loved me."

Then, somehow, she ended up on the China border.

"We just walked."

There, another man met her, who took her to a house and put her to work selling on the street. A few days later yet another man came to look at her. He liked what he saw and, suddenly, she had a husband.

They had to travel for almost three days to get back to his house, where she did nothing all day but watch television.

"It helped with my English," she said.

But she was bored, and she had nobody to talk to besides the people on TV.

"The two of us were like a duck and a chicken," she said. "We talked, but did not understand."

My realized she had to get out, and, lucky for her, she was smart enough to know how.

In her Hotmail account, she had the contact information for a former trekker, an Australian expat living in Hanoi. She emailed him and told her what had happened. She told him how to reach her family. And, somehow, she escaped. (I tried to get more details on this, but she seemed hesitant to explain exactly how she left China. It could be that she really didn't understand how it happened, but from what I could gather, the Australian expat came for her and likely paid off her "husband.")

"So can you get married in Vietnam?" I asked.

My was giggling about something in a recent text from her boyfriend.


"If you're already married in China..."

"It's okay for me to get married here," she said. "But if [my husband] comes for me, I have to go with him."

"You do?"

"Of course," she said. "He paid a lot of money."

And then she gave me one of those looks that made me dread the day I'd have a daughter.

(There are several other stories on the Internet of Hmong girls being illegally sold to China as workers, both sex and otherwise. My said she told the authorities what happened to her, but nothing was ever done. She also warned the other girls in the village, though some didn't believe her and have since "disappeared." As for the boy from the market—she never saw him again.)

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What Do You Think?

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