I always wonder if once you get to heaven, if God shows you a video of all of your close calls. Skydiving. Horseback riding in Scotland. Hitching a ride from a toothless woman in the middle-of-nowhere-Thailand. Add to the reel yesterday’s mishap in Sapa, Vietnam.

It started in a small Black H’mong village tucked away in the rice paddies surrounding Sapa, one of my favorite get-aways. I have become friendly with the hotel manager, Trang, and  pre-arranged to visit this local village better known as Cat-Cat. My intentions were to  do something safe. Not hike a waterfall or trekking, but learn how to make their trademark needlework. Women work years on a garment or belt that they wear to weddings, New Year’s or Tete celebrations and to attract tourists like me. The worse thing that could happen would be getting my finger pricked with my needle.

Trang hooked me up with a young lady named Kurst. Kurst is Vietnamese for basket. She could not tell you the letter “F” from “B” but is fluent in three languages along with needlework, weaving and fabric dying. Yes, she could be the queen of P’interest.

As Kurst patiently taught me how to make the trademark patterns of the Black H’mong stitchery, she shared how she met her husband, a boy from another local village.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“In army.” She frowned. “”Even though we  married, we haven’t wedding yet. It will be big celebration where village kills chickens, pigs and we will wear Black H’mong wedding robes and drink happy water.” She put down her needle. “You come?”

Wow. What an honor. I will definitely write this on my calendar. I looked at Kurst. Innocent. Young. Wedding vows said under the influence of happy water. I wondered if a marriage in a small village is more likely to succeed than marriage like mine. I hoped so.

“If your husband is in army, where do you live?” I asked.

“With his mother. You want to meet?”


No, her mother-law didn’t try to kill me, either.

We walked to her home, a short distance down the dusty road.

Her mother-in-law is better known as Mama Dong, a jovial woman with a big floppy figure and contagious laugh.

Kurst and Dong spoke for a moment in their local Cat language.

“Mama Dong can’t invite you inside her home. The Shamans had just come to her house to rid it of evil spirits.”

“Shamans? Evil spirits?”

Black H’mong are Buddhists and each village has a ancient shaman that still make house calls. But they aren’t what almost killed me. 

“Yes. House is sick. Shaman bring lucky-lucky.”

Kurst grabbed my hand. “Let me bring you to my aunt. She show you how Black Hmong dye fabric.”

Why not?

We walked down the path to  Dong’s sister, an experienced fabric dyer. With Kurst’s help, she explained how the fabric is hand woven out of hemp, and how the barrel behind her is used for dying the fabric with locally grown indigo. Her fingers are constantly blue.

The patterns on the cloth are made with a sharp bamboo pen and beeswax. The women will design a pattern, dye the hemp material in the barrel and once it dries, peel off the wax.

But dipping my hand into the indigo barrel didn’t kill me.

Kurst brought me inside her aunt’s home. It reminded me of Wilma and Fred Flinstone’s house, minus Dino but with a few lose chickens. The floor was solid rock and worn out in places from years of living. The ceiling barely clearing my head.

“You want to try happy water?” she laughed. “My uncle make.”

No, the Happy Water didn’t kill me, but we are getting closer.

If you couldn’t guess, happy water is ho-made rice booze, made in Rube Goldberg distillery crafted out of bamboo. Kurst’s uncle and his inebriated friend welcomed me for a mighty thimble-full. I sat down on the world’s smallest stool.

“He’s drunk!” Kurst laughed.

I threw the cup miniature back, the spirits burning a strip out of my throat. But that isn’t what almost killed me.

What came next almost did. It was time for me to return to Sapa. Most folks get back by making a thirty kilometer hike in expensive hiking shoes, not Chinese Bootleg Keen’s.  And Uber wasn’t available. And I wasn’t up to spending a night in the village on a freshly made bed.

“Let me call you a motorbike taxi.”

I hummed and hawed. I don’t like motor taxis. My mind flashed to the accident I saw of  a woman carrying crates of fresh eggs on her bike, skidding in a puddle, causing her bike to flip over and her eggs to scramble on the pavement. She sat slumped on the curb with her head in her hands. But then I thought of feeding tubes and dying alone in a an old folks home named Hickory Hills or Suncrest, with nothing to look forward to except for Bingo on Tuesdays.

Heck, if I was going to die, this would at least be a good story.

The ride was thirty minutes on a Road Runner cartoon kinda road without guard rails, full of tumbling rocks and potholes the size of bathtubs. One spin-out would either send you to the hospital with embedded gravel or worse. I put on my flimsy helmet and wished I had chugged another thimble of happy water. While the view was breathtaking, clouds floating over the mountains and the sun blinding my eyeballs the way it bounced off of the rice paddies. But for most of the ride, I closed my eyes and hung on tight.

But the ride didn’t kill me.

It was afterwards, in my hotel room at the Sapa Eden that I had my brush with death. I was covered with so must dust that I looked like a cinnamon donut so I went into the bathroom and broke into the complimentary basket of amenities. That’s when I broke the eleventh commandment and shoved a Q-tip in my ear. It was a Chinese brank make of wood. The wood snapped. I saw my life flash in front of my eyes.

So, what’s the moral to this story?

Enjoy life. Drink happy water. Wear a bike helmet. Go to weddings, even if they are located one hundred miles passed convenient.

And never stick a Q-tip in your ear.

Kurst will work months on her robe. A belt for a Black H’mong robe is a life long project. I am wearing Mama Dong’s traditional clothing. The silver jewelry is made by a different Black H’mong tribe.


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