The Happy Water Cure
Dawn broke as the van snaked around the mountain faces of Northwest Vietnam. In the pale blue light, we saw children in traditional garb heading to schools perched precariously atop cliffs. iPods peeked out from their bright green head wraps as they hurried past traditional H’mong houses with no windows or floors, flanked by vats of indigo and buffalo pens.
My spouse and I held hands as the van bounced into Sapa, the Alpine city populated by Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. It was our first time in Asia since what we thought was our babymoon trip to Japan three years earlier. Now, as the sun peered through evergreen branches, we were both aware that this trip was a sunset on our unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant.
The H’mong language different from Vietnamese. Vietnamese gurgles in vocal eddies and spills over the tongues of speakers like the great rivers that cut through the country’s lowlands flow to the sea. In Sapa City, flocks of women clad in indigo tunics chirp to each other in a language that sounds like the birds flitting through the crisp mountain air.
We went to Sapa to hike through the valleys of terraced rice fields shadowed by Fan Xi Pan Mountain. Sapa Sisters paired us with a local woman to lead us through the rugged terrain of her ancestral home. Our trekking guide was Gòm, a young women with a jet black ponytail streaked with blonde highlights. She wore traditional H’mong calf guards and a neon pink North Face jacket. Among the other H'mong guides, she was known for her cackling laugh that echoed through the indigo.
On a clear day in the mountains, the farms serpentine over the slopes until they are out of sight. Gòm’s first question to us, the first question everyone in Vietnam asks, was how old we are. The second question was if we are married. There was a brief moment of confusion when we said that we are married to each other, but she didn’t ask any clarifying questions. In Sapa, like in rest of Vietnam, our relationship was surprising but not offensive.
Gòm is 25. She married a boy from her village after a traditional bride-kidnapping ritual. He takes care of their two daughters in the village of Lao Chai while Gòm leads trekkers through the valleys. After a simple lunch of cóm gà – chicken rice – Gòm invited us to rest in the house where she grew up. Her father built the house, and her eldest brother inherited on his wedding day. Sitting under the single electric light in the three-room house, Gòm regaled us with stories of her daughters’ adventures growing up in the same place as their mother. I watched her baby nephew play on the dirt floor of the house that would someday be his and allowed myself to sit with the sadness that we would never know the feeling of passing down traditions.
The wind turned the fronds of the bamboo forest into paper streamers as we wobbled over rocks behind surefooted Gòm. She finally asked us the third question that built the foundation of every conversation we had in Vietnam: do we want children? I steeled myself and said that we had tried, but it is hard. Assuming the details of fertility treatments for gay women were beyond Gòm’s comprehension of the world, I didn’t try to explain, but she surprised me by asking, “Does the doctor get you pregnant? Is it very expensive?” I was taken aback by my own honesty as I replied, “Yes. We’ve tried seven times. The doctors say we should stop trying.”
Gòm stopped walking suddenly and turned around to face me. In a forest opening overlooking bamboo stalks sliding into the valley mist, she took tight hold of my forearms. Looking intently into my eyes, she whispered, “I cannot imagine how hard that must be.” Her candor and her empathy hit me hard in the gut. In that moment, a deep understanding that transcended culture and language and country dislodged a part of my pain. In that moment, Gòm gave me permission to grieve. Later that night, in our homestay with other trekkers, she made sure I was not grieving alone: she pulled out a two-liter bottle of homemade Happy Water. We shouted, “Mot, hai, ban… ro!” and drank to nothing in particular. It was a perfectly fine thing to drink to.