The three of us were walking down the slippery, muddy slopes of a mountain in Sapa, Vietnam, when it started to rain cats and dogs. From a distance, we heard a shrill yell calling out to us.
There she was, a stranger in an even stranger outfit, standing on the verandah of a wooden hut with her arms akimbo. The woman from the Black Hmong hill tribe, one of the many ethnic minority groups in the country, flashed her toothy grin at us as we dashed across the terraced rice fields towards her.
She said something in a language so foreign. We just looked at one another, clueless. She heaved a huge sigh, shook her head and stretched an arm out. With a limp hand dangling from the wrist, she wriggled her dye-stained fingers.
We laughed. We finally understood that she meant “Come in”. As we took creaky steps forward, we were greeted with giggles from strangely-dressed little girls with rosy cheeks and brown eyes. One held on to my hand and I entwined her baby fingers in mine – a gesture of warmth and friendship.
The hut was sparsely-furnished. The ground was hardened clay, and the walls were made of thin wooden panels. Save for two low, rickety wooden benches and a little table, there was no other furniture. The “stove” in the kitchen was really a campfire.
The family got us to sit on the bench and offered us plain water. We never knew their names, what their ages were, and what their family background was like. A toothless old lady, possibly the Grandma of the family, with a green headgear told us tales and we responded with enthusiastic nods.
We all knew that those chats were incomprehensible. But we spoke a different language, defined by laughter, smiles, cheeky snorts and friendly jabs in the ribs. It was, without the slightest doubt, the language of love.