By Alison Bate
The Latin name trips off his tongue easily.
“Have you seen any strobilanthes cusia – the indigo plant? Or know anyone who makes the indigo dye here,” a boisterous French guy called out as I wandered by a street café.
Bemused, I joined Jean-Louis Dulaar for some of the local bitter green tea, and gave him the number of my homestay owner, Mr. Hoa, who spoke good English.
“No, not Tavan, but in the next village, people make the dye,” Mr. Hoa told him.
We were in the village of Tavan, about seven kilometres down the mountain from Sapa, in northwest Vietnam. I had a few days off work so had caught an overnight train and minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. It was full of ethnic minority women relentlessly trying to sell their handicraft, and I couldn’t wait to get out of town.
“You rich, me poor. You buy my stuff. Why you not buy? You monkey,” they would chant.
After buying an exotic hanging from one of the few polite women, I escaped on a Xe-om taxi (hug a motorbike) to Tavan, a beautiful little village surrounded by rice fields at the bottom of a beautiful valley. I spent the night at Mr. Hoa’s homestay, nursing a cold and enjoying some healing shots of rice wine.
The next morning, I ran into Jean-Louis Dulaar, who turned out to be a French artist who goes around the world learning local methods of using natural plants to make dyes and then creates his own paintings.
“What are you doing today?” Jean Louis asked me.
Zoom zoom. Two minutes later, I joined him on the back of his rented motorbike heading for the village of Lao Chai. There, we got off and stumbled around trying to find someone who understood what he wanted.