Exploring The Other Vietnam, Laos

Young girls care for family infants and work the fields. Bob Jones photo

I’ve finally seen the “other” Vietnam and the “other” Laos – the parts I couldn’t see during the big wars of 1960-1979, or afterward because of intolerable roads.

Ma Lu Thanh, Nam Na, Muong Lay, Dien Bien, Phong Tho, Son La, Moc Chau, Xam Nua, Phonsavan, Pak Beng, Ban Huoay Sai. The high mountain home-lands of the Hmomg, Black and White Tai, Nung, Odun, Lao Houy, Khmu and Yao minorities. About 1,200 miles by often barely tolerable roads, bus, rail, longboat and … elephant.

There are 54 minorities in Vietnam and about 50 in Laos. They make up 14 percent of Vietnam’s population and 46 percent of Laos’s. They are the poorest – and there’s a long history of that.

They’ve been abused peripherally by lowlanders and systematically by the communist governments. Leadership by traditional families has been replaced by Communist Party administrators.

Scholar Dang Nghiem Van wrote after the communists came to power: “All that the socialist man could do for the traditional man was to ‘help’ him relinquish his primitiveness and reach as quickly as possible the superior level of civilization of the lowlanders, at all costs and against his will if necessary.”

It’s not that the Viet/Lao communists haven’t done good things for them –

better roads and more schools, cheap satellite TV and cell phone service in even remote mountain villages. And the two nations’ constitutions, on paper, prohibit ethnic discrimination. But their governments only permit what they call “positive cultural elements.” The negative ones are to be eliminated. Who is negative? He who goes against “Marxist unilineal social evolutionary theory.”

Some of that’s OK. The custom that a woman must marry the brother of her deceased husband needs to expire. But the downsides are: Children of minorities can quit school at 14 and many don’t go that long.

Women still carry the heaviest work load while many men stay home and smoke opium.

Girls at age 8 are expected to be caregivers for infants in the families and work the fields.

All land ultimately belongs to the state. So if the state wants to plant coffee or flood a village to make a dam, the area is declared “unused land.” I saw minority villagers in Son La Province being forced into a kind of Levittown to make way for a hydroelectric dam. The new Xayaburi dam project by Laos on the lower Mekong already is notifying villagers to make way for construction roads. They will be paid $15 each.

Also, there is a tremendous difference in living standards between minorities in touristic areas such as Sapa or Luang Prabang and those in the backwoods along the Vietnam-Laos-China borders I travelled.

Funny how lowland Viets and Lao think themselves superior to the hill tribes. Both have a Mon Khmer language root and share a pantheon of spirits. Late into the 1800s, Viet emperors immolated young water buffalo in the belief that the smell of roasting meat would lure beneficial sprits. And many central coast Vietnamese and lowland Lao come from the same stock.

I highly recommend travel to the minority regions of northern Vietnam and Laos before more change hits those animist-Taoist people.

Travel with your eyes and ears wide open. It’s easy to be hoodwinked by a barrage of government propaganda. I guess that’s true in our country, too.