The Hmong and the Vietnamese : Mésentente not so Cordiale

The Hmong are a fiercely independent people who see Vietnamese profiteers moving in on their land as a threat.  But the biggest threat to their way of life is probably tourism.It Rains in Sa Pa at the beginning of June. The 1600 meter high mountain city sits on the Chinese border in the Hoang Lien Son range. You won’t see the 3350 meter Fan Si Pan above. But the cloud cover does allow you to catch glimpses of the steep forested slopes in a patchwork of black trees and light-gray cloud. The clouds hug the hills in puffy masses. The region is home to the Hmong but the city is a creation of French colonists at the beginning of the 20th century who wanted to escape the heat of Hanoi, 380 kilometers further south.

Mai, our Black Hmong guide arrived early to the lobby of the Cat-Cat View hotel (not to be confused with the Cat-Cat hotel next door). Of course she wore the traditional indigo colored hemp clothing with colorful embroideries but it was her rubber boots which surprised me.

Mai is a jolly 31-year-old woman about average size for the Hmong: one meter forty five or fifty. Sonja and I were joined by a young Austrian couple and started up the steep street where Mai picked up three other Black Hmong of the same size and dress. I feared the worst when we started out escorted by Mai’s small Army posted in tactical positions.

Mai’s marriage at age 15 was organized by the parents. Mai says most Hmong are married off by their parents at the age of 13 to 15. She says “the government tells us not to marry until we finish school.” She said they are told they don’t know how to take care of children so young. Mai never went to school and does not know how to read and write. Yet she is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. She learned both Vietnamese and English “by listening.”

The real reason to delay marriage may be Vietnam needs an educated population for the future economy of sub-contracting to international companies and want to slow down population growth. Nevertheless, only three percent of the Hmong children reportedly go to school despite the elementary and secondary schools the government has built throughout the region. No village we saw lacked access to a school.

Mai has two girls, aged eight and six, who both go to school for free, another effort by the government. Rural farmers get to send their children to school with no cost while city residents must pay. A man from Dong Hoi told us he has to pay two million dong a semester (roughly $100) while complaining “the farmers are rich!” (1) The result is he only sends one of his three children to school: a boy of course.

Mai would like to have a boy. If her husband should die and she has no son, all the property and possessions would go to the husband’s family which seems very unfair. Mai, who does farming when she is not guiding, brings in much more money than her husband. Her tips alone in a good month should exceed a hundred dollars. Farmers here make on average $40 a month.

School in the Hmong mountains is taught in Vietnamese which means the first thing Mai’s daughters have to do is learn a foreign language. Mai’s husband, who also never went to school, cannot speak Vietnamese. He works the paddies and gardens with the others in the village where Mai showed us with pride their property: paddies, corn and ducks. The labor is carried out collectively but each farmer keeps the produce from their paddies and fields carved out of the steep slopes.

In the farming village of Va Tan where we slept in a ‘home-stay’, there was one hand-held motor plow which the villagers shared. Most work is done with water buffalo, a far cry from the highly mechanized Mekong Delta where water buffalos are rare.

The farmers of Va Tan seemed well off. They all owned water buffalo, there were three kinds of pigs, ducks, dogs and even cats. The owner of our home-stay has another at the foot of Mai’s village further down the Lao Chai river and owns at least five big pink pigs, a lot of wealth in these parts.

All the villages have electricity and a new power plant is almost completed in Lau Chai village but Mai says she fears the electricity will go to the Vietnamese. The rustic wooden farm houses also all have TVs which makes me suspect the government did its best to help them acquire television sets so they could better ‘inform’ them of what the government is doing for them and why they should be ‘grateful.’ There are many TV stations in Vietnam and all are in Vietnamese and all are government controlled.

Just next to our home-stay in Va Tan, a Dutchman named Eddy and his Vietnamese wife this year opened a bar and restaurant called the Bamboo Bar. The bar has to be in his wife’s name as Eddy is a foreigner and not allowed to own a business. The Bamboo Bar will become a haven for western hikers who are ‘Asianed Out’ and is certain to become a cult destination just like Bich’s and Ben’s Phoung Nha Farmstay. (2)

The Bamboo Bar is a place where you can get something to drink other than warm ‘bia’ (beer). They have four kinds of menus from Hmong to Vietnamese to BBQ in a cozy, dry and clean environment. The Bamboo Bar, with its roofed porch and lighting, actually gives the feeling of a village square where such a concept does not exist. Before Eddy and his wife, Va Tan was farm houses on a dirt trail which tourists hiked through from Sa Pa.

But the locals don’t like the Bamboo Bar. They are tired of Vietnamese coming in and profiting from the tourist business. In general, the Hmong are tired of the Vietnamese appropriating land in the area. Anti-Vietnamese demonstrations over the past few years were met with deadly repression. Human Rights groups say scores have been shot dead and hundreds arrested. Each wave of repression is followed by new efforts from Hanoi to ‘aid’ the Hmong : a new road, a new clinic, a new school ….

Mai tells us the indigenous people think Eddy and his wife are taking business from them when, in fact, the presence of the bar could actually bring in more back-packing tourists as the Bamboo Bar becomes better known; Even more so when they finish their home-stay later this year. “They have no concept of what tourism is all about,” Eddy says. “ They don’t understand tourists need down time. They need something more on offer than beer and water. They need privacy.”

Eddy plays a large selection of 60’s and 70’s music. Lights are dimmed. The chairs and sofas are large and well padded. The place is western decadent with an Asian theme. Eddy says he wants to help the Hmong develop their business but the contact is tough.

“Yes. I know Eddy.” says Mai. “But we no talk. I too busy working to talk. Not Eddy. He talk.”

Despite her intelligence, Mai does not understand that chatting is a big part of the bar, restaurant and tourist business. Eddy has already put Va Tan on the international tourist map through ‘FaceBook’ and ‘Tripadvisor’.

Although the Vietnamese own the hotels, transportation and other businesses linked to tourism, the Hmong don’t see them very much in their villages. They do not hike the hills, hamlets and mud. The wealthy Vietnamese who come from Hanoi to Sa Pa to cool off will take a bus down the steep road to Cat-Cat Falls rather than walk the 400 meters. If you see Vietnamese walking at all in Sa Pa, they are having trouble negotiating the mountain streets in mini-skirts, hot-pants and high-heels.

“Vietnamese very lazy!” says Mai. “They no walk.” She could have added the women look like hookers and the men are all fat.

Mai, like all the Hmong, think the people in Hanoi are rich. The Hanoi tourists plus the pictures shown on TV help convey this image and Mai refuses to believe us when we tell her how desperate the poor farmers are who came to Hanoi to try to make a living. No wonder so many leave for the city. Some 70% of the Vietnamese live in the countryside but rural exodus in Vietnam, now at over four percent, is increasing and the crowded cities seem already unable to cope. Worse, Vietnam experienced food insecurity in the 1980’s and fewer farmers without increased mechanization could spell disaster. A rapidly increasing population needs more food.

This may be why the government, that benevolent ‘Uncle’ in Hanoi, is trying to get the Hmong to give up their more nutritional sticky rice in favor of the more productive Chinese white rice. Mai tells us the Chinese seed produces more rice and does not understand our arguments about nutrition and dependence. Once the Hmong abandon their seed for the Chinese strain, they will depend on their northern neighbors and will go bankrupt when they raise the price on seed.

The Hmong count their dong and inflation in Vietnam has been crippling. Mai said six years ago a chicken cost 40 000 dong a kilo ($2) but today it is 160 000 ($8). When we had lunch at Mai’s, we had eggs in our soup but not Mai nor her daughters.

Mai’s house is like the others: made of wood with no windows and a sliding door. You can see out through the cracks between the rough cut planks of the wall which is alright when the weather is warm. The indoors is wide and open with another wooden plank wall separating the living/sleeping area from the kitchen. The open mezzanine is used to dry rice from the heat of the coal or wood fire burning on the kitchen floor. The whole family spends the winter around this fire to escape the bitter mountain cold. There is a roof awning over the front of the homes but nothing like a porch. This is where they eat.

I did not notice many mosquito nets but Mai says they don’t get bothered by mosquitoes and flies because they “work all the time.” I can testify to that. As soon as we stopped for a break during a hike, the Hmong women pulled out their indigo colored hemp and started embroidering the material to sell to tourists. They never just sit. But don’t be fooled. The Hmong suffer just as mush as the others from mosquitoes, one of Vietnam’s three plagues along with rats and kids.

Each area of several villages has a dispensary where they can see a paramedic who sends reports to the new hospital in Sa pa. The Hmong also have their traditional medicine. Mai’s eight year old daughter was a good example with bruises on her throat, forehead and nose from treatment for a cold. Apparently the daughter pinched herself because it hurts too much when Mai does it. They hate snakes which they eat as well as dogs. I was not allowed to photograph the slow bleeding to death of a puppy at Cat-Cat Falls. Mai told us it was slaughtered for a Shaman ceremony.

“We have three religions,” Mai says. “Shaman, Catholics and Christians.” Mai, of course, is a ‘Christian’. Good old evangelist protestants!

The government sends veterinarians through the villages a couple of times a year. Mai says this started over two years ago which I figure to be around the time the Asian bird flu scare came. I’m not sure the Hmong understand why the vets come or what threat their visits presents to their livestock. I think they see this as another benevolent act by the ‘Uncle’ in Hanoi. I suppose they have never heard the word ‘culling’ and bird flu is just as foreign to them.

It was good Mai brought her small Army to help us because by the time we got to Lao Chai, a small Red Hmong village on a river by the same name, we were covered in mud from head to foot. If not for the help of those four, short but sure footed, women, I fear we would have been stuck.

The Hmong are so sure footed that the Vietnamese brought them to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay to carry all the building material up to the 330 meter summit of Navy Mountain … cement, the doors, windows, roofing tiles etc. Watching them negotiate the steep paths of mud and rock, tip toe along the walls of paddies and jump drainage ditches was pure delight. We were not so dainty.

Tourism poses serious threats to the Hmong: easy money! Why farm when you can racket foreigners? On our hike out of Va Tan to the bamboo forests we came to a six to seven meter long patch of thigh-high mud and water in the trail and needed to get on the shoulder-high paddy wall to get around it. On top of the paddy walls stood five kids aged from seven to ten and demanding 10 000 dong (50 cents) to let us pass. That is a lot of money in a Hmong village. Why should they bother to farm, slaving in the paddies? If they can get 10 000 dong from us so easy at ten, how will they racket us when they are 15 or 16?

If these kids continue to racket tourists in the hills, tourists will stop coming. Or more likely, Hanoi will send in some troops. This child racketing is a very bad development. On the other hand, 100 tourists will cave in the paddy wall and the whole paddy will be lost. What they need to do is maintain the trails but the Hmong have not yet learned that maintenance is part of the tourist industry and the Vietnamese who profit from organizing the tours never come out here to see for themselves. Not that the Vietnamese understand any better. The same goes for litter. The trails and villages are full of plastic waste (as is the case throughout Vietnam) and I am sure westerners are not responsible.

The northern mountains are one delicate tight rope Hanoi has to walk. They have to keep minority aspirations in check, allow Vietnamese businesses to thrive and assure a steady influx of tourist revenue. Top-down discipline is not necessarily a negative thing but the Hmong are fiercely independent. They may trust the government but they don’t like the “arrogant” Vietnamese who “take” their land and control the tourist industry. There are no photos of Ho Chi Minh hanging in Hmong homes as there are everywhere else in the north.

1. Farmers in the South where there are three harvests a year are much wealthier than those in the North and Center of the country.
2. The Phong Nha Farmstay, located near the Laotian border in central Vietnam, is run by a Vietnamese woman named Bich and her rugged Australian husband, Ben. It has a very Australian athmosphere, serves cold beer and good food. The place is a cult destination for back-packers and is located in a lovely farming valley surrounded by Khurst mountains. Because it is a must place to go the prices are steep: $35 for a double room but the dormitories are cheaper.