No Place to Run in Indochina

An inside look at the most complex ethnic makeup of South-east Asia.

Early sunlight is slowly cutting the dark of a windowless wooden cottage through the gaps between the beams. Vang, a forty-eight years old Hmong, is already starting a motorbike and urging his family to hurry up. His wife Singh, a forty-two years old, dressed in a traditional Hmong garb, sits right behind him. Next comes his six years old daughter Dao, carrying her eleven months young sister in a carrier on her back. She sits behind her mom and they are set to go. Vang drives them to the bus station in Sa Pả few miles away.

Most of their neighbors from Xin Chai will work on the terrace fields today, but Vang and his family won’t. They have a different plan…

Sa Pả in Lào Cai province, a lively tourist center of north-west Vietnamese mountains, is waking up to the usual morning haze of high altitude. As busses with tourists arrive and people start to fill the square, trying to figure out which way is their hotel, Vang approaches them with his very bad English:

“Mótobike, sir? Mótobike?”.

He rarely makes a deal since they usually come in couples or groups with several pieces of luggage and rather choose a car taxi or walk on their own.

Singh, his wife, approaches them with these words:

“You buy from mé, ok? You buy from mé…”

She holds a printed map in her left hand and smartphone in her right hand, showing location and pictures of their home. She offers a bundle — accommodation in a Hmong homestay with guided tours to the surrounding hill tribes.

Almost never successful, Singh is very persistent and walks with the selected group of tourists for tenths of minutes, repeating the same words again and again…

Six years old Dao, still carrying her eleven months young sister on her back, tries to sell small Chinese souvenirs. She doesn’t tell anything, just holds her hands up straight with open palms, showing the goods and hoping the tourists will buy.

Although children labor is illegal in Vietnam, most of them cannot resist the sad look in her eyes and give her some money.

But Vietnamese and Chinese tourists are different. They often laugh and take pictures of her, babbling words like Miao, which means savage; or barbarian. Then she feels ashamed, but tries to sell anyway…

It’s late evening and Vang is sitting on the doorstep of his windowless wooden cottage, smoking the bamboo water pipe.

As he breaths out a smoke, he props the pipe against the wall and takes his Nike shoes off. Vang, with crouched head, steps inside a cottage and puts another log in the open fire pit in the middle of the dirt floor of their living room.

Then he sits back, blows ashes out of the pipe, loads the last bit of fresh tobacco in and slowly puffs again, pensively looking at the empty stable across the yard.

Singh, while counting the money they’ve made today, watches the television in the opposite corner of the living room.

The Vietnamese National Day’s ceremony is being broadcasted live from Hanoi. Tough black and white scenes from Vietnam war and portraits of the proud communist leaders are being mingled with shots of grandiose stage where mainstream Vietnamese singer, noticeably resembling the late 80’s in the U.S., performs the show of his lifetime.

From the side room comes the brass sound of west coast hip-hop. Dao is surfing YouTube on her smartphone, while her younger sister is sleeping on the plank bamboo bed next to her.

A calm evening breeze of early summer, coming from the high rugged mountains around the valley, slowly spreads the aroma of burned tobacco through the cold humid air. With the last rays of sun slowly vanishing below the horizon, the jungle is getting louder and the whole village of Xin Chai is slowly falling asleep. The day is over…

Runnin’ and dyin’, runnin’ and dyin’

— that’s all the Hmong have known. They call themselves Hmong, which means ‘free men’.

When Confucius pondered the effects of rebellion on social order 2,500 years ago, he might have been thinking of the Hmong, a wary tribal people who refused to submit to Chinese rule. “Meo,” from the Chinese name for the Hmong, connotes “barbarian.” Originally lowland rice farmers, the Hmong gave in their ground slowly to the relentless expansion of the Chinese. They migrated southwestward, becoming mountain dwellers in southern China.

In the mid-19th century, scores of Hmong clans seeped into Indochina.

The roadless isolation of mountain jungles created a cultural deep freeze where customs changed slowly. A score of primitive people lived in the foothills, but on the ridges and peaks above 5,000 feet, you found only the kings of the mountains — the Hmong.

They took to the mountaintops for three reasons. Earlier arrivals had already occupied the plains. The Hmong, few in number, did not want trouble. Besides, the cooler climate in the high country was more like their temperate homeland.

From the first reference to the Hmong in a Chinese text 4,300 years ago, they appear in chronicles only in troubled times — and are usually branded the troublemakers. Thousands of years of adversity — running and dying — seems to have bred their will-to-live optimism as a tool of survival.

Then Vietnam war engulfed their mountains like tongues of consuming lava. The Hmong were forced to flee their mountain villages and to take sides in the conflict. Crack Hmong guerrillas became the undeclared muscle of U.S. and about a third have died.

“We fight when attacked.” — they say.

Although they have survived a lot of fights and tough challenges over the last few thousand years, this one is different. Now there’s no place to run. With the rapid rise of Vietnam’s economy and growing tourism in the rural mountainous areas, the Hmong, driven out of their hilltop isolation, find themselves thrust into the mainstream society.

Vietnam, with its strikingly low ecological footprint and an impressive life expectancy, currently ranks fifth in The Happy Planet Index. About eight million of Vietnam’s 92 million population comprise 53 hill tribes, some with a mere hundred or so members; with Hmong being the most populous one. This rich and inherent culture of so many minorities creates the most complex ethnic makeup in the whole of South-east Asia.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: ”A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”

The culture relies on each ordinary person, like Vang or Dao, on their choices and on their will. And this ancient culture, with all its vivid parts, now seems to be on its way to become just another in history…

DISCLAIMER: The images in this story are illustrative. Characters and names are fictional and any resemblance to real people is coincidental.