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Frank Miller in Vietnam – Post 3

Photographer Frank Miller is back in Dublin having travelled to the extreme north of Vietnam to report in pictures on the lives of the Hmong, one of Vietnam’s 53 minority ethnic groups. This is his third and final post to the blog.

When we visited Sung Thi Cho in her home near Dong Van she was preparing maize for the family meal. Maize is the staple food of the Hmong as unlike rice it can grow on hills and in areas where soil fertility is not ideal. The crop typically has to last the family for a full year and is stored in the attic space in the traditional mud-built homes. Smoke from the fire (there is never a chimney) drifts into the maize stored in the attic and prevents damage from mould and insects. If the maize runs out poor families get some rice from the government. The conditions were primitive but the kitchen was spotless. The maize was steamed over an open timber fire and then mixed about in a large woven flat dish before being returned to the steamer for another few minutes. The cooked maize is chewy and tastes a bit smoky but has good flavour. It and green vegetables and beans form the main part of the diet, meat is rarely eaten.

When we visited twenty-two years old, Sung Thi Dia she was sitting with her eldest daughter Cay (3) on a tiny stool on the earth floor of her home in Nan Lung Village, Thai Phin Tung commune, Dong Van area. Five days before our visit she gave birth to her third child. On the day she went into labour she was in great pain and had difficulty delivering so decided to go to the local clinic rather than attempt to deliver the baby at home. Her husband Vang Sao Ho (22) supported her down the slippery and muddy path that leads to the paved road a hundred metres below the house. There she mounted a motor bike “ambulance” and travelled the short distance, about a kilometre, to the clinic. Just two hours later with the help of a local midwife her third daughter was born.

When it came to choosing a name there was a debate in the household but in the end the baby girl was called Dinh “because my husband liked the name”. Dia had the standard single check-up before the birth and except for the routine vaccination programme there is no post-natal care unless you are wealthy and can go privately. The new baby is healthy but Dia is slightly concerned as she seems to be vomiting quite a lot. When asked she said that she will send her children to the local school but she is concerned at traffic on the busy road.

The family followed the traditional Hmong customs after the arrival of Dinh. The afterbirth was taken home and buried under the family bed in the belief that if will bring good health to the child. Three days after the birth the main celebration took place. A chicken was killed and boiled, offered to the Gods and ancestors on a chair just inside the main entrance surrounded by incense sticks and then eaten by the family. In naming the child a ritual is followed – the name is proposed to the ancestral spirits in the form of a prayer, a pair of scissors is thrown across the room at the far mud built wall. If the scissors point faces to the wall the name is accepted but if after several throws the scissors still faces back to the thrower another name must be found. I ask Dia if she will have more children. “We would like a son she says”.

This desire for a male child is universal throughout Vietnam and much of Asia. The official government policy is for two-child families but the ethnic minorities in particular are likely to have larger families, partly as they seek to have at least one boy. The fact is that women are not equally valued in the minority culture and to some extent in the majority Kinh culture also. The expectation in the minority cultures such as the Hmong is that the girls will all marry, from about the age of 16, and their labour will be lost to the family. The male heir/s inherit the land. The male is the dominant being both by tradition and by Confucian philosophy. Women seem to do a disproportionate amount of the work in the fields. To some extent this explains why girls in particular were kept from school, an example being the remarkable life-story of Cau (see photo with this blog) which features in the magazine article. That has generally changed and now almost all children get at least a basic education. Women’s rights are a real issue however and on several occasions the problem of domestic violence came up as a significant issue in interviews. The problem extends into the majority Kinh population and is not limited to the ethnic minorities.

Travelling through the Dong Van region of Ha Giang Province it is easy to see why minority groups such as the Hmong suffer disproportionately. The stunning mountainous landscape resembles a lunar landscape with Karst limestone pinnacles and outcrops and has been declared a Unesco Geopark site. While it is remarkable to look at it is a very difficult environment to grow crops and raise a family. The Hmong in the area eek out an existence on the small handkerchiefs of soil that lie between the rocks and in small fields on flat land. They mainly grow maize on the higher ground while those lucky enough to have land on lower flatter ground will grow rice and vegetables such as varieties of spinach or beans. Elephant grass has been introduced in the last few years mainly for feeding buffalos and cattle and keeping them alive through the winter droughts. It is planted along the roadside and in the shallow hollows of soil amongst the rocks on the hills.

Depending on their relative wealth a family may own a few chickens, pigs and cows, the latter destined for the market as a “cash crop” rather than the family dinner. Meat  is eaten only rarely and the main element of the daily diet is of a kind of porridge of milled maize, not unlike couscous but much finer and chewier. While families are generally not malnourished they may be undernourished and protein and mineral intake can be low unless they have access to soya, usually eaten as tofu. Stunting is not unusual amongst children and the children of undernourished mothers may be born with weakened immune systems and hormone deficiencies. In the Northern dry season from February to April poorer families receive rice from the government to keep them going when their supplies of maize runs out.

Very few children, especially girls, in the rural areas make it beyond secondary school and into High School, partly due to the need for labour in the fields, partly because of the distance, but mainly due to the cost involved. While in theory throughout Vietnam education is free in practice extra “fees” are sometimes extracted from parents for the extra tuition which makes good exam results possible. This does not necessarily apply in very remote and poor areas though such as Sing Lung where the school actually receives extra financial support through programme 135. In Sing Lung school Irish Aid, via the ambassador’s fund has helped with some infrastructure. Again relatively small amounts of money can make a big difference – catering standard rice cookers donated by Irish Aid mean the children’s rice can be cooked quickly and in the dormitories good quality blankets supplied via the fund mean that children no longer go cold in winter (see pics in this blog).

The whole story of the Hmong and other ethnic minorities is extremely complicated and layered. It is difficult to get an exact and clear picture of the very many issues that they face but it is clear that while generally the Vietnamese government has done a really impressive job tackling poverty groups such as the Hmong have been left behind. I know I have only really scratched the surface but I hope my pictures give some kind of idea of the lives this remarkable ethnic minority group lead. Before I sign off I would like to express my sincere thanks to all the staff at the embassy in Hanoi for their support of my project, in particular ambassador Damien Cole and To Ngoc Anh, Poverty and Inclusion Advisor with Irish Aid in Vietnam. And a final word of thanks for the remarkable women of the Women’s Union in Ha Giang and Dong Van who facilitated our visit.

Vang Thi Cau whose remarkable life story is referred to in the Irish Times magazine article (see Frank Miller's project in Vietnam).

Children crowd into a dormitory for a photo at Sing Lung school where Irish Aid blankets help during the cold winter months.

Children queue for their lunch at Sing Lung School.

Rice cookers supplied via the Irish Aid ambassador’s fund make the task of preparing the children’s meals at Sing Lung School much easier.

All photographs; Frank Miller/ copyright The Irish Times

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in blogs under the Simon Cumbers Media Fund are those of the journalist and / or their interviewees. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Irish Government.