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 second post to the blog.
A day’s drive from Hanoi saw us arrive in the town of Ha Giang. Once there we had just time for a quick shower before a meeting, over dinner, with the executive member of a remarkable organisation – the Women’s Union. It’s impossible to describe the WU in Western terms but if I was to try I’d say it’s a cross between the Irish Countrywomen’s Association and the Communist Party. With over 113,000 members in Ha Giang province alone the WU has a unique reach into the community. Its official mission is the somewhat fluffy sounding aim of supporting harmony in the home but in practice this gives the WU great scope to create projects in the community and more importantly it gives women a real say in political decision making. And most importantly for me the WU were to be our facilitators on this trip, helping us to get access to poor families, a marginalised school, a health centre in a remote area and a remarkable adult education project for Hmong women who had either never started or finished their basic education.
So it was that we broke the ice over dinner. In Vietnam the traditional method of breaking the ice, like Ireland, involves a drink or two. Unlike Ireland the drinking, during meals, involves frequent toasts and shots of “rice wine” or (even worse) “maize wine”. The “wine” is rather like poitin and like poitin varies quite a bit in quality and potency. It is frequently home-made and dispensed at the table from Coke or soft drink bottles. So at the start of the meal the vice-chair of the local WU Nguyen Thi Yen looked me in the eye and made a short quite formal speech, translated by Ngoc Anh, welcoming me to Ha Giang and wishing me well with the project. I would reply in relatively formal language saying that I was honoured to be in Ha Giang and to have the opportunity to visit their regions and to see some of their projects. Then Ms Yen would drain her glass without blinking and I would take a sip from mine. A look from Ms Yen and some giggles and encouragement from the other women would ensue until I too drained my glass, trying not to blink. As an honoured guest I was faced with a small queue of WU executive members toasting me and the project and in turn draining their glasses, and yes, inviting me to do likewise. For the honour of the SCMF, not to say of Ireland, I am happy to report that I complied and the ice was well broken over the meal.
During conversation I was somewhat at a loss, speaking no Vietnamese, and relying on Ngoc Anh for translation. Ngoc Anh is a very pleasant and chatty individual so dinner went very well and our various plans for the next few days were laid out and agreed. Over the days which ensued I grew to like and admire very much the members of the WU whom we met. In a country like Vietnam women’s rights are not to the fore and the women who had managed to risee to the top of the WU had done so in a very male dominated society and against many odds. In particular the vice-chair of the WU in Dong Van turned out to have a remarkable like story. I eventually managed to get her to agree to an interview and I’ve written about her life story for the Irish Times piece this Saturday. We were accompanied at dinner by Suat who was to be our driver for the rest of the journey. Suat turned out to be a really great driver for the terrain which we were about to face. A regular driver for the WU he has great experience of the roads, and the roads were amongst the hairiest I had ever encountered. Although generally the surface would be quite decent it would suddenly vanish as you’d round a bend with half a road surface ahead and a drop of a few thousand feet just over the missing edge. As a front seat passenger for the entire trip the prime position allowed me to see ahead and call for a halt for any strong picture moments, but also to frequently consider my mortality.
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.