ROWING UP IN the extreme north of Vietnam, in a remote corner close to the Chinese border, Vang Thi Cau was kept out of school to look after seven younger children – and to mind the pigs.
At the age of 16 she was under pressure from her father to prepare for marriage, in keeping with Hmong tradition. For Cau is a member of one of the largest and poorest of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups.
Then illiterate, she heard that places were available in a government adult education programme in a nearby town. She worked secretly for a neighbour who could write, and who helped her fill out the application forms.
Now, at the age of 38, Cau is the newly appointed vice-chairwoman of the Women’s Union – a kind of cross between the Irish Countrywomen’s Association and the Communist Party – in the Dong Van region.
After being accepted to the education programme, Cau immediately left home for the boarding school. Main meals were included but she had to find part-time work on Sundays so that she could afford to eat properly.
As a Hmong, she faced discrimination and was isolated by the children of the established elite and government officials. They wouldn’t play with her and she felt backward and “out of date”, coming from such a remote area.
But she persisted. A month after leaving home unannounced, she went back to see her parents. Her father declared, “I surrender”. Cau went on to study at college for a teaching degree.
Unlike most rural Hmong, Cau dresses in the style of a modern, urban woman – in a town where livestock run down the main street. It took her 10 years to stop feeling inferior to her peers, she says, and only then did she abandon traditional Hmong dress. At home, however, she still weaves the traditional linen as a hobby.
In her job with the Women’s Union, Cau has particular responsibility for family support. The key issues facing Hmong women include family planning, access to credit, better hygiene in the home and domestic violence, which is the most serious issue – although it is a problem that affects the majority Kinh population, too. The problem is normally tackled at village level and cases rarely come to court.
In the Hmong tradition, women are regarded as inferior to men and are treated as such. Cau sees education as the only chance of making progress and draws hope from the fact that most Hmong children now attend school. Cau travels the long and difficult road to Hanoi each weekend to continue her own studies in education management training.
A Women’s Union adult education programme in Mo Nha Thap village, in Ha Giang province, is one of the local projects made possible with a grant from Irish Aid, which has an annual budget of €11 million for Vietnam.
In the innovative programme, schoolchildren educate their mothers in basic Vietnamese at home, which then allows the women to attend improver classes in Vietnamese, numeracy and life-skills. Culturally, the Hmong have largely preserved their way of life, with their own language; there is little bilingual education and children must learn Vietnamese as their first language in school.
The one million Hmong in Vietnam are one of 53 ethnic minorities in a country with a population of 86 million. Although 15 per cent of that population is classified as poor (an impressive decrease from 59 per cent before Vietnam’s government began aggressive anti-poverty programmes), more than half belong to ethnic minorities. And in Ha Giang province, more than 40 per cent are classified as poor with up to 60 per cent poor households in some communes.
Irish Aid supports Programme 135, an effective initiative of the Vietnamese government to reduce poverty among ethnic minorities. It also supports non-governmental, civil society groups aiding the poor.
Ngoc Anh, Irish Aid’s poverty and inclusion adviser in Vietnam, explains that, through the programme, Irish Aid supports basic infrastructure for communes such as schools, road, and power supply as well as training for poor ethnic minorities. The relationship between literacy and access to the benefits of the programme for minorities in the province is being examined as part of a TCD research project.
The Hmong migrated from China into neighbouring Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand more than 300 years ago and, although once well off, today their mountain existence is barely sustainable. A growing population means families are squeezed into tiny farms, growing maize as a staple and supplementing their diet with beans and, rarely, meat. Although officially discouraged from migrating within Vietnam, some Hmong have upped sticks in search of “new” land.
Culturally, the Hmong have largely preserved their way of life; the women’s dress is particularly striking – colourful variations of traditional dress. The men dress in dark tunics, often black or dark blue. Homes are built from mud and timber, although cement blocks are making inroads.
Culturally, the Hmong, and most of Vietnam or east Asia, value women less than men, which in the past led to Hmong women being excluded from education. Now, almost every child gets at least a basic education and leaves school numerate and able to read and write in Vietnamese.
The majority of adult rural Hmong, however, do not speak much Vietnamese so their ability to trade and interact with the main Kinh population is limited, restricting prospects outside subsistence farming, especially for women.
On our five-day visit, we glimpsed the issues that leave the Hmong and other ethnic minorities caught in a poverty trap, including geography, politics, history, cultural isolation, tradition, sexism, and inequality.
Ironically, the project that would arguably do most to lift the region and its ethnic minority population would undermine their culture. A highway from Hanoi to Dong Van would bring mass tourism and trade – but at what cost to the culture of a remarkable group, caught in a 21st-century timewarp?
Frank Miller travelled to Vietnam with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund and Irish Aid
See the audio slideshow at irishtimes.com/ slideshows