By Kou Yang and Dia Cha
In March, 2014, a combined group representing the Lao Hmong Overseas Committee in the United States of America, and representatives of an internationally known humanitarian institute in Geneva, Switzerland, boarded a Korean Airlines flight from LAX to Hanoi.
The group was to embark on a fact-finding mission the purpose of which was to learn about Hmong living conditions in Vietnam with regard to home environments, social and economic situations, education and participation in government.
The Lao Hmong Overseas group was comprised of six individuals: Paul Herr, of Washington, D.C., Kazoua Kong-Thao of St. Paul, Minn., Kou Yang of Turlock, Calif., and Dia Cha of Sacramento, Calif. The journey, arranged by Herr, had been funded by the Swiss organization and would take the six to a variety of locations in northern Vietnam not far from the Chinese border, principally in the provinces of Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau and Lao Cai.
After arriving in Hanoi and meeting with government officials for two days, the group took a one-hour noon flight to Dien Bien Phu City, also known as Muong Thanh or Muong Thene (Moos Theeb in Hmong). It was a locale of much interest, since many of our Hmong ancestors had passed through this region more than two hundred years ago; had lived here; or passed through prior to their migration into Laos as recently as the fifties. In fact, it is often said the Lao migrated from Muong Thene (Muong Theng) into the territory known today as Laos and founded the Lao state.
Culturally speaking, Khamchong Luang Praseuth wrote that the Lao and other Tai ethnic groups came from “an area called Muong Theng” and claimed that this region once belonged to the Lao state. Before 1954, part of Laos and the northwest region of Vietnam, including Son La, Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau and Lao Cai were known as Sipsong Chau Tai or the Twelve Tai Districts.
Toward the end of French colonial rule, the Tai districts were organized into a semi-autonomous federation under the rule of a White Tai (Tai On) descendant by the name of Deo Van Tri, and then his son, Deo Van Long. The defeat of the French during the well-known 1954 Dien Bien Phu Battle ended the Tai Federation, and led to an exodus of Tai Dam and Tai Khao (Tai On) people out of their homeland and into Laos, Thailand, and even France.
Today, the majority of Tai Dam people, estimated to be nearly a million, continue to live in North Vietnam, including Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau and Lao Cai. About 10,000 Tai Dam, refugees from Laos, live in the United States, mainly in Des Moines, Iowa.
We found the weather in Dien Bien Phu City to be similar to that of California; that is, pleasantly warm, dry and sunny. This favorable weather allowed us to make a brief visit to the bunker of the commander of the French at Dien Bien Phu. This fiercely contested battle with the Vietminh took place from March 13 to May 7, 1954, lasting one month, three weeks and three days.
Despite being confident of their food supplies, the superiority of their weapons, and their network of defensive trenches and bunkers, the 20,000 French troops were ultimately overwhelmed by 40,000 Vietminh soldiers under the command of the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013). Giap’s forces broke the French line and reaped a French defeat on May 7, and, as a result, the government of France granted independence throughout French IndoChina – the modern-day states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – at the 1954 Geneva Conference.
Visiting the site of this battle, we were solemnly reminded of the vast numbers of casualties on both sides, estimated by the French to be about 23,000. Interestingly, two Americans also died during this battle.
Many Hmong served on both sides, and were among those who perished. In the 1970s, a Hmong sergeant in the Royal Lao Army, who fought on the French side, related his experiences. He told of his luck in surviving and described paddy fields and ponds stained with the blood of the fallen and filled with dead bodies. Many war prisoners were forced to walk many miles without food or drink, so that some died along the way.
The province of Dien Bien Phu is home to many ethnic groups such as the Tai Dam (42.2 percent), Hmong (27.2 percent), Viet or Kinh (19 percent), Kho Mu (3.9 percent), as well as somewhat fewer numbers of Hani, Khang, Chinese, and various other ethnic groups. The Hmong are the second largest ethnic group in Dien Bien Phu province; since Dien Bien Phu is part of the ancient Twelve Tai Districts, the Thai are understandably the largest. The valley of Muong Thanh (Muong Thene) could be considered their Crater of Civilization.
We had an opportunity to meet and chat with provincial officials of Dien Bien Phu, including the provincial Chairman of the People’s Council, a Hmong who interacted with us in the Hmong language. Because Dien Bien Phu City is very close to the border of Laos, and less than 100 kilometers away from Muong Khua in Fonghsaly, we found the dialect of the Hmong of Dien Bien Phu to be very similar to our own.
In addition to being the site of the French defeat, Dien Bien Phu is also the site of many other painful events, including the May 2011 unrest which became a hot topic in the international media, with all parties in agreement that some Hmong Americans might have had a small role in this tragedy.
At an informal dinner that same evening, there was an opportunity for us to chat informally – occasionally in Hmong – with our hosts. One official of the Hmong Yang clan toasted Dr. Kou Yang, saying, “You and I do not eat the heart of the animal.”
Speaking a common language and sharing common traditions, we felt comfortable to explore the aches and pains of the past, and talking about these past scars is, indeed, the first step to healing those scars. After all, we are none other than people of the same family, separated by war and victims of war; many of us lost family members and friends to both sides of the conflict.
We left Dien Bien Phu City early the next morning and travelled to Muong Nhe District, arriving there a little after noon.
Checking into the guest house, we had lunch before making our way to the town’s boarding school for ethnic minority students, where we found some of the youngsters dressed in traditional outfits, including those of the Hmong. We also talked with some of these same Hmong students, who spoke fluent Hmong and were surprised to hear us speaking to them in their own language. We learned from school officials that the government provides free education, in addition to free room and board, to every one of the students in this school.
After this visit, we headed off toward Huoi Khuon, site of the unrest of May, 2011. There, we were briefed by commune officials on the details of the 2011 event. We learned that some sixty families joined the unrest here, and all of them came from out of town; many came from other provinces. It seems that these Hmong came to wait for the coming of their king, and that they wanted to establish their own kingdom.
Local Hmong, who are overwhelmingly Christian, did not join them. The two commune leaders who briefed us asserted that there was no killing and no one died at this time. They further related that, after days of talking and negotiating, the government decided peacefully to disperse them due to the development of health hazards in the environment.
A few participants were ill and needed medical care, and were sent to the hospital. Many were bused to their homes. These officials indicated that ‘bad elements’ were the cause of this unrest, but did not elaborate. We did not meet with members of the Huoi Khuon commune, and were told that they had gone to work in the fields.
In the evening, we returned to Muong Nhe town, and enjoyed a dinner hosted by the mayor of Muong Nhe. Five women dressed in ethnic minority outfits joined us for this dinner; three Hmong (all are married with children), one Hani, and one White Tai.
The dinner provided us an opportunity to interact with these women and, as a result, we learned that most of the Hmong in Muong Nhe district are new migrants from other provinces such as, for example, Ha Giang. One of these women is a teacher from Son La; she married a Hmong in Muong Nhe and came to live with her husband’s family. She told us that, owing to being new migrants, the Hmong in Muong Nhe are much poorer than the Hmong of Son La. It should be noted here that up to seventy percent of the population of Muong Nhe district are Hmong.
After breakfast on March 21, we said goodbye to our hosts in Muong Nhe and headed toward Lai Chau City. On the way, we stopped by a field to chat with a group of Hmong women who worked a field just off the road leading to the major avenue to Lai Chau and Dien Bien City. They were friendly and well-clothed and well-fed, and were surprised to see us and to hear us speaking Hmong.
Some of these ladies are literate in Vietnamese and were able to write their addresses for us. This was a rare opportunity to interact with a group of Hmong women and it was very touching to share a common language and feel the closeness to each other this generated. After stopping, we said goodbye to our new friends and continued on our journey to Lai Chau City.
Stopping in Muong Lay, Dien Bien Phu province, for a brief lunch, we crossed the Black River and continued on our route. Most of the ancestors of the Hmong of Laos crossed this river, so that many poignant thoughts of Muong Lay and Muong Thanh (the Hmong called them Moos Theeb Moos Lais) came to us.
On this drive to Lai Chau, we encountered many Hmong and passed through a number of Hmong villages. We also passed through many steep, high passes between majestic peaks, taking us across beautiful mountain ranges in Lai Chau province, where numerous Hmong villages are located; their terraced fields are both a symbol of beauty and of hard work.
The Vietnamese call these terraced fields ‘Ladders to Heaven’, but, ironically, many Hmong think of them more as symbols of ‘Labor in hell’ due to the fact that their construction has required intensive labor under severe conditions; and required, too, the carrying of rice from bottom to top or from top to bottom, depending on where the villages are located.
We arrived in Lai Chau City in the evening and went straight to the Muong Thanh Hotel. Our dinner was hosted by the Chairwoman of the Provincial People’s Council, a Hmong.
Aside from our wonderful dinner, we were entertained with traditional Hmong music such as that of the Keng (Qeej), folksongs (kwv txhiaj), leaf blowing (tshuab nplooj) and flute (raj), all prepared specially for us. We could easily interact with each other in Hmong; the only difference being that we say “Kuv”, when referring to I, that is, employing the first person pronoun, and use “Uv”, the same term Hmong American children use when they are small.
We spent only one night in Lai Chau City and, the next day, we went straight to the town of Sapa, one of the top tourist attractions in Vietnam. On the way, we stopped by various locations either to talk to Hmong venders or to enjoy scenic vistas, and arrived in Sapa before noon to check into our hotel.
After check-in, we were on our own to investigate the town of Sapa and its people; unfortunately, it was foggy, rainy, and wet, so we could not see the beautiful local terraces and Hmong villages. In the afternoon, we went to visit a Hmong village and a half-built Catholic Church.
We briefly attended a Catholic mass and interacted with a few faithful. Curious, we also stopped by a Hmong home and were entertained by the head of the household.
We learned that this family has been Catholic for more than 100 years, and their economy is quite sufficient; they have rice all year ‘round, with, perhaps, some occasional shortfall in protein. This was a permanent settlement, which may mean that the Hmong here are economically better off than the new migrants to Muong Nhe.
Dinner in Sapa was hosted by Mr. Hau A Leng, the Communist Secretary of Sapa town. A Hmong, he was unfailingly courteous and approachable, and walked the extra mile to offer our party traditional Hmong food.
One of these dishes was “taum si”, or fermented soy beans, and represented a variety of food on which the Hmong used to dine in Laos during the dry season when supplies were limited. This taum si reminded us all of our past and our future; we might live in America, the Land of Plenty, but our past is nevertheless a humble one.
Hau A Leng also attended our breakfast, spending a great deal of time with us to chat and exchange information and ideas. Additionally, he offered to pay for all of our meals while we were in his town.
In the morning of March 23, we said goodbye to our hosts in Sapa and then headed toward Lao Cai City, the capital of Lao Cai Province. After lunch, we went to the administrative headquarters, where we met with Sung Chung, the Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Lao Cai Province, and other high-ranking provincial officials.
We shared a productive chat on the situation of minorities, including the Hmong, in Lao Cai Province. Our hosts also asked us about the status of the Hmong in the United States, and we all expressed concern over the possibility of losing our Hmong culture and language.
Before dinner, we visited the border of Vietnam and China, where the Clear River meets the Red River. Most ancestors of the Hmong of Laos, including our own, have spoken of their difficulties in crossing the Red River – war, starvation, and the frightening problem faced in crossing this mighty river with no swimming skills.
We were deeply moved during the dinner when our hosts made a special effort to get “mov kuam” and other traditional Hmong food for us, seeking out these dishes from as far away as another town. The foods on offer reminded us of our humble backgrounds, and of the time our ancestors passed through these lands. We shared in a productive chat about how to preserve our culture and language, as well as other problems we all face in this Age of Globalization and the Internet.
In the morning of March 24, we headed toward Yen Bai City, where we were greeted by officials of the Northwest Steering committee. There, these gracious individuals hosted us at a luncheon and followed this with a formal meeting in which we discussed what we had learned during our trip.
At last, we said goodbye to our hosts and headed toward Hanoi along the Red River. At the Red River delta we learned why this area is known as the Crater of Vietnamese civilization; it is one of two major agricultural centers of Vietnam – the other being the Mekong River Delta in the south.
On the morning of March 25, we met with officials of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi to talk about our trip and to exchange information about what we had heard and seen.
Somewhat later, we met with officials of the Ministry of Public Security and were briefed on the May 2011 unrest and the government’s response. We learned that the Vietnamese government was very concerned for the safety and health of those who participated in the event, in addition to the associated security issues.
Dispersal had been deliberately peaceful, but it was called to our attention that some participants had been fashioning home-made weapons. This, in addition to the intention, expressed by some, of establishing a kingdom became a security issue.
In the end it was decided to call upon members of the armed forces to disperse the gathering, although the soldiers were allowed no weapons and the action was accomplished without injuries. Many people were sent home and a small number were arrested as instigators. Of the number arrested, seven were tried and convicted to sentences of from three or four years. As of 2014, some are already out of prison.
This account offered by these officials is consistent with what we were told throughout the visit, and was not disputed by the Americans officials we talked to. It is, however, very much at odds with accounts furnished by American media channels to the effect that the Vietnamese forces killed 72 Hmong, while hundreds were arrested or fled the site in Huoi Khuon, Muong Nhe district.
We left Vietnam on March 26 and headed home with much to sort out. From what we saw and heard, there is no evidence to substantiate the allegation that the Vietnam military killed 72 Hmong, or that hundreds were arrested or fled.
During the trip, we met with many officials of Hmong descent at the national, provincial and local government levels; one minister, two provincial governors, and one town official. We felt that many of these officials with whom we met were politely humble in their presentations of the social structure and economy of Vietnam, as well as in their public policies. It appeared that they were willing to hear our opinions and our perspectives on their shortcomings, if any.
With a population of over a million, the Hmong are one of the largest ethnic groups and represent about one percent of the people of Vietnam. They remain, however, one of the poorest ethnic groups, much of the reason being their remote villages, coupled with a lack of education and little access to the developing economy of Vietnam.
When compared with the Hmong in China and Laos, Vietnamese Hmong share a similar economic situation. In general, the Hmong in the provinces we visited are not more poor than the Hmong of other countries, although we have heard from both officials and from the Hmong themselves that the Hmong of Ha Giang are the poorest among all Hmong. We unfortunately did not have the time needed to go there and see for ourselves if this is true or not.
Living conditions in the provinces we visited are similar to those of the Hmong of southern China and some parts of Laos. Many Hmong are actively involved in civic and government affairs, as mentioned above.
We heard from many sources that the government has made every possible effort to assist ethnic minorities with the preservation of their cultures and languages. One of the many strategies adopted in doing so has been the implementation of bi-lingual education in some areas, and the encouragement of the Hmong to celebrate their new year and other traditional festivals.
The government has also provided free health care to poor ethnic minorities, including some Hmong in rural areas. Accessibility to this health care is, however, a challenge in that many Hmong live far from hospitals and do not have the means to travel to specialists in metropolitan hospitals/clinics.
The lack of resources, in addition to language and cultural barriers, has made it difficult to implement fully many government policies and to access the nation’s economy, now the second fastest-growing in Asia. The government, we have learned, has made efforts to build schools in many rural communities, but because of poverty and lack of educational incentives, many children from poorer families tend to drop out of school at a young age.
From what we have heard, the unrest of May, 2011, might have been caused by many factors, including misinformation; misinterpretation of religion; the lack of well-trained pastors/priests; poverty; lack of education and hope; and, in addition to a history which has furnished them messiah movements, obtaining wrong information via radio, Internet, and religious individuals.
In this context, it should be borne in mind that the term ‘bad elements’ is often used by Vietnamese officials to reference many antisocial characters without any link to Hmong Americans. Unofficially and privately, some lower-ranking officials have listed the names of specific Hmong Americans as being instigators; some of these individuals are affiliated with religions, others are not.
A few are radio personalities who advocate the establishment of ‘Hmongland.’ Although these individuals do not represent the mainstream of Hmong Americans, they do provide misinformation about or misinterpretation of certain religions, and have given false hope to some Vietnamese Hmong.
It is important that Hmong Americans are more broadly educated, so that they may do their part in preventing unrest and related problems. Ultimately, this unrest causes more harm than good to the Hmong of Vietnam, as well as to the greater Hmong worldwide community.
Emphasis must be placed upon the common good of all people and religions without seeking to blame others. The prevention of unrest is the moral, ethical, and social responsibility of everyone, including religious, radio personalities, political leaders, and individuals who visit Vietnam.
There is a need to connect Hmong Vietnamese to mainstream Hmong Americans, who see the past as a history from which one may learn, and who wish to devote their time to making a difference in the future. More than fifty percent of Hmong Americans today are under the age of twenty, and most of these young Hmong want to move beyond the war chapter of their history. They know that history cannot be changed, but the future can, and they therefore focus their energies and time on this future challenge.
In sum, this visit reminds us of what Sun Tzu wrote: “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious”. War has a beginning; it must have an end, as well.
Taking a win/win approach to the painful past may be the right path to healing the scars of the war and turning a page of history. A native of Vietnam, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, has said, “Reconciliation is to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side.”
It is not easy, but, in the end, there is no other choice. The clock is ticking, and dwelling on the past is not a wise choice; we must close the chapter on the war and move on to the next page of our narrative.
A Fulbright Scholar and Sasakawa Fellow, Kou Yang, Ed. D. is a Professor Emeritus of California State University, Stanislaus. With an extensive publication record on Hmong Diaspora, history and culture, the Hmong American experience, Lao culture, and the American experiences of Indochinese refugees, his essays have appeared in widely-consulted peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Asian American Studies; Ethnic Studies Review; Asian Pacific Migration Journal; Hmong Studies Journal; Miao Research Journal, Journal of Guizhou University for Nationalities; and Journal of Hubei Institute for Nationalities.
In addition, he has contributed chapters to numerous books, including Passage (1990); Hmong Forum (1996); The Hmong: An Introduction to their History and Culture (2004); Hmong/Miao Migration (2007); Emerging Voices: The Experiences of Underrepresented Asian Americans (2008); The Impact of Globalization and Trans-nationalism on the Hmong (2009); Hmong/Miao Research (2009); Hmong and American: From Refugees to Citizens (2012), and Diversity within Diaspora: Hmong Americans in the Twenty-First Century (2013). He is co-editor of “Diversity within Diaspora: Hmong Americans in the Twenty-First Century”, an anthology from the University of Hawaii Press (2013), and author of “Laos and Its Expatriates in the United States” a book from PublishAmerica (2013).
Since 1986, Professor Kou Yang added a critical international component to his research and teaching when he spent six months studying and teaching in China. In 2004, he led the California State University, Stanislaus’ Fulbright-Hay Group Project to China, and then, in 2009, he was instrumental in taking a group of international scholars on a post-conference tour of Guizhou.
In addition to being the co-recipient of the 2004 Fulbright grant, as well as the sole recipient of the 2005 Sasakawa Fellowship, he has received numerous other awards for his many contributions to research and teaching. He has presented papers in many international conferences, held in countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and China.
For research and leisure, he has travelled widely, with visits to Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Germany, France, Italy, Laos, Malaysia, Monaco, Switzerland, and Vietnam.
A former social worker, Kou Yang has a long history of professional and community service. Currently, he is a member of the Board of Advisory of the Bridge Community Center. Previously, he served on the Board of Directors of Hmong National Development Inc., and on the Commission on the Future of Education in Fresno County.
Dr. Kou Yang earned his Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership from the Joint Doctoral Program of Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno CSUF)/University of California at Davis (UCD). He also holds an MSW in Social Work and a BA in Sociology from CSUF. Additionally, he has completed special educational programs on Buddhism and Lao Language/Culture, Chinese and Chinese Ethnic Studies, and Japanese Studies.
Kou Yang speaks, reads and writes Hmong, Lao and English. He reads and speaks Thai and French with limitations. He is very familiar with Chinese culture and has limited speaking skills in Mandarin Chinese.
Dia Cha, Ph.D. is currently (2010-2013) a consultant and CEO of Your Consulting Services, Inc. This is a private corporation that provides applied and action research as well as program evaluation and project assessments for various interested groups ranging from business corporations to community nonprofit groups.
Dr. Dia Cha has been a Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she taught courses in cultural anthropology, ethnic studies, Southeast Asian communities, Asian American studies, and Hmong studies. A Hmong American and a prolific author, she has written widely-acclaimed books for children and adults, and is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Hmong cultural traditions and folkways, traveling widely to offer a variety of presentations on these and related topics.