Battling for Hmong heritage in Vietnam

Fighting for their rights: A worker handling a plank while constructing a house in Dong Van district, Vietnam’s Ha Giang province, home to the Hmong ethnic minority. — AFP

Dong Van (Vietnam): Vuong Duy Bao surveys his ancestral palace, a vestige of Viet­nam’s marginalised Hmong ethnic minority that he says was taken from his family by local officials.

The wooden structure is laden with historic markers: opium flowers carved into pillars in a nod to the region’s once-booming trade, and an iron fence made with metal imported from former colonial ruler France.

Built in 1903 by Bao’s warlord grandfather with his opium fortune, the retired civil ser­vant claims local authorities took possession of the property in the northern Ha Giang province from his family and are now refusing to return it.

“Hmong people all over the world acknowledge this as (our) family home ... so we can’t lose it,” he said from the building, which authorities run as a museum.

Both sides agree it is an architectural treasure since the historically nomadic Hmong rarely stayed long enough in one place to build anything lasting.

Bao had been living in Hanoi, but on return to the family home, he discovered local authorities had taken ownership of the palace and rejected his claim to it because he could not provide deeds.

He branded the request “absurd” and said official documents did not exist when the property was built but his family’s connection to it was set out in history books about the local area and even in pictures of it displayed in the museum.

Many Hmong fear the government is simply commandeering their culture to boost tourism dollars.

Bao believes Hmong heritage belongs in the hands of Hmong people, a tight-knit minority originally from China who proudly cling to customs wherever they settle.

In Vietnam, they have been largely excluded from the economic growth of the past decade, and more than 60% of the country’s one million Hmong live below the poverty line.

“More than any other ethnic minority in Vietnam the Hmong have been marginalised by programmes that purport to develop them,” writes anthropologist Ngo Tam in her 2016 book The New Way: Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam.

Ha Giang authorities are touting tourism as the best way to lift the Hmong out of gruelling poverty, and the province has said in its master plan it wants the area to be a “key attraction” for visitors by 2030.

Local Hmong are encouraged to wear traditional hemp clothing and build traditional houses, and have been asked to shorten funeral and wedding ceremonies, days-long, booze-soaked affairs that are among the most sacred of Hmong rituals.

“Sometimes authorities try to impose their ideas on people forcibly, but we resist by refusing to follow,” Vang My Sinh, a Hmong man in Ha Giang, told AFP.

“We’ve always had strong community spirit, we build things together and preserve things together. Nothing can break us.” — AFP

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