issue 216 - February 1991
Land in hand
A TRIP TO THE HILLS... BIG BROTHER IN THE TREES...
TRIALS OF A VEGETARIAN ABROAD... MOMENTOUS CHANGES...
WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?... AN AID WORKER IN ACTION
I sit bolt upright on the wooden board that passes as my bed. It's 5.15 in the morning and still dark yet it sounds like someone has turned on a radio at full blast an inch or two from my ear. I emerge from the half-world inside the mosquito net and peer out of the window to see a loudspeaker suspended from a tree.
My Vietnamese being limited at present to chào (hello) and cámon (thank you), I am unable to tell whether I am being assailed by a keep-fit course or a lesson in Leninist theory but I'm sure it's very edifying - just a mite loud and intrusive in these country environs. It brings to mind the first time I encountered a loud-speaker in a Communist country - in a remote Tibetan village thousands of miles from the Chinese capital whence the announcement originated. It may have been designed to keep people in touch who couldn't afford radios. But it couldn't help seeming a grotesque intrusion with inescapable shades of Big Brother. And this particular 'Good Morning Vietnam!' doesn't feel very different.
I'm in the rural district of Phu Luong, having driven north out of Hanoi the day before into the hills that separate the Vietnamese plains from China. Hanoi itself lies on one of Vietnam's two great waterways, the Red River, and its flat delta is the ricebowl of the North, as fertile as it is densely populated. It is also staggeringly beautiful, with that luminescent green peculiar to paddy fields set off by the hills on the horizon. Much of the beauty derives from the hundreds of conical-hatted farmers who stoop patiently to their labour. And it feels rather indecent to derive pleasure from the sight of such bloody hard work.
But the pleasure is there all the same and I rue it when we pass out of the Red River Delta and into the increasingly hilly country of Bac Thai Province. I have cast off my interpreter-minder for a couple of days in the field with Siep Littooy, a Dutch agronomist with CIDSE, the European aid agency which represents UK charities such as Christian Aid and CAFOD here.
Siep has been working in Vietnam for four years and there can be few Westerners who know it so well - apart from his on-the-ground experience in the rural areas, he has a Vietnamese wife and speaks the language. But even for him every step is hedged round with formalities. We have had to seek permission from the Ministry of the Interior to make the trip at all; we have had to report to the provincial headquarters and pick up an official who sits quietly making notes on my conversations; and now we're in Phu Luong we must lunch with someone from its People's Committee before getting to the real business of the day.
Lunch looms as a problem for me, vegetarian as I am. In the city it's generally all right since even though every dish has meat or fish in it I can usually order egg fried rice (or, if I really want to ring the changes, boiled rice with omelette). This becomes a trifle monotonous but at least it's inoffensive.
The rural areas of the Third World are always more of a problem for a vegetarian, though. In poor areas you clearly have to eat what everyone else does - and all too often they have wheeled out some special meat dish in your honour. Sometimes there is simply no altemative but to close your eyes and swallow hard. Fortunately this time there seems to be enough commotion around the table for me to avoid both meat and discourtesy. I make what I consider an acceptable compromise by dipping my omelette in nuoc chain, the salty fish sauce which accompanies every Vietnamese meal.
My main goal here is to talk to ordinary farmers about their lives - and to as many women as possible. But I soon realize that this will be by no means easy. I am courteously received in the houses of two different male farmers, impressive wood-and-thatch structures built on stilts. These are Thy people, from one of the many ethnic minorities in this hilly region. They talk readily about their lives and their views. But it is clear from what they say that they are Party stalwarts, with distinguished military-service records - and the women hang in the background, unwilling to come forward and talk.
I am clearly being 'directed'. Nevertheless I find it curious that men from an ethnic minority (whom you expect to be marginalized or oppressed in some way) should identify so completely with the Vietnamese Communist Party. The second of these men, Hoang Doan Chi, has the gentlest, saddest eyes. When he looks at me I feel he must be talking from the depths of his soul - even as he trots out the Party line. Above us as we talk are two framed medals alongside photos of Lenin, Marx and Ho Chi Minh - the only decoration in the windowless one-room house. His eyes follow mine.
'You're looking at the medals and certificates? I took part in the resistance against the French and in the American War as well. I served 25 years in the Army before retiring through illness.
'I have always been a Communist, yes. I learned a lot during my service in the Army about the works of Marx and Lenin on philosophy, economics and politics. These seemed very important insights to me.'
I wonder what such a faithful Communist thinks of the momentous changes that have taken place in agriculture under doi moi. The year he got married, 1954, was also the year when the Vietnamese won a momentous victory against the French colonial army at Dien Bien Phu and were able to start collectivizing agriculture in the northern half of the country. Villages were grouped into communes which owned the land and distributed food and welfare services - the 300 hamlets in Phu Luong, for example, were grouped into 25 communes. But since 1986 land has been leased back to individual families: they don't formally own it but have complete freedom to cultivate it and sell their produce on the open market.
Mr Chi thinks this is a much better way of doing things but doesn't believe it undermines Communist principles. 'We believe in the ideas of Nguyen van Linh (the Party Leader) and in the guidance of the Party. The Vietnamese Communist Party will remain true.' But to what?
Back at the District headquarters I end up interviewing Mr Dan, Phu Luong's President. We talk in complete darkness since there is a power cut in this, the northernmost outpost in Vietnam with electricity. It is a profound darkness I have rarely experienced in the West, where we are always so close to cities or street lights: it envelops us so utterly that our voices become disembodied.
Mr Dan is from another ethnic minority, the Zao, yet he seems devoid of pride in his traditional culture. He says he doesn't think it important that traditional Zao language and culture are disappearing and wouldn't mind if his own grandchildren only spoke Vietnamese. His only residual trace of ethnic pride comes when he protests at the habitual assumption that deforestation in the hills - a major problem throughout Vietnam - is caused by minority peoples. He claims it is settlers from the plains who cause most damage, which certainly squares with the situation in other countries.
I tell him that I and the Western aid workers I have met are very worried about what will happen to health and education services under doi moi. Whereas before all profits went through the commune now everyone simply pays a standard 10-per-cent tax on their harvest. There is a local levy on top of this which varies from place to place (about eight per cent here) but this is not enough to pay for health and_education. There is a clinic in every community, for example, but there are now no funds to pay for medical staff or for necessary drugs.
Mr Dan is unworried - as a government official he would be unlikely to be otherwise. But so too is every other Vietnamese I ask about this in the course of my trip. It is as if they are so enthusias tic about the new system based on individual responsibility that they will not criticize any of its negative side-effects.
Next day I travel to another commune in search of farmers. But this time I insist on speaking to a family headed by a widow - I figure she will be used to talking and acting independently and will also be less likely than a man to be a Party stalwart. The tactic pays off (see box) but, all the same, by the time I meet Siep for lunch at the Commune President's house, I am finding the general male domination in these parts oppressive. Everywhere I go I am received by men alone; I ask how many women are on every People's Committee I meet and of the 12 to 15 members there is never more than one woman and often none at all. And here at lunch 12 men are cooked for and waited on by women. At this point I feel justified in concluding that 40 years of Communism has not exactly made women's liberation a priority.
But we maintain a diplomatic silence - and this indeed seems to be a large part of Siep's job. Watching him at work it's clear that the main qualities a development worker needs are the capacity to listen and endless reserves of patience. His work this morning is a case in point. He's checked the irrigation repairs which CIDSE are paying for and found no progress at all. Instead of venting his natural frustration he has left it to the District Engineer to find out why.
'Always, always, the approach to people is the thing,' he says. 'For example if I ask a farmer here what he knows about irrigation techniques he will say "I know nothing - we are all ignorant peasants here". But if I ask him how he irrigates his plot he will gladly show me what he knows. That listening attitude .requires tact and patience because you know you could often cut through it all six times as fast if you just said what to do.
'What you have to keep uppermost in your mind is that if you rush to intervene it may speed things up in some cases. But you will make mistakes in others through overriding local knowledge or custom, or through leaving local people with less sense of responsibility for the project.'
When I take my leave of Siep he is listening to a lengthy and painstaking report from a local committee. And I'm a little ashamed at how relieved I am not to have to sit through it too.
Mai Thi Bic
Madame Bic is a 66-year-old widow. Like most older Vietnamese
My parents moved to this area because of starvation in their home village. And when I was 19 I got married to a local farmer. I had no schooling at all - I would have liked to learn but we were really too poor for that sort of thing.
You're right, I've had my teeth blackened in the old style. Time was when every girl had to blacken her teeth at the age of 15. I was very willing to have it done. But now we must follow the new custom and make sure girls keep their white teeth - all my daughters do.
I had nine children. Two of my sons volunteered to fight in the American War at 17; both of them were killed. I don't know anything about what happened to them: no-one I know ever heard more then that their sons were dead. Of course I couldn't help hating the Americans. But at the same time I knew we had to fight, that we couldn't allow them to invade our country.
I became a widow in the same year as my sons were killed - my husband died of malaria. At that time my family was poor and we had no money for medicine. Ever since those times I have had to work much harder. Who would have assisted my children if not me? I simply had to go on.
Things have been very different the last four years - we now have our own land to work. And the wind makes my face cool - which is our way of saying things are much better. Before 1986 it was rather difficult not just for me but for all farmers. To speak frankly we didn't have enough food and sometimes had nothing but soup to eat. Now there is more food. It's still not as much as we'd like because here the population is big and the land is small. But we at least now can manage.
What would I say to people in America? Just that I hope peace will come to all the world and that no-one will have to die like my sons.