Advice on Visiting Hill-tribes in Vietnam

Discussion in 'Vietnam - Motorcycle Trip Report Forums' started by Rod Page, Nov 24, 2011.

  1. Relationships between the 'hill-tribe' ethnics & the Vietnamese have been uneasy for centuries since Vietnamese expansion pushed hill-tribe people into the hills.

    The French colonials recognised the hill-tribes as a separate community but the Vietnam government later tried to assimilate them through abolishing tribal schools & courts, prohibiting stilt houses & through land appropriation. In response the hill-tribes formed guerilla movements, which were later courted by the USA during the American War. They paid dearly for collaborating with the Americans - large numbers of Vietnamese were settled amongst them, they in turn were relocated, educational & religious freedoms were clamped down on, & all amidst constant surveillance & harrasment.

    In my report covering the Ho Chi Min Trail I showed photograps of certain Ede houses in Buon Ma Thuot that the government wants you to see, as well as those of villagers near Ban Don where the reality of a still poor & marginalised people are readily apparent.

    In 2001 & 2004 hill-tribe protests erupted. They were quickly, even violently suppressed. These protests were centred around Pleiku & the government responded by prohibiting foreigners from visiting the area. The rules have been relaxed but in some areas you may need a permit to visit certain villages. I mention this as one who is tempted to visit villages along the route. We would ride into certain villages & witnessed the villagers taken totally by surprise at our arrival. If we stopped & dismounted from our bikes or took out our cameras they would flee to a safe distance & watch us from behind buildings or whatever.

    As someone who champions the differences in peoples, the preservation of their languages & cultures, I enjoyed greatly my years in northern Thailand amongst the hill-tribe peoples. They are people who proudly & justifiably thrive in their different customs, costumes & language.

    'Assimilation' in Vietnam has brought about a community of poor people rarely seen in traditional clothing reduced (almost) to the lowest common denominator with little individuality. Fortunately the Vietnamese government has begun to see the tourist potential of these great people & slowly their customs, culture & languages are making a return, if only, presently, for commercial purposes.

    In witnessing gatherings of hill-tribe peoples such as those which recently took place in Hua Mae Kham (Thailand), lets hope the freedoms for those in Vietnam continue.
  2. Thanks for the heads up Rod. Makes me appreciate more the freedom we have here in Thailand. I know it is far from perfect and there are many people here with an apparent standard of living, which looks less than acceptable, but it seems well ahead of the areas you are now travelling
  3. Many factors shaped the situation in both countries, some historical but most political. Travelling through Vietnam & witnessing the current plight of hill-tribes through a policy of 'assimilation' makes (or should make) those of us who speak english reflect on the english speaking world's 'why learn another language; you only need english' approach. The preservation of differences, of the traditions, cultures & languages of others is an admirable approach.
  4. Thanks for the interesting informative post Rod.

    It's always a "problem" for governments dealing with different ethnic groups inside their boundaries. Some of them seem to deal with the diversity better than others, but it is never good if you are getting the rough end of the stick.
    The position of the ethnic peoples in & around Sapa in the North was very complex with the mass tourism there & you had to sympathize with them.
    Laos & Thailand must seem pretty good compared your experience in Vietnam by the sounds of it.
  5. I'm far from an expert on the subject; my opinions being losely formed as I rode around the hills of Thailand & Laos (& occassionally strayed into Myanmar) in the knowledge that the more I knew about the hill-tribes the greater would be my understanding & enjoyment of the area in which I rode.

    Its difficult to form a definitive position in the absence of living extensively amongst those concerned, getting to better understand their culture, but recent history tells us much. From what I can glean the following issues appear to have had a bearing on the differences in the quality of life being experienced by hill-tribe peoples in different countries in SE Asia.

    The hill-tribe people in Golden Triangle countries have for centuries been captives of a system dictated by political expediancy & based on corruption & illegality. Until the end of WW11 all countries in SE Asia ran government controlled opium monopolies; the hill-tribes grew the opium. From the early 1970's the Golden Triangle became the world's largest source of narcotics; the hill-tribes became dependant for their very existence on producing the opium required.

    To better understand the impact on hill-tribes there's merit in looking at a broad overview of opium trade in the Golden Triangle around end 1960's/early 1970's. It looked something like this:
    Growers - mainly hill-tribes growing the poppies & earning a pittance whilst being 'taxed' by insurgents & paying bribes to government officials.
    Insurgents/militia - operating the poppy-growing areas & collecting the taxes. The KMT & certain mainly muslim chinese traders, the greatest of whom was warlord Khun Sa, tied opium growers to heroin laboratories through a network of debt & credit & through managing the laboratories.
    Merchants - bought the opium from producers & paid tax to the insurgents who they also hired to transport the opium to refineries.
    The Ka Kwe Ye - Burma's home guard units who often transported their own & merchants product.
    The KMT - a buffer & unofficial border police for Thailand, they collected intelligence for Taiwan, the USA & Thailand.
    International narcotics syndicates - usually Chinese who supplied the chemists & controlled drug distribution world-wide. they have vast amounts of money to buy protection, to make drug production possible & to ensure that drug enforcement agencies concentrate on 'the small guys'.


    1. BURMA
    Burma was the greatest producer of raw opium in the Golden Triangle. The KMT moved virtually all of Burma's opium into the Golden Triangle for distribution, processing & export. They imposed a burdensome system of taxes on any opium passing into Thailand forcing hill-tribes to grow an ever increasing amount.

    Later the Burmese junta propped up its failing economy with black money flowing from opium, & further encouraged trade in the hope that it would produce in-fighting amongst rebel militia/hill-tribe militia in the Shan States.

    With the surrender of Khun Sa control over the border passed to a collaborating Burmese & Wa with Burma largely controlling the crossings & the Wa everything in between. It was business as usual, the Burmese communists took control of the poppy fields selling their opium to refineries along the Burmese side of its border with Thailand. The Golden Triangle would remain the world's leading opium producer until 1998. International pressure on Burma, the collapse of their economy, drought, competition for heroin markets from Latin America & new-found co-operation between Thailand & Burma has seen Golden Triangle opium production drop (though it still produced sufficient to service international markets).

    In a brutal war over sixty years the Burmese junta have occupied hill-tribe villages to control the rural populations. Rape, torture, murder, slavery and forced relocation are common whilst tens of thousands of orphans now live in refugee camps in Thailand or IDP (internally displaced people) camps in Burma.

    The Burmese junta is now endeavouring to exploit differences between a nationalist UWSA & their business partner, methamphetamine kingpin Wei, pressuring Wei to turn his forces into a government backed militia under a veiled threat that attack from Burma or Thailand would be 'bad for business'.

    Burma is increasing the pressure on the insurgents/hill-tribe militia to lay down their arms & to join a united border control force under junta control & direction. The insurgents/ethnic armies continue to hold nationalistic goals - like the Was, the Shan who have been fighting for autonomy since 1958 & the Karen, fighting since 1949, would never accept a unitary state. They are preparing for a possible resumption of hostilities.

    It is a volatile wait-&-see situation which could well erupt at any moment.

    2. LAOS
    Laos was an impoverished nation lacking any economic or political criteria for nationhood; as the countries Finance Minister Sisouk told the BBC in 1975: "the only export we can develop here is opium".

    From the late 1950's Laos was involved in marketing opium produced locally by hill-tribes & in the transit traffic of Burmese opium. Following the 1967 Opium War Laos developed the biggest refineries in the Golden Triangle & operated by General Ouane Rattikone, Commander in Chief of the Royal Laotian Army.

    Whist the USA government financed the anti-communist Royal Laotian Army, the CIA at the very same time was financing the Communist Pathet Lao! General Ouane exchanged arms for opium with the smaller but more ideological warlords desirous of a free Shan State.

    For 15 years the CIA maintained a secret army of 30,000 men, mostly CIA trained Hmong farmers, in Long Chieng which became Laos second largest town with the busiest airport in the world (but never appeared on any map!) CIA 'assets' controlled the opium business directly using the services own airline, Air America, based in Long Chieng.


    Thailand played a role in the Golden Triangle's emergence through a corrupt political system, a corrupt police force lacking in professionalism & a military whose strategic & financial needs were met by transit traffic of narcotics through Thailand. For example, the border crossing at Arunothai was used at night to move masses of illegally logged teak & opium across into Thailand, something Thailand did not wish the world to see whilst at Piang Luang, Thailand had it all - illegal logging, opium growing, heroin trafficking, subterfuge immigration, contraband, communist insurgency, fugitive criminals & a KMT massacre by Thai authorities. There was plenty of heroin for kick-backs to Thai army & police; restricted access to the area ensured the easy relationship between Khun Sa & Thai officials & the co-operation between Khun Sa, Burma & Thailand in internationally condemned teak logging would not be seen by the world.

    When the hill-tribes, who Thailand used as a buffer against Burma, rose-up around Chiang Rai in 1968, the Thai army, ill-suited for mountain warfare, turned to the KMT for help, which strengthened the KMT to the detriment of hill-tribes.

    A series of political manoeuvres dominated events before, in June 1977, Khun Sa in speaking to the press without reservation so embarrased the Thai government that they took action that ultimately saw his retreat into Burma. Thailand looked to fill the void in local hill-tribe income sources through 'alternative cultivation' projects. In terms of the Thai position Khun Sa had said: "If you feed them, they are friendly...............why should they fight or capture their money tree".

    Though overshadowed by the military drama, Khun Sa's closing economic manoeuvre left a legacy for the Golden Triangle - methamphetamines - most of which arrive in Thailand.

    4. VIETNAM

    For centuries the dominant majority, the viet, pushed the ethnic hill-tribes deeper into the mountains, into less & less viable pockets of land. Resisting the push & wishing to maintain their own way of life, traditions & culture the hill-tribes formed resistance movements to subsequent Vietnamese attempts to 'assimilate' them. It was perhaps inevitable that the hill-tribes would see the US in the American War as a possible means through which their goals could be attained; they would pay dearly for being on the 'wrong side'.

    The situation in Burma where hill-tribes continue to operate against a bankrupt government through ethnic armies is not mirrored in Vietnam. In Laos, the comparatively small population has not seen hill-tribes being pressured for land as they have been in Vietnam & the relative poverty of the country sees the status quo continue somewhat unchanged. In Thailand hill-tribes maintained a certain 'independence' if only through being used in political plays far from their control (as they were in Laos also).

    Vietnam hill-tribes were not major players in the drug trade known to Golden Triangle countries. They've been pressured in terms of land holdings & in terms of attempted assimilation, something the hill-tribes in other countries considered here have yet to be subjected. In recent times the Vietnamese government has recognised the merit in maintaining cultural differences, if only for commercial, tourist orientated reasons. As Vietnam develops I believe we will see more of the similarities between these peoples & less of the differences develop.
  6. Thank you Rod for your write-up. I appreciate every contribution helping to understand the situation of ethnic minorities. On our bikes, we are lucky to meet more people than the usual « group travelers », but we do not always have enough time or means of communication to go in depth. I am keen to learn more, not only about hilltribes, but also about other groups, like the « Tai » (Dai) families (also important in Vietnam). For the time being, I am focusing on North Thailand and North Laos … but maybe an incentive to join you in Vietnam :)
  7. John Gooding on this thread mentioned the varying standards of living of hill-tribes in different countries in SE Asia.

    Recently on researching a trip through hill-tribe inhabited areas of Vietnam I came across an article on Vietnam's 2.5 million stunted children, stunted for no other reason than chronic malnutrition. Over 40% of hilltribe children are stunted for this very reason. I was stunned to read of a 3 year old boy heading to school with a lunchbox of rice, salt & chilli - by the time he arrives at school the chilli has withered; his family monthly income is 250,000vnd ($12) so the family can only afford to feed him 1 meat meal per month!

    It makes you reflect on what you may take in your back-pack if travelling in the area.
  8. As a rider who enjoyed having contact with hilltribes & who profited greatly from the culturally enriching experience of participating in their cultural events, I have been concerned, if only through reading what seems to be a declining number of trip reports on GTR covering these events, that the number & authenticity of such events seems to be declining in the face of "progress".For the next 2 days a seminar is taking place in Cambodia - - indicative that " 'civilisation' is knocking on their very doors".Vietnam, Thailand & Laos will all be participating but the agenda seems loaded for change rather than the preservation of their existing cultural identity as if this had limited tourist value to improve their livleihoods.Many in norther parts of SE Asia will be hoping to see an educational programme with a view to improving the air quality in the area during the annual burn-off.

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