In Marseilles, I met an illegal immigrant from Nghe An. He said his boss and housemates in Paris were all from the same province. Long known for its poverty, Nghe An leads Vietnam in the ratio of people working overseas, with most never returning. In fact, so many have become illegal in South Korea, Vietnam is blocking 11 Nghe An districts from sending people there.
Last week, I was in Nghe An for a three-day wedding. The one-hour-forty-five-minute flight from Saigon landed me at an airport, Vinh International, with no other planes. Across its empty tarmac, we walked to the new, airy terminal. Outside, there was a large, colorful mural of Ho Chi Minh being applauded by citizens and soldiers, and presented with flowers by two children. Flying over Uncle Ho’s head, a plane dropped nothing.
Nghe An is Ho’s home province, so in Vinh (pop. 500,000), his 39-foot-tall granite statue lords over Vietnam’s largest square. As I shall explain, much space was available.
Going into town for lunch, I noticed many houses had roof spires that evoked nearby Laos. Across the border was Xiangkhouang, the most heavily bombed Laotian province during the Vietnam War, with American planes pulverizing all but one of its temples, some dating to the 16th century. As the starting point of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Nghe An was also pummeled, with Vinh leveled by more than 4,700 air strikes.
On the way to the wedding, I passed Truong Bon, where on October 31 1967, American bombs hit a road repair crew. All 13 victims were under 20, with 11 of them female. Perhaps it’s because most were only teenage girls, they’re honored with a huge monument that attracts a thousand visitors daily.
I walked into a spartan roadside store to find some skinny old guy behind a lonely glass cabinet.
“Yes, uncle, I just came up from Saigon. Have you been?”
“More than twenty years ago,” he grinned, showing only a few teeth.
“Where were you in Saigon, uncle?”
That’s over 200 miles north of Saigon, I thought, but close enough. Similarly, many southern Vietnamese routinely refer to all of northern Vietnam as “Hanoi.” Many would even say, “Will you come to Hanoi or Vietnam?”
The wedding was in Quy Hop, an idyllic city of 119,000 that’s ringed by mountains, with a serene lake downtown. Its chief economic activities are stone quarrying, tin mining and logging, resulting in fantastic wealth for some. I walked past quite a few ridiculously fine houses, including a marble mansion boasting a huge roofed gate that’s made from a single block of stone. I also talked to a man whose daughter, working in Saigon, could only afford to visit him once every few years. “We’re still very poor,” the sun-baked man sighed. Among crotch-high sugar cane, his wife poked around with a hoe.
Unlike much of Vietnam, the water buffalo is still widely used as a draft animal in Nghe An. In tiny, remote Van Loi, however, school kids now wear jeans, with nice backpacks, something I never saw while visiting similar villages in 1995.
At the first banquet, a 57-pound goat was slaughtered, and that’s enough food for seven tables. Every bit of the goat used for a variety of dishes, including blood pudding. A local specialty is “hill chicken” [“gà đồi”], but this mountaineering fowl was so tough, I couldn’t develop a taste for it. For breakfast, locals prefer eel congee or eel soup, eaten with bread. Both are sophisticatedly seasoned and quite hearty. They drink a bright green “stabbed tea” [“trà đâm”], that’s made from freshly crushed leaves of exactly the right age. If too old, the tea darkens, and if too young, it’s bitter. Stabbed tea originated with the Tai, one of 36 ethnic minorities in Nghe An.
A Quy Hop custom requires you to shake everyone’s hand after each toast, and that night, I shook so many hands, it made me groggy for all of the next day. The crazy folks of Quy Hop can sure down their banana wine, much of it home brewed. Women, too, knocked them down. Outdoing the rest, a construction worker guzzled his from a beer mug. Over the next three days, I had to repeatedly decline his aggressive toasts, and once, he freakishly bounded out of the dark as I walked down an empty dirt road in Chau Dinh, miles from the wedding. “Oh come on, just a few! My house is right there!” I had to peel his fingers from my arm. Glancing at his dwelling, I spotted two pool tables under fluorescent lights, his wife’s side business. Along with alcohol, volleyball and procreation, it’s such a village’s chief diversion.
Heroin, though, is Nghe An’s most troublesome addiction, and it’s growing. Smuggling it from Laos, many locals make the news. In 2015, two Nghe An brothers were executed for trafficking 450 pounds of this nodding, passing euphoria. Armed with just a knife, two motorcyclists were caught on January 31 with 15 pounds of heroin and 11 of crystal meth. Since having over 1.3 pound of dope means a mandatory death by injection, they’re done.
I had come to this wedding knowing neither the groom nor bride, only the bride’s brother’s Saigon boss, but it was more than enough, for as soon as I showed up, I was warmly welcomed into the endless carousing. Generous, gregarious and down-to-earth the 43-year-old Saigon boss is very well-liked, and this pervasive affection spilled over onto me.
I was told that the bride had been deeply withdrawn and clearly possessed by some demon, literally, until she was cured by a renowned fortune teller, “He can even tell you when you’ll die, brother. Once he told a perfectly healthy man that he would die four days later, and sure enough, the man went to sleep that night, feeling perfectly normal, but he never woke up again.” At the wedding, the bride was gracious and self-assured. As the Wagner came on, she stood beaming on stage, next to her man.
To plan any important occasion, most Vietnamese consult a fortune teller for the best date, and even time. In real life, however, events can take unexpected turns. In Quy Hop, locals will recount with mirth one recent wedding. After arriving at the bride’s house, the groom’s party wasn’t let in, since it wasn’t yet the auspicious time. Unfortunately, it rained hard that day, so after several rebuffs, the groom’s angry father ordered his people home. On the way, they stopped at a café where there was a pretty, pleasant waitress. Impulsively, the old man asked, “Would you like to become my daughter-in-law?” After she said yes, the wedding went on as planned, but with a different bride.
A retired school teacher, the bride’s father told me about bride kidnapping, “Several of the minority groups still do this, and they’re quite serious about it, they’re not joking around. They’d grab a girl around 14, 15, but sometimes as young as 12, and they’d bring her home, screaming.” Then, “The Bru have a most curious practice. Just before a woman gives birth, they isolate her in the forest, in a tiny hut, and she must remain there for an entire month after childbirth.”
“With her baby?!”
“Yes, with her baby. Each day, though, someone will bring them food.”
The Bru believe childbirth to be the filthiest of acts, which brings to mind Borges’ wicked joke, “Mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they multiply the number of men.”
After his daughter-in-law gave birth, the retired school teacher merely gave her a bit of opium, diluted in water, “It cleans out her system. A lot of people here do it.”
As always, I was all ears whenever anyone told me his life story. A 28-year-old factory worker, Nam was drinking after work with his buddies when they were approached by a labor contractor, who promptly dragged them off to be interviewed. Accepted, Nam ended up in Malaysia just a few months later, but his promised wage didn’t quite materialize. Still, his working and living conditions weren’t too bad. Four Vietnamese were housed in a two-bedroom apartment.
To send just $45 home a month each, though, they had to be super creative with their food procurements. “First, we got pig entrails for free from the Chinese butcher, because no one else wanted them. Later, though, the guy decided to charge us!” Nam laughed. “We caught iguanas. They were tasty. Once, we decided to splurge on beef, but we bought such a bad cut, my teeth were still hurting the day after. We picked edible plants by the river. When a woman asked, ‘What are you guys doing?’ one of us who could speak Malay said, ‘Oh, we’re picking these for pigs!’ We suffered, sure, but things got better and better. We got raises because we worked much harder than the Malays. Unlike them, we always worked overtime.”
“How long were you there altogether?”
“Over six years!”
“Wow, so you must have learnt the language?”
“Yes, I could understand maybe 80% of it, and speak it. I took no classes, though. I had to work.”
“Do you miss Malaysia?”
“Yes, of course, it became a part of me.”
“If things were so good in Malaysia, why did you come home?”
“I had a gambling problem. Plus, I had to come home to get married.”
“Couldn’t you have married a local?”
“No, the Malays were Muslims, and the Chinese looked down on us!”
“So, uh, you guys had no women the entire time you were there?”
“There were Vietnamese women there, but not many. Plus, there were prostitutes of all nationalities, including white ones.”
Based in Kuala Lumpur, Nam and his buddies drank at joints run by Burmese, and would occasionally hire a car to see more of Malaysia. Now married with a kid, he’s thinking of working in South Korea. Around Quy Hop, there are signs advertising employment and study opportunities in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and even Germany, the last to toil in hospitals.
I met another man, a Tai, who had spent extended time overseas. Loc lived illegally for a decade in Germany, working in Vietnamese groceries in Berlin, Gera and Chemnitz. Finally caught, Loc paid several thousands euros in fine, but was allowed to apply for political asylum. Knowing this wouldn’t likely be granted, Loc tried to arrange a fake marriage to a Vietnamese with German residency. Though Loc agreed to her asking price, 40,000 euros, she procrastinated until it was too late, and Loc was deported.
Loc’s German never got beyond what was needed to work in a store. He fondly remembers the integrity of German food, and admires German orderliness and respect for the commons. Of the last, Loc lamented, “I don’t know how long it will take for us to catch up to them.” Near us, an empty bottle of shampoo and other garbage marred a mountain stream.
In a recent interview, I stated that East Asian countries have at least two advantages over white ones: 1) They have a stronger sense of community 2) They don’t question their ethnocentrism. The flip side to these is a clannishness that’s often manifested as nepotism, for you can’t form fierce bonds without being biased against those outside your circle. As the Saigon boss confides, “You can’t hire more than three people from Nghe An. They will inevitably form a clique and cause dissension in your workplace.”
Taken to extreme, all those outside your circle become prey. Loc related that after a new director was appointed to the region’s health department, he immediately reassigned every doctor and nurse to a different hospital, “Suddenly, you’re told to move a hundred kilometers away! You can imagine the panic and despair, brother, because people already had homes, their kids were used to certain schools and their spouses had jobs that couldn’t be relocated.” The solution was to bribe the director to be left alone, which was his plan all along.
Hearing this story, the Saigon boss concluded, “This is why the best people are moving into the private sector. In the market place, you can’t act like that.”
A state is totalitarian to the degree that it distorts human relations. In war, however, the state must be intrusive, coercive and unjust to even function, so the fact that many are becoming increasingly totalitarian must mean they’re preparing for strifes of all kinds, external and internal.
Having gone through the worst of war and state, the folks of Nghe An will survive whatever comes next. Will you?