In the News … Hmong

In the news today, I read this article about Sheng Thao who was recently elected mayor of Oakland, California. Sheng is the daughter of Hmong refugees from Laos.

The article reminded me of the time I visited the hill tribes of Laos in 2016. I wasn’t aware then, of the Hmong history in Laos but I had sensed disdain by our local guide towards them. The New York Times article shed some light on that.

Laos has over 160 ethnic groups in the country but the majority of the population belongs to the Lao group. The Lao people traditionally lived in the low lands along the Mekong delta, while many of the other ethnic minorities lived in the hill country.

The Hmong are an ethnic group that has faced a history fraught with conflict, persecution, and betrayal. (During the Vietnam war …) they were recruited as part of the ‘Secret War’ by France and the United States to fight against the communist Pathet Lao army and forces from North and South Vietnam.

After the 1975 communist victory, thousands of Hmong political refugees were rendered homeless, fleeing Laos and mostly ending up in America, France, and a few other countries around the world. Today, there is still tension between the government of Laos and the Hmong population.

Ethnic Groups of Laos. People from Laos are not all Lao People.

In current day Laos, Hmongs are about nine percent of the Laos population. They live in isolated mountain villages and seem to keep mostly to themselves. As an under-represented group in their home country, it must be gratifying for older Hmongs to see the political ascent of their children in America. Such is the dream of every immigrant, to have a better life for themselves and their family.

After reading this article, I looked up an old post about the Hmong in Laos. Here it is.


Hill Tribe People of Laos

Although northern Laos is mostly mountain side and green, the villages are stripped bare to the ground.   Footpaths and passage-ways are packed earth and mineral rich dust paints everything a dull red brown.  Flashes of colour from costume and clothing worn by the local children are a visual relief. The elaborate clothing are not everyday wear and I get the impression that this child was hurriedly dressed, just in time for our visit.

Hmong girl in costume

Most of the houses in the  hill villages are made of weathered wooden planks or woven bamboo walls.  On the way to Phonsavon we visited a Khmu village which had one house  freshly painted in vivid purple and brilliant blue.  This young fellow was minding his siblings but he obligingly posed for me.

Khmu boy in Laos

Our guide Vong, said that school is mandatory and as we drove through the lower regions of Vientiane and Luang Prabang,  we certainly saw a lot of schools and teacher colleges.  

In the remote hill areas though, I suspect that the schools are not as readily accessible.  All too often, we saw young kids taking care of younger kids while their parents worked in the fields.  This little girl looks barely eight years old. She carries her baby brother on her back and wears an expression far too old for her age.

Girl carrying her baby brother

Kids grow up earlier here. According to Vong, the Hmong kids grow-up even earlier. We stopped at a Hmong village which stalls of hand-embroidered textiles for sale.  Girls dressed in traditional costume posed for pictures and encouraged us to buy. According to our guide, this young girl who looks about thirteen, would be married next year.  Thereafter Vong said, she’d have babies of her own to look after.

Despite this photo collection, Laos is not inhabited entirely by children. Although, with a median age of 19 years, Laos does have the youngest population in all of  South East Asia. Less than 4% of the population is over 65. This has more to do with Laos history than its average life expectancy of 62 years.

But to prove my point, here is my final and favorite shot.

An elf of an old man was sitting in a huge chair staring at the farang (foreigners) passing by. When I clacked the wooden cow bells at his stall, he hurried over to show his collection of traditional Lao medicine. Bottles of snake and scorpions pickled in whisky. I demurred on purchasing but with his permission, captured this photo.

I visited Laos in 2016

26 Comments

  1. Incredible post, Sandy! I loved the way that you connected present with past and political experiences of the Hmong with your personal experience visiting Laos in 2016. This post taught me a lot, and for that, I thank you! – Quentin

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  2. Laos looks to be a fascinating destination. The coloured photos of the young girls wearing traditional costumes that are richly embroidered with spectacular beading, contrasts starkly with the old man and the monochromatic shot. Excellent story telling both in words and photos, Sandy. It is sad to hear that the hill tribe minorities don’t get to share in modern prosperity. The girls grow up far too young, but like the Nepalese, they seem far happier than our assessment of their lifestyle indicates. Were they happy?
    As for snakes in whisky – I suspect the whisky did more benefit than the snake, or the scorpion. Fascinating.

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    1. It’s not uncommon to pickle critters and call it medicine. I remember my grandfather (in Jamaica) having a bottle filled with scorpions & preserved in rum. As a kid, the bottle was a source of endless fascination.

      I don’t know if these girls were happy. Without context, it’s easy to think not. But this life is what they know and maybe, for some it’s enough. Although the villagers were not wealthy, I didn’t see the poverty and depravation as in larger cities. In that sense, it was good.

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      1. I am glad you didn’t see widespread poverty in the Loatian villages, Sandy. If the life is all they had ever known, how could they not feel happy. If foreign visitors make their eyes go green, it might present a problem. Their Buddhist beliefs might deter desire?

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  3. We visited several minority tribe villages when in Laos in early 2020 – as well as Hmong we also visited Khamu and Ikhos. Unlike your experience I didn’t feel our guides looked down on them. Perhaps that was due in part to the fact the one that took us to the Khamu and Ikhos villages was employed by our hotel which was making genuine contributions to improving the lot of those in the surrounding villages, such as supporting the village school – and yes, we saw children just coming out of school at lunchtime so some at least must go. We also didn’t see any children dressed in traditional clothing for our benefit, just one elderly woman in a traditional headdress. I don’t know that things would have changed dramatically in just four years since your visit so maybe we just lucked out in visiting less ‘touristy’ places?

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    1. As I’m sure you’re aware, the ethnic hill tribes of Laos and Thailand are popular tourist attractions. In Thailand there are even replica villages setup to represent traditions from different groups. In those places, we get to see not only traditional dress but lifestyles that wouldn’t normally be visible to foreigners.

      To my knowledge, Laos doesn’t have those tourist attractions. We visited rural towns where it was clear that the villagers had hard & scrabble lives I think the first girl with an elaborate headdress but grubby face was a wily move by an opportunistic parent 😉 For the second girl, her scrupulously clean outfit and carefully applied make-up, was deliberately setup for passing tourists. Even so, it was just one roadside stall.

      I don’t know if much has changed for these countries & people. The pandemic certainly impacted tourism. I’d imagine that the cost/benefit of opportunistic sales must have diminished. Just maybe, that encouraged kids to stay in school. I can only hope so.

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      1. Yes, all three of the villages we visited were genuine, not tourist traps in any way. I had felt from your description of the roadside ‘attraction’ that maybe you went to one that was more developed for or at least used to tourists, but if as you say it was just a one-off I guess not. Certainly I welcomed the chance to visit villages that felt like real homes to the people we met. Their lives are tough for sure, and although the reduction in visitors may have meant more children in school, it will also have meant a loss in much-needed income. I’d much rather the latter came in the form of responsible hotels investing in a village in return for permitting visitors rather than direct payments from those visitors for questionable photo opps, so I hope they’re not tempted to go down that route.

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        1. As a rule, when going on these trips we selected guides who didn’t take us to tourist traps. It takes a bit more planning but for the most part it’s paid off, as we preferred independant travel to tour groups. Based on your posts, I think we are the same.

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    1. How kind of him to welcome three siblings. I imagine that it would be easier for the adoptees but more challenging for the parents. But it must be nice to have younsters around … speaking as someone in constant envy of her friends’ grand-kids!

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    1. Over the last two years I have thought many times “I’m glad I travelled South East Asia & Chyina when I did, because I couldn’t do it again!”

      It was easier when I had a home-base in Singapore & each trip was only a couple hours away. Now, it’d be at least six hours and several time zones. Plus the environmental consequences of air travel weigh heavier on my conscience. Politically too, I’d think twice about going to some places which have sinced developed oppressive regimes.

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    1. I think the Hmong story is more well known to America & France than elsewhere. We don’t have a big population of Hmong in Canada Google says there were 600 people in all Canada versus 95,000 Hmong in California, 90,000 in Minnesota and 58,000 in Wisconsin.

      I’d say it was because they preferred the warmer California weather, but then the settled in Minnesota & Winconsin!

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