Your Last Chance to See Vietnam

Vinh with Hmong girls of Lao Chai village

One afternoon in Hoi An, my Vietnamese business partner Vinh and I were walking down a street teeming with foreigners and retail shops, and Vinh remarked: “This isn’t Vietnam any more.”  His observation is rapidly becoming true not only of Vietnam’s most popular tourist resorts; it’s happening to the entire country.

This week, we visited remote Lao Cai Province, the spectacular region in the mountains on the Chinese border known for its terraced rice fields and unique ethnic villages.  We went to two of the villages — the communities of Lao Chai and  Ta Van.  They’re a mile apart and have different  costumes, colors, governance, and economies, and theoretically the villages can’t communicate with each other because the residents speak different languages.

But not for long.  Homes without electricity (and therefore televisions and computers) are dwindling fast.  Concrete roads and structures are replacing traditional homes.  Souvenir shops, and spas, and western-style bars are emerging.  People chat with each other in their native languages — on cell phones.  Electric tools are replacing dexterous hands for wood and stone carving.  And, perhaps most important, first-graders in the Lao Chai and Ta Van villages we visited are dressing in western clothes and learning Vietnamese, not their native language.

Road construction in a traditional Hmong village near the Vietnam-Chinese border

Primary school children have lunch in Lao Chai village

The villages are not Vietnam any more.  Poverty has been reduced dramatically. Their standard of living is rising. Their health and education are improving. They are no longer just rice farmers and traditional artisans; they are entrepreneurs.  And they are giving up their culture.

Vietnam, like all developed countries, is becoming a blend of the old and the new.  So if you want to see the old in Vietnam, see it now.

A Lao Chai woman in traditional H’mong dress inspects Ta Van (green) merchandise

An efficient Ta Van worker uses an electric tool to do “traditional’ stone carving

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