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The Piteous Poetry of Poverty in Vietnam

A local encounter I’ll never forget.

Kathryn Hetherington


When travelling North through Vietnam, it becomes increasingly obvious that this is a nation that came close to collapse during a war not too far from recent memory. Despite the values of the communist rule, the disparity between rich and poor increases with every step towards the North, their lifestyles regressing, particularly in the rural areas.

Prestige was replaced with a prevalence of communist flags and symbols, as the people shifted away from a begrudging acceptance of the system, towards embracing it. In the far North, just outside the city of Sapa, we saw the epitome of those who the system had failed to raise out of the poverty the war had left them in.

It was here that I met a Viet woman, San, who offered a true experience of a life completely different to anything I'd ever known. As I walked with her through the town, we had young children come up to us, crying and begging for us to buy their wares. Left to my own devices I'd have bankrupt my trip then and there, but as San explained, to purchase off these children is to discourage them to drop out of school and embrace the life of a street urchin.

As we continued through the village, I was taken by surprise when San suddenly asked excitedly "do you want to see where I live?". After an enthusiastic yes, she led me down a well worn dirt path to three huts, each barely the size of a one-car garage. Entering the first, she explained that the other two belonged to her brother and sister, however this, the largest, was shared by herself, her parents, and her two small children from a now-defunct marriage.

The men in the family sat in a circle on the floor, sipping shots poured out of a bottle containing an ominous-smelling, transparent liquid. They referred to it as "happy water" and promptly offered up a shot. The liquid tasted as potent as it smelt, and I had a sneaking suspicion that over-indulging in it could cause blindness. San's sister in law was the only other woman in sight, and was busily chasing after a small child, wrapped up tightly in a dirty puffer jacket, and a beanie designed to look like an owl.

Henny, the child, giggled, despite her predicament, living in this hut, in freezing Sapa, with a mud floor, no hot water and no heating. She will never know education, never see a town beyond her own, and never will she know of the lifestyle, or opportunity that we in Australia take for granted.

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