It’s the toughest time of the year to make a living. You see it everywhere in Hoi An. The street vendors dwindle and open air markets shrink as the rain eats into economic opportunities. Winter’s rainy season brings floods, laundry that won’t dry for days and frequent complaints on the pressure of city life.
Sure it’s tough in Ho Chi Minh City as the floods disrupt traffic and livelihoods. It’s even tougher in the Mekong Delta as the land, battered by drought now, confronts flood hazards and coastal damage from stormy seas. Yet we seldom think of what life is like for Vietnam’s poorer half – the mountain people.
It’s hard, I suppose, for coastal people to think about such things when they have enough problems of their own. What’s heartening however is the growing number of youth groups doing charity runs into the mountains to deliver warm clothes, shoes, food and otherwise unaffordable school textbooks.
Living conditions in the mountains are harsh and living standards in the highlands are nearly a generation behind the coast. A growing middle class along the coast encourages fewer children per family and marry later. The highlands have more people on less land squeezed between farming, mining and hydro-projects, and are still marrying early with larger family groups.
Add to this, poorer education and the need for adults to have their children work the farms and forests to scrap together an income, and life becomes very tough.
Imagine risking your life every day just to go to school.
For those lucky enough to go to school, there’s the frequent danger of river crossings – no bridges, tiny, overloaded boats, flash flooding, raging rivers and no skills or awareness of water safety. It doesn’t stop there. Narrow mountain roads, many still little more than dirt tracks, crisscross the highlands to create frightening traffic hazards. Construction and mining sites with little or no fencing and lax security become deadly playgrounds for poor kids.
Poverty and the problem of access to health services from remote communities also add to the dangers for kids and adults. It can be very confronting to see school children in scruffy old sweaters, shorts and bare feet when the temperatures drop in the winter hills. Our version of the ‘good life’ is a new smartphone; their idea is warm, dry feet.
I know that many Vietnamese might think it’s unfair for a foreigner like me to comment yet I meet a lot of Vietnamese every week who think the same. A lot of young adult Vietnamese have a strong feeling of brotherhood and community for their mountain neighbors and actively participate in charity drives. It’s one of the things I admire in the young generation of this nation.
Urban problems get the attention and the money. Millions of dollars are spent on the coastal economies, when for the price of a new superhighway, the nation could easily afford a few hundred bridges in the highlands bringing safety and more economic possibilities.
Forget another fancy museum or another statue, Vietnam could afford to build warmer, dry, boarding houses for mountain schools so kids don’t have to trek up and down dangerous mountain paths. Put the money into an underperforming port or regional airport aside and you could provide training and teachers to upgrade rural skills.
The cost of developing a safer and more organized highland region doesn’t need to be a large part of the national budget. The benefits however would take pressure off the major coastal urban issues; less rural people migrating to the cities, better economic growth in the highlands and less strain on local government health and employment services.
So this winter if you think you’re having a tough time in the cold and rain – think again. At least you’re wearing shoes!