BY ELLEN CREAGER • FREE PRESS TRAVEL WRITER
November 16, 2008
BAN LONG LAO, Laos -- The houses are made of reddish teak. The
children play in the muddy streets. Piglets, ducks, chickens and dogs
wander in the yards. Lush gardens of beans, corn, squash, onions and
lettuce grow as if they're in a hothouse. Up at the plateau near the
top of a mountain, the mist hovers just above, just beyond the town,
letting the sunshine peek through.
No wonder many Hmong people had trouble when they emigrated to
America after the Vietnam War. This is about as far as you can get
from American life.
For tourists interested in minority cultures, a visit to this Hmong
village south of Luang Prabang is a brush with a fascinating group
with ties to the United States. The visit is pure cultural tourism --
you meet people, you tread lightly, you go away. They are not selling
anything. There is no welcome committee.
It takes nearly two hours to drive the rutted dirt roads up the
mountains from Luang Prabang into the highlands where the Hmong live.
Once, our vehicle got stuck in the red sloppy mud and had to be pushed out.
The Hmong (pronounced Mong), a poor mountain people, are not beloved
by their countrymen because they helped the American CIA during the
The ethnic minority came to Laos centuries ago from the highlands of
China. They are not Buddhist like most Laotians. Instead, they have
their own ancestor- and spirit-worship religion, which often made
them targets of persecution.
Thousands left after the Vietnam War, many escaping to refugee camps
in Thailand. Some went on to the United States and culture shock.
Others finally returned to Laos. Most are subsistence farmers.
About 210,000 Hmong now live in the United States. Michigan
officially has about 7,000 Hmong, the fourth highest number of any
state, centered in Warren and northeast Detroit.
Meanwhile, an estimated 490,000 Hmong still make Laos their home, out
of a population of 6.7 million, the U.S. State Department estimates.
Ban Long Lao seems a zillion miles from America.
Yes, the village has electricity. It also has a white stucco school
built by international assistance groups, although it appeared closed
the day I visited.
The men and older children were away tending the lush hillside fields
by hand. Left in town were mothers, elderly people and young children.
On a stoop in front of a one-room house, a mother held on her lap a
toddler, who held on his lap a chicken, which had a string around its leg.
Up the hill at a pump, a woman washed a huge basket of beans so
vividly green they looked as if they'd been painted.
Most of the children played outside in the red mud. Many of them,
barefoot and in shabby clothing, had a persistent cough. The Hmong
use shamans and healers instead of modern medicine.
As a reminder of the nation's spectacular natural beauty -- and
poverty -- a trip to Ban Long Lao is a trip worth taking, even if you
don't understand everything you are seeing.
Visits may be arranged through your hotel concierge or tour company.
Contact ELLEN CREAGER at 313-222-6498 or firstname.lastname@example.org.