Lat Village, Vietnam
Lat Village, named after its inhabitants’ ethnic group and located just outside of Da Lat in the central highlands, lies precariously on the margin of modernization. Locals generally welcome tourists who provide a direly needed, although unpredictable, source of income. In exchange for a few dollars paid via a Vietnamese tour guide (who secured safe entrance into the village and permission from the proper authorities), I got an intimate peek at everyday life where the old and the new collide against a background of poverty.
We rolled into the village accompanied by a light sheet of fog. The atmosphere cast a peaceful, antique mood about the place. Villagers are extremely poor, and selling goods to the few tourists who stop by can prove extremely lucrative. The elders strictly monitor such business to stifle unhealthy competition and maintain peace. In traditional village life, age is the primary determining factor of status, responsibility, and power. Thus, we were greeted by the village patriarch. He did not know exactly how old he was, but boasted to have seen over 100 rice harvests (and he looked it too). He would collect the proceeds from our visit and be responsible for distributing the bounty to the group.
We began our visit by stepping into a “long house” and grabbing a chair (a six-inch stool consisting of three 2x4s hammered into a post and lintel structure). The patriarch explained that the dwelling places were so long because they housed an entire extended family. The Lat practice matrilineal inheritance, so every time a daughter gets married, the house must be extended to provide space for her new family. There were no walls or partitions to provide an iota of privacy. The furniture consisted of a stove for cooking located opposite the entrance, sleeping mats for each immediate family, and a large round container near the patriarch’s bed, reaching all the way to the ceiling. The gigantic cylinder was full of the family’s most valuable asset – rice. Personal belongings were stored in worn sacks arranged closely around each bed.
Next came the visit’s highlight. We were to partake in a “ceremonial” drinking of rice wine. Quite a privilege for the women among us, we were told, because this is a rite in which Lat women are not allowed to partake. The patriarch lifted up a ceramic pot standing about knee-high which was full of wine. A net covering the opening kept the hovering insects away from the precious beverage. The straw (a long plastic tube about half an inch in diameter, the likes of which I’d previously seen used only in the transfer of automotive fluids) was packed with feasting insects. The old man quickly expelled these unwanted visitors by blowing them a safe distance across the room before re-inserting the device and taking a hearty sip himself.
Next, he set the jug down in front of me. His generous grin revealed raw, swollen gums, but my curiosity got the best of me and I couldn’t resist such an enthusiastic invitation. So I stooped over and just started sucking. Cautiously at first, then more forcefully as I realized it would take considerable effort to taste the prize – the tube was worn and lined with several tiny holes. Finally, the sharp, sweet syrup reached my mouth. The acrid taste forced me to swallow immediately, and my stomach seemed to catch on fire.
Indeed, a few sips of this wonder drink could instantly transform any poor villager into a happy ruler of his own domain. It’s no wonder nearly 10 more pots sat lining the floor awaiting their own ceremonies…