Kou Vang was my guide for the day when I went to see the Plain of Jars in northeastern Laos. His English is excellent and he is a fine storyteller so we spent much of the time talking about traditions and legends of the Hmong people and visiting one of their villages. Here is his story.
The Hmong people are very independent. They may not have a lot but they don’t have a boss. They do have enough to eat and firewood to keep them warm. We keep pigeons and chickens and cows and grow corn and other vegetables. There is a school where all the children go.
My parents, brothers and sisters, my brother’s wife and baby, and now my new wife and I all live together in one house. There are no windows because of the spirits. It is one big room, without a separate kitchen. Sometimes it gets so smoky inside the house that my eyes cry. We have a spirit house but it is kept inside the house. It is for the ancient spirits.
The Plain of Jars: Where giants partied and the US dropped their bombs
Everyone eats breakfast and dinner together and it always includes sticky rice. I like everyone living together and wouldn’t want to change that. Men can take two or even three wives. My uncle has two wives; they sleep in the same bed with him, one on either side. He says it is great in the winter because they keep him warm but he doesn’t like it in the summer!
The Hmong people have many children. Women don’t go to a doctor when they are going to have a baby because there is a spirit doctor in every village who helps them. I have 5 brothers and 2 sisters and having so many children makes my father very happy because he has no other family. My grandparents died when he was just 8 or 10 and he was brought up by distant relatives and was not treated very well. He was treated like a servant. He had one brother who tried to find him and take him to Vietnam but he was killed by the Laos army.
After the Vietnam War my parents escaped to the jungle because so many Hmong people had helped the Americans and they were afraid of what would happen. It was very difficult for my parents. They had to move every few days and didn’t have enough food. When they were helping the Americans the Hmong people were told that if the US won they would turn Laos over to the Hmong people. If they lost they would take them to America. Many Hmong people did go to the United States after the war.
But my parents were stuck in the jungle. My father was wounded and now one leg is shorter than the other. They became separated and my father thought my mother had been killed. But someone reported they’d seen her and my father went and found her. They lived in the jungle for two years until they were told they could return to their village. Everything has been okay.
My father wanted me to be educated and was very strict when I was growing up. He made me stay in and study when all my friends were outside having fun. I didn’t like my father then but now I’m very happy he did that. After I finished school I went to college to study English and then took a course offered by UNESCO to be a tour guide. I like this work because I meet so many interesting people. I’m now studying business and helping my bother go to college too.
I got married a week ago, which is why I’m wearing white threads around my wrist. We cannot marry someone from the same clan—with the same last name. Everyone in my clan has the last name of Vang. My wife is 16 years old and I’m 23. I was considered old when I got married! That may not seem old to you but in my culture you cannot live with someone until you are married. My wife is from another community, 37 km from my village. She is sad that she will be living so far from her family but happy to be married. We have known each other for a long time.
My family had the first marriage ceremony and next week her family will have one. Many people came to my wedding. I had to lead a pig in and then the pig was killed and soup was made with it. At her family’s ceremony I am expected to drink a glass of whisky with each guest so I will get very drunk. That is expected.
My father cannot read or write but he is a great storyteller. This is his story about why people are different: In the beginning, all people came from the same bamboo. One day the bamboo caught on fire. The first people to come out of the bamboo were the darkest because of the fire, and the Hmong were among them. Then came the people who were not as burnt such as the other people of Laos. Last came the white people. My father said that means the Hmong people are very strong because they had to break through the burning bamboo to let the other people get out more easily.
Contact Kou Vang for tour information at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview and been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses