News - November 24, 2021 | 08:02 pm PT

On northern border, opium epidemic leaves children to fend for themselves

Many children in border areas grow up with only two options: work in the field or cross the border and get married as a foreign bride.

With childhoods tainted by the smell of opium and the absence of parents who are often in prison, dropping out of school is usually the norm.

One early morning in June 2019 Ly Xe Me tied her hair, picked up a basket and stepped out of her thatched, rammed-earth house atop the highest spot in the mountainous Ta Ko Ki Village.

Her youngest son rubbed his eyes and ran after her, asking where she was going. "Mummy is going to the other side to the market, and will be back in a bit."

The Ha Nhi woman's trip to the market, it turned out, lasted nearly two years.

She took the VND2 million ($88) left in the house and walked a whole day through the forest to go and buy opium in Laos.

But the moment she stepped back into Vietnam, she was caught by border guards.

Her husband had been addicted to opium for decades. Ever since he was diagnosed with liver cancer, the drug also helped alleviate his pain in addition to satisfying his craving.

Their three children could eat nothing but rice for 10 days, but he could not go a single day without opium. The "market trips" had therefore become as routine to her as working in the field.

Me was sentenced to 20 months in prison for the possession of 143 grams of opium. Her trial, like many similar trials held at the Muong Nhe District Court, included an interpreter as she could not speak Vietnamese.

In 2019 Dien Bien Province recorded an average of one drug-related arrest every 15 hours, mostly of ethnic minority people.

A report that year by the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs said the province's proportion of ethnic minority people addicted to drugs was five times the national average.

Of the nearly 10,000 drug addicts in the province, 41 percent were Thai and 29 percent were Hmong.

The provinces with the highest addiction rates such as Dien Bien, Cao Bang, Son La, and Lai Chau were also among the poorest provinces, and all are along the northern border.

In Muong Nhe, the poorest district in the poorest province in the country, Dien Bien, six out of 10 households lived in poverty.

In addition to sending Me to prison, opium also took her children out of their one safe place: school.

Two days after Me had left, there was still no one to cook for Vu Go Tru.

There was no rice in the kitchen, and the only food left was half an old gourd left over from the previous meal. Both of his older siblings were in the field, and his 60-year-old father was lying in his room, suffering from pain and craving opium.

"Is mom coming home soon, Dad?"

"Don't know."

After three such conversations, the nine-year-old boy ran to a neighbor's house with a bowl and managed to get some rice. He put the bowl of rice by his father's bed, grabbed his backpack and left for school.

Vu Go Tru, a nine-year-old boy of the Ha Nhi ethnic group at Sin Thau Elementary School in Muong Nhe District of Dien Bien Province.

Like most boarding schools for ethnic minorities, Sin Thau Elementary School keeps its students from quitting by providing them with meals that include more than just rice.

Students sleep and eat all three meals at school from Monday to Friday afternoon and go home for the weekend.

When returning to school on Sunday, children from well-off families are driven to school by their parents on motorbikes with some vegetables and firewood to contribute to the school's kitchen.

Tru on the other hand often went to school empty-handed. Even with his mother around, every meal at home consisted of rice mixed with Ha Nhi tea. The money from selling chickens and vegetables and tending forests all went to buy opium for his father.

Tru tried for a few more weeks to find his mother. He did not dare to ask his father more questions. Over the years he had come to realize that whenever his father craved drugs it was not prudent to go close to him if he did not want to be yelled at and insulted.

The only photo of Vo Go Tru and his parents in their house in Muong Nhe District, Dien Bien.

The 13 thatched houses of Ta Ko Ki village are scattered among the tree marigold sprouting from the muddy dirt roads. All their inhabitants are Ha Nhi people and related to each other, with their family names being either Vu or Ly. But none of them knew Me's whereabouts or knew but would not tell Tru.

"Do you know where mom is?" Tru kept asking his older brother one evening. In response, the ninth grader turned around, faced the wall and said tersely: "Dad told me to quit school and work in the field. Tomorrow you just go to school, there’s no need to wait."

Without his mother Tru was no longer looking forward to coming home on Friday afternoon like before.

The day before Me left, she had taken off her head scarf and hung it on a clothes line outside the kitchen. Every time he came home, Tru would stop and look at it, hoping the scarf was no longer there, which would mean his mother had finally returned.

Over time he gradually got used to the idea that his mother will never return and his brother will be constantly absent. Ever since his brother moved to live in the field and his sister got married, the only family he had was his father.

On the earthen wall of the middle room in their house still hung two certificates of merit awarded to village chief Vu Vu Sinh for his achievements in preventing forest fires. But that was a story of five years ago. Ever since his wife's arrest Sinh had no opium to smoke and so mostly stayed in bed, struggled with his drug craving and ate whatever food his relatives gave him.

Certificates of merit on the wall inside Vo Go Tru's house in Muong Nhe, Dien Bien.

In the evening on November 16 last year Tru's brother suddenly arrived in front of the Sin Thau Middle School gates to fetch him home.

Everyone in Ta Ko Ki Village had already gathered at their house. Sinh only had time to reach out and touch his youngest child's face one last time before breathing his last.

After losing both parents in the span of less than two years, in addition to his sadness, Tru also had a vague fear now: When his mother left his brother had to drop out of school; now that his father had died would he be able to continue going to school?

Minh and Mr Chia

Twelve years ago Chang A Minh moved with his parents from Tua Chua District to Muong Nhe.

Mr Chia, his father, let his wife and children carry their clothes but insisted on carrying his opium pipe in his own hands as if it was an heirloom.
After two days of traveling by boat up the Da River, the first thing Mr Chia did upon arriving in Chung Chai Commune in Muong Nhe District was to run to a relative's place, pull out his opium lamp and smoke.

In the late 1980s Tua Chua, where Mr Chia hails from, was still famous throughout the northwest as a poppy hotspot with thousands of hectares under the crop and an output of tens of tons of opium. The golden age may be long gone, but even this year several of Mr. Chia's compatriots were arrested for planting poppy in their gardens or for smuggling it out to sell.

Mr Chia is 40 years old but looks like an old man. He does not remember when he became addicted, only that opium had been part of his grandfather's life and father's life. Now it is even affecting the lives of his eight children.

Chang A Minh, one of a few people in his village who finished 5th grade.

Of the few images Minh still remembers from his childhood, the most profound is the image of his father lying next to an opium lamp.

Minh's former teacher once went all the way to Mr Chia's opium mat to convince him to stop smoking the drug and take care of his children. In response, he just bowed his head and replied, "Only death will end my addiction."

In all these years Minh's mother has never dared advise her husband. She quietly drags the children out, goes to the field alone, harvests bamboo shoots, cooks wine, repairs the house, and takes care of the children all by herself.

During his school days, every time Minh went back to his boarding school, Mrs Chia would harvest some vegetables from the garden, sell them in a faraway market and give him VND5,000-10,000, all without letting her husband know.

Like in Tru's family, opium takes priority in this household too. Minh completed fifth grade and then voluntarily dropped out of school to stay home and help his mother take care of his five younger siblings.

A 2017 report by the United Nations Development Program and the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs said after surveying 39 ethnic groups that only about 60 percent of adults could read and write Vietnamese.

The Hmong were among the groups with the highest illiteracy rate in the country as well as the largest difference between men and women's illiteracy rates.

Minh's eldest sister became 26 this year, but she has never been to school. When she sees strangers, she would hide herself since she cannot speak Vietnamese, and can only respond by smiling or shaking her head.

While living in Tua Chua, she once opened her younger brother's book to take a peek out of curiosity, but was caught by her father and beaten till her arms were bruised, all without understanding why.

Her husband is a young man from the same village who was already addicted to drugs before marrying her. He is almost always high either on drugs or liquor.

But her two younger sisters proved they wanted to live differently from their mother and older sister, and escape drug-addicted men.

In 2015 Chang Thi Dang, then 17, ran away from home. "At home it is too harsh, I can't stand it," she told a neighbor and friend before leaving, also leaving a message her family should not look for her.

Three years later Mr Chia's third daughter also ran away from home at the age of 15.

The chief of Tan Phong village was reluctant to reveal the number of drug addicts living in his jurisdiction, but could not hide his concern for girls who are without a home at an age when they should be playing and going to school.

Many girls in his village have run away from home due to lack of food, being scolded by their fathers or quarreling with their boyfriends.

No one knows how things are with them until they themselves contact their families again. But there are also many girls who are never heard of again.

Dang's first phone call to her parents was three years later, when she informed them she had married a merchant in China, had just given birth to a son and had a reasonably good life. In spring two years ago, on his elder sister's instructions, Minh crossed the A Pa Chai Border Gate and waited to be picked up by a man wearing a blue jacket made of parachute fabric on a black motorbike. That was his brother-in-law.

After three days of sightseeing, Minh got CNY500 ($78 now) from his sister, who told him to tell their parents she would visit them once her children are old enough.

In recent years Mr Chia has moved to permanently live on the field. In addition to opium, he now has a newfound interest -- the yuan-dong exchange rate -- and looks forward to the first day of every month to see if his daughter has sent him any money.

How old the rest of his children are, what grades they are in, or even whether they still go to school ... he has no idea.

Magnet for neighbors

With its large area and plenty of land, Muong Nhe District attracted tens of thousands of Hmong people such as Mr Chia's family from neighboring areas, who made it their new home.

After the uncontrolled mass migrations of the past decade, the already poor district now also has to put up with large numbers of drug addicts.

A cycle of deforestation and uncontrolled establishment of new villages has also been going on for years.

In 2020 district authorities discovered an average of four deforestation cases per month and arrested the accused.

Besides, the district leader admitted, "Many times we knew but did not have the heart to arrest them for they were all women, and each person sent to prison would have meant leaving nearly 10 children without a mother."

Children have lunch at their boarding school in Muong Nhe District, Dien Bien.

Despite having plenty of natural potential for tourism, according to district Party Secretary Nguyen Quang Hung, Muong Nhe’s total revenues last year were only VND18 billion, equivalent to the amount collected by Hanoi's Hoan Kiem District in just 15 hours.

Most of this VND18 billion ended up going back to the nearly 6,000 poor local households in the form of rice to alleviate hunger during the lean season, Lunar New Year gifts, funding to build resettlement houses for migrants, and repairs to schools.

During his endeavors to find ways to eradicate the cycle of drug addiction, poverty and illiteracy, Hung has often heard officials talk about Muong Nhe’s mountain peaks for hunting clouds, terraced fields, friendly locals, and well preserved ethnic minority cultures, and yet very few people know about it.

"If they won't come to us then we will go to them," he thought to himself.

In the last two years hundreds of young people in the district have been personally escorted by district officials like Hung over 600 kilometers to find jobs at major industrial parks. And among them have been Minh.

He refused to become another Mr. Chia in the future but also did not like his sister's suggestion he should stay back in China.

"It does not matter if I am full or hungry, I want to stay in my land."

He is now 20 years old, and he and his wife are now preparing for the birth of their newest family member. Though the child will be a Hmong born in the country's poorest district, Minh is determined it will never have to drop out of school to work in the fields or become entangled with drugs.

One day in late December last year Ly Xe Me was released from prison.

Only after reaching her doorstep and seeing her husband's altar did she know he had passed away just 40 days earlier. The boy Tru had grown tall and taciturn, and his face had hardened. He just stood there and stared blankly at his mother, who was hugging his legs and apologizing.

Then, still without a word, he bent down, hugged her back and inhaled her scent.

Vo Gu Tru (L) and his mother Ly Xe Me outside their house in Muong Nhe, Dien Bien.

The following afternoon, Tru's brother took out the white shirt that had been lying in a corner for two years, put it on, grabbed the cloth bag containing his books, stood in front of his mother, and declared:

"Tomorrow I will go back to school."

The next morning the two brothers followed the dirt road dyed yellow by fallen marigold flowers, and went to school together.

Thanh Lam

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