IN PICTURES – Born of the Hmong minority, Vuong Duy Bao has been fighting for a few years to recover the family palace, a treasure of the heritage of his community, requisitioned by the Vietnamese authorities.
Bitter, Vuong Duy Bao wanders through the dark, cold rooms of his former family palace, a heritage treasure of the Hmong minority, requisitioned by the Vietnamese authorities to make it a museum. The residence in stone and precious wood was built in 1903 by his grandfather, Vuong Duc Chi, a warlord who became rich thanks to the trade in opium before being crowned king of the Hmong people by the French colonial power. The places are steeped in history, dragon sculptures symbolize prosperity and longevity, while opium flowers engraved in the pillars echo the poppy trade, flourishing at the time.
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Two years ago, Bao quit his job at the Ministry of Culture to retire and focus on his family history. He says that in the early 2000s his palace was turned into a museum by the local authorities. But he did not know that they had also attributed the property, located in the province of Ha Giang, in the north of the country. They refuse to give him back unless he produces a deed of title, he assures. An "absurd" request for Bao, documents of this type do not exist at the time when the house was built.
A community scattered throughout the world
"For Hmongs around the world, (this palace) is our family home. We can not lose it, "he sighs, pacing his many open courts. Examples of Hmong architecture are rare, the minority, originally from China, having long been nomadic. For the grandson of Vuong Duc Chi, the crusade to try to recover his palace is intended to defend the heritage of his community today scattered in the world, from California to Minnesota (United States) through the Thailand, which proudly clings to its traditions.
Vietnam currently has one million Hmong, of which more than 60% live below the poverty line. Forced displacement, unsuccessful attempts at assimilation: conflicts with the government are frequent. "More than any other ethnic minority in Vietnam, the Hmongs have been marginalized by programs that claim to work for their development," said anthropologist Ngo Tam in 2016 in his book "The New Way: Protestantism and the Hmongs in Vietnam" . Controversies over Hmong heritage only exacerbate tensions.
"This is one of the many elements that contribute to their sense of being marginalized," says Sebastian Rumsby of the University of Warwick in the UK. At the same time, tourism has become a key sector of the Vietnamese economy, with revenues of $ 22 billion in 2017, and the authorities are trying to take advantage of the ethnic minority to develop this financial windfall.
Hmong villages have been recreated, people are encouraged to wear traditional hemp costumes and build traditional houses, while many young people would prefer more modern housing that is less expensive to build. "Sometimes the authorities try to force their ideas, but we resist by refusing to follow them," said Vang My Sinh, a Hmong from Ha Giang. "We have always had a strong community spirit, we build things together and preserve them together. Nothing can break us, "he adds.
Other Hmongs are happy to comply with government guidelines if it can help them out of poverty. "It is good to preserve the tradition, for ourselves, for our children and even for tourists who are curious and allow us to make more money," says Va Thi May, a grilled yam seller. Bao hopes that he will one day be able to benefit from some of the tourist benefits by recovering his palace, erected on a mountain at 1,600 meters of altitude. For him, the fight is far from over. For decades, "we live on this rock and we die on this rock," he asserts.