Unequal Christians of Asian Churches

Ethnic Catholics suffer social inequity in Vietnam

Poverty restrains Hmong people from seeing the discrimination or effectively responding to it.
Teresa Vang Thi Cam combs her daughter’s hair in their house in Ban Lenh Subparish in Yen Bai province

Teresa Vang Thi Cam combs her daughter’s hair in their house in Ban Lenh Subparish in Yen Bai province. (Photo: UCA News)

UCA News reporter, Hanoi

By UCA News reporter, Hanoi

November 23, 2022 03:15 AM

Some 30 ethnic Hmong women and their children squat on the floor of an under-construction church while a dozen Kinh people sit on plastic stools just in front of them. Both groups are at a Catholic Mass in a sub-parish in Vietnam’s Van Chan district of Yen Bai province.

“We are poor, boorish, uneducated and rustic. So we dare not sit among the Kinh, who are well-dressed and speak Vietnamese fluently,” explained Teresa Vang Thi Cam, a Hmong Catholic after the Mass that marked the mid-autumn festival in Ban Lenh sub-parish.

The discrimination that Cam says she experiences in the parish community is reflective of the wider social situation in Vietnam and in its Christian communities, where socially and economically poor ethnic groups of Hmong, Muong, Tay and Thai feel discriminated against.

Cam, a 26-year-old mother of two, said indigenous Hmong people like her have always been considered inferior to the Kinh people as the Hmong remained economically and educationally poor.

A lack of education meant they spoke their ethnic dialect rather than Vietnamese, the national language. They also followed traditional healthcare systems and lifestyles. And that further distances them from the Kinh people, said the diminutive woman, who speaks Vietnamese fluently.

Kinh people form some 85 percent of Vietnam’s 96.2 million population, according to the Population and Housing Census of 2019. Among the country’s 53 ethnic groups, only six —Hmong, Khmer, Muong, Nung, Tay and Thai — have more than a million members each.

In the Hmong-dominated Ban Lenh sub-parish Cam has 200 members.

Hmong ethnic women and their children sit on the bare floor of the unfinished church in Ban Lenh Subprish while attending a Mass. (Photo: UCA News)

Poverty causes discrimination

Poverty greatly restrains Hmong people, making them incapable of seeing the discrimination or effectively responding to it.

For example, Cam was “appreciative of generous donations” from the visiting Kinh people at the mid-autumn festival. They offered candies and cakes and gave a cultural performance to local children at the festival.

Cam, clad in ragged clothes, has finished elementary school and was married at the age of 15 after a “bride kidnapping” — a Hmong custom that allows a boy to snatch a girl away and force her into marriage during the New Year celebration.

Most Hmong people are day laborers like her, working in tea and rice fields. Cam says she earns roughly US$6.50 for a day’s work but gets hired only for a few days each month. “Field owners prefer employing Kinh laborers and paying them $8 to $10 a day,” she said.

Her husband works away in the capital Hanoi as a construction worker and earns $10.50 a day while Kinh workers with him are paid $15 a day.

Just like Cam’s family, the Deanery of Nghia Lo in Hung Hoa diocese covers four districts and Nghia Lo town has 15,000 Catholics, half of them from the socially and economically poor ethnic Hmong, Muong, Tay and Thai groups.

Hmong Joseph Sung Sai Xia in his home in Yen Bai province. (Photo: UCA News)

Hues of discrimination

Joseph Sung Sai Xia, a lay leader from Pin Pe sub-parish, said until three years ago local Catholics had to travel 30 kilometers to Kinh-dominated My Hung parish to attend Sunday Masses and solemn feasts.

Ethnic villagers like him used to arrive at the church on the previous day and spent a night inside its compound.

The parish arranged their food. “But some Kinh parishioners began to grumble about how costly it was to maintain us,” said Xia, who became a Catholic in 1983.

“They commented on how much we ate, and that made us quite blue. We had little choice but to try to finish our meals soon and leave the church after Masses because we were starving,” he said.

Ethnic minorities always huddle together in the church and dare not to sit in the same rows as the others, who despise them for the foul smell and prefer to keep their distance, Hmong people said.

It is said that Hmong women do not know how to keep themselves clean and tidy unlike the Kinh women who wear formal clothes and perfume in public places, Xia added.

“In Kinh-dominated parishes, we are rarely consulted about parish plans, so we have to abide by the decisions made by the Kinh. That is also a common practice,” Xia said.

Some Kinh Catholics call Hmong people "Meo," a rude word indicating that they are poorly educated and don’t know the official language.

“We feel that the way we are treated is lacking in dignity,” he said.

Hmong Catholics return home after Mass at Pin Pe Church. (Photo: UCA News)

Self-exclusion against insults

Xia said they avoided certain forms of discrimination when the Hmong-dominated Dong Heo parish was started in 2019. The parish has six sub-parishes, including Pin Pe, which together have some 1,800 Hmong Catholics.

The Pin Pe sub-parish has some 300 Catholics in a population of 700 people in the village. They have monthly Masses in a 150-square-meter church standing on a plot of 400 square meters of land.

The 68-year-old Xia, living in a wooden house, said local Catholics have not been asked about their views on the ongoing Synod on Synodality (2021-2024), which reportedly seeks ways to enhance lay participation.

The man, who has six children and 10 grandchildren, said most local families have 4-10 children and cultivate rice, tea and other crops on hillsides for a living as the mountains have been denuded of their thick forests by illegal loggers.

The Hmong people traditionally lived a nomadic life in the mountains, hunting animals and collecting fruit and roots from forests for food. With the forests thinning out, they were compelled to abandon cultivation and instead become laborers.

Their socio-economic conditions are reflected in the sub-parish, which has no presbytery. They are even unable to erect an iron tower to hang a church bell gifted by a priest because the government has not granted them ownership of the property.

Hmong people stand near a traditional shop at Muong Lo market in Yen Bai province. (Photo: UCA News)

Oppressed in wider society too

Hmong youth seek work outside the village at mining sites, markets, and on farms. Many also work illegally in China and Laos. But are bullied and deceived by Kinh people who pay them no salaries for months. 

Several come back without a salary. Some women go missing and are feared to be victims of human trafficking, Xia said.

“We have little knowledge about laws so we do not know how to protect our rights,” he said.

In Pin Pe, the village was set up only in the 1950s and has no proper infrastructure or roads, except a two-kilometer narrow rough path that winds through rocky hills and streams to connect them with the main road. Mobile phones do not work as the village remains out of signal coverage.

Ethnic groups have resided in this area for hundreds of years and their ancestors were introduced to Catholicism some 100 years ago by foreign missionaries.

First Kinh people reportedly moved to the region in the early 20th century. But they occupied the lowlands and have developed asphalt roads, educational and health care facilities, and a power supply with government help.

An ethnic Thai trader named Luong from Muong Lo, the largest traditional market in Nghia Lo, said traders take full advantage of the ethnic minority’s villagers’ ignorance and inability to speak Vietnamese.

Luong, who sells herbal medicines and doves for a living, said Kinh traders sell them poor quality food, clothes and other goods for higher than market prices, and buy their products such as bamboo shoots and fruit at half prices.

“We are extremely concerned about the future of our young generations who will have no more farmland to cultivate crops for a living," she said.

Father Peter Nguyen Anh Dung offers free bread to ethnic children after Mass in Phinh Ho Church. (Photo: UCA News)

Social change comes slowly

Father Peter Nguyen Anh Dung, who started serving as assistant priest of the Hmong-dominated Phinh Ho parish early this year, said most villagers are resigned to their fate. They have no strength to struggle for social justice or to mix with outsiders. “So they are easily exploited and tricked by others,” he said.

The 42-year-old Vincentian priest observed that social change cannot happen overnight.

“It takes time to build basic facilities to meet their religious needs and to help them to speak Vietnamese fluently.” He said religious activities are now held in Vietnamese “so that they can interact with other people.”

Father Dung said local Vincentian priests, who have worked with local people since 2013, try to accustom them to modern life by repairing their houses, building toilets, providing clean water for them, and making concrete roads leading to their villages.

The priests also make bread for breakfast for Hmong children to fight their malnutrition. Many children are given opportunities to socialize with others and earn income by selling bread in public places.

Another priest, who provides pastoral care for ethnic groups in Son La province, said there are “enormous disparities” in the economy, culture, education, health care, and infrastructure between the Kinh and local ethnic minorities in north-western provinces.

“All social services are provided for Kinh-dominated places while ethnic minorities live in remote mountainous areas,” the priest said. Ethnic minorities suffer from injustice because of social discrimination, he said.

Christian leaders said Hmong people who convert to Christianity also face social difficulties. They face dire threats from local authorities and are left isolated, condemned for their wretched action of “embracing a strange religion.”

New Christian villages are tightly controlled for alleged security reasons by the authorities who try to restrict and refuse to give official approval to their activities, the leaders said.

Priests struggle for Hmong

He said Hung Hoa diocese serving 20,000 Hmong Catholics in north-western provinces runs nine hostels offering free food and accommodation for ethnic students in the provinces of Dien Bien, Lao Cai, Son La and Yen Bai. Each hostel has 40-100 students going to government-run secondary and high schools.

The priest said ethnic students are also taught about modern lifestyles and ways to dress properly and keep personal hygiene like other students.

“Those students are expected to keep pace with their Kinh peers, improve their social status, and push back step by step the discrimination they suffer,” said the priest, who asked not to be identified.

He said local priests raise charity funds to build houses and to provide free food, clothes and scholarships to people in need. They also help cover the medical bills of seriously-ill patients at public hospitals.

“We try our best to reduce discrimination against ethnic groups and create opportunities for their children to have access to formal education, health care, and other social services like Kinh children,” he said.

Joseph Mua Vang Sang from the Hmong-dominated Ta Lanh sub-parish said local ethnic minorities appreciate priests, who bring them a real sense of equity by building facilities in their villages.

“Many parishes and sub-parishes for Hmong people have been established in recent years. With the help of priests, we improve our spiritual and material life partly, and keep our dignity and self-respect,” the lay missionary said.

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2 Comments on this Story
Usually when we hear about Vietnam's ethnic minorities it's communist officials still being opposed to those who fought with Americans who adopted the French all-embracing "Montagnard" term for them. Here we see that even where Christianity embraces both mainstream and minority groups, they still suffer. In this sense it is similar to Cambodia's ethnic minorities who have endured similar maltreatment. "Khmerization" is still going on even if not as violent or lethal as in Khmer Rouge days. Having worked with these minorities in both of these countries and in Laos, the one thing that strikes you is they share much in common to be proud of, no doubt stemming from before the colonial borders.
Ethnic discrimination in the Catholic church is appalling & horrific but its true. Caste discrimination happened in Tamil Nadu, India and the Bishop closed the Church. It happened in a religious congregation in India and a visitor was called from Rome to investigate it. And we still pray every Sunday: We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.