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Letters from Vietnam – The Road to Na Sai

We catch a rare glimpse of an ancient and beautiful culture – the Black Thai people – and applaud the work of a modern day NGO who is working to help improve the lives of these noble people whilst retaining their unique identity – just as a new road threatens their natural, low-carbon existence.

Black Thai Villager in Rice Fields, Na Sai Village, Vietnam
Photos: Craig Mackintosh

A few days ago I had the profound privilege of spending two days in a ‘lost village’ – a tiny community hidden away in one of Vietnam’s border regions. I invite you to share in this rare opportunity by way of the text and images below.

The topography of the landscape, and its remoteness, has isolated the Na Sai village, separating it from modern influences and modern ‘development’. Being here in Vietnam, whilst the world faces a potential “systemic” financial meltdown, is rather ironic, particularly as I compare the vulnerabilities of the outside world with a community like this – a community for whom industrialised society is a seeming universe apart in terms of culture and socioeconomic dependencies.

In many ways, from my observations, if the rest of the world were to sink into the ocean this community would barely notice.

The People and Place

Even as recently as 2003, reaching Na Sai involved a grueling hike through the tropical rainforest. Today, the Na Sai village, home for some 70 households of the indigenous minority ‘Black Thai’ people, can be reached by vehicle, painfully, via an embryonic form of road – a suspension-testing trip that can, for now, only be made by motorbike or capable four-wheel drive. (Before all you budding National Geographic types start packing up your gear to head to Na Sai – be aware that this region, like many of the border regions in Vietnam, is out of bounds for those without prior official approval.)

Checking in with the local authorities: We were pre-approved to come here, but
stopped by as a relationship-building courtesy. A bust of Ho Chi Minh observes
the proceedings under the hammer & sickle and the Vietnam star

As mentioned a couple of days ago, we are here at the request of SPERI (Social Policy Ecology Research Institute), a Vietnamese NGO we (PRI) have helped establish and are working to develop. SPERI’s role in assisting the villagers of Na Sai was initially in securing their land rights – ensuring they cannot be pushed off their land by the encroaching resource-hungry industries whose tentacles have been stretching into these regions.

Na Sai Village, Vietnam – about 2 kilometres from the Laos border

After a year of lobbying at local commune and district levels, the Black Thai, Na Sai villagers gained full title in 2003 to the land they’d been living on for more than 120 years.

An example of how important this work is was well illustrated recently. Three months ago 100 hectares of land was purchased from a nearby village by a forestry company – at 40,000 Vietnamese Dong per hectare. At today’s exchange, that’s about US$2.40 per hectare (or per 2.2 acres). The people of the region, not being plugged into the money economy, have no concept of land values. In this instance, SPERI got to work and lobbied against the company and the land was returned to its original owners – with the company subsequently being banned from working in the region again. With Vietnam being among the world’s fastest growing economies, vigilance in this regard is appropriate and necessary. As I discovered during my stay, the people are very open, sincere, trusting and giving – a recipe for disaster when combined with the not-so-objective motivations of ‘savvy’ city businessmen.

After Na Sai’s land rights were secured, the next stage of assistance has been to improve the lot of the villagers themselves, whilst endeavouring to keep their rich culture and identity intact. As is typical for the organisation, SPERI assigned staff members to actually go and live within the community for extended periods, so they could observe and learn about their traditions, belief systems, and the practical ways they work and interact with each other and their surroundings. This has enabled SPERI and PRI to work more effectively and harmoniously with the village.

One of the most striking aspects of the Na Sai village, is the smiles and warmth emanating from the villagers themselves. While we shouldn’t romanticise the lot of the ‘poor’, having spent a little time with these beautiful people I can’t help but state that they indeed seem happy, and when I see the way they live, work, cooperate and interact, I am not surprised. In real, tangible terms, I would judge them wealthy in many respects.

The second thing that struck me is their ingenious ‘technology’. With the simplest of materials they fashion useful tools and machines for important practical purposes.

Below is a famous example – the Black Thai water wheel – unique to these people. The wheel pulls water out of the river, dropping it into a bamboo drain that diverts it off into the rice field.

The Black Thai Water Wheel – wood and bamboo (no metal parts)

Another is the loom – many households have them, all cleverly made by hand from local materials, enabling the villagers to produce their own clothes at very little or no cost (some cloth is made from purchased thread from nearby villages, and some is produced from silkworms they farm themselves).

The output, at left, is exquisite

Feeding leaves to silkworms at left, with a finished roll of silk cloth at right

An automated rice hammer: The water fills at right, then the weight causes the
see-saw to swing down, lifting the hammer at left. The water drains out,
causing the hammer to fall, and so on…

The village itself is a cluster of houses which were traditionally without gardens. Although the village is their cultural and social hub, and is where much of their craft industry occurs, each household actually splits their time between two homes – the village house, and their farm house.

As you can see at right, houses are built on solid wooden poles – constructed and fashioned without nails or fossil fuel energy inputs. People live in the top level, and their animals – cows, water buffalo, pigs, chickens and ducks – take shelter in the cavity below. (Dogs and cats get free reign on both levels!)

Designed for tropical conditions, the roof overhang ensures the sun is kept off walls during the hottest part of the day. The floor is well aired through the use of bamboo slatting. The roof is finished off with wooden shingles. The kitchen’s oven is a simple pad of stone or concrete set into the floor where a fire can be lit.

Traditionally, food is grown on each household’s fields, which are scattered around the area. One family’s fields might be a few minutes walk away, whilst another may take up to or over an hour to reach – hence the second house.

Paradise Lost?

Life here is not without its problems of course.

‘Development’ comes to the Na Sai Village, Vietnam

The Black Thai villagers face several issues that threaten their health, their culture, and their environment. Perhaps the most significant and most direct threat is illustrated, graphically, above – the new road to Na Sai. Even in its embryonic state, hawkers and traders from the city make their way up to the village by motorcycle to make deals – with villagers that are not accustomed to city ways. Young Black Thai villagers can also be lured into the cities to chase a mirage-like western dream, where they are far more likely to end up working in sweatshop type environments for a pittance. Along these lines, SPERI has been working to strengthen the self-respect of the Na Sai youth for their own traditional way of life by introducing them to the cold hard realities of city life in place like the capital Hanoi.

Globalisation – Hopping onto the Titanic

Once the road is complete, their previously isolated and stable economy will likely see a flood of outside interest. Plugging into the global economy at this time could be likened to leaving a lifeboat to hop aboard the Titanic – just to serve drinks at a short-lived party on the upper decks. Many in the west are coming to realise we need to relocalise by rebuilding interdependent communities – something the Black Thai people can teach us a great deal about. In my mind, abandoning such a rich culture now would be bad timing, to say the least.

Unfortunately, in 2007 Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Its relationship-building with wealthy Northern economies, and its joining the WTO, has also culminated, in 2006, with Vietnam signing up to TRIPS (The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). For the short term profit for a few key figures in Vietnam, this puts the nation on a fast-tracked path towards relinquishing its food security to wealthy Northern corporations and shareholders, converting its economy into the monocrop and export-oriented ‘free trade’ model that has failed so miserably elsewhere (an important read if you haven’t already), and incentivising Big Biotech to get a GMO wedge into the country.

“Vietnam plans to allow massive production of genetically modified crops after 2010,” said Pham Van Toan, Hanoi-based head of the general office at the agriculture ministry’s science and technology department.

Vietnam aims for genetically modified crops to account for about 70 percent of production by 2020, the report said. – (emphasis added)

The US and Europe are no longer the only ‘bad guys’ pushing farmers into a bleak new landscape where huge corporations control the seeds, incessant royalties have to be paid, and rural autonomy and culture are buried. Japan, host to one of the top ten seed conglomerates in the world, has now joined that league…. The Abe government is in a frenzy to sign more FTAs with India, Vietnam and ASEAN as whole in the coming months. – Grain

A second direct threat comes via a development project further downstream. The hydro dam project, pictured below, is dislocating villagers – some of whom are being relocated to Na Sai and surrounding villages.

The downstream dam project is dislocating villagers – swelling the ranks of Na Sai

New houses are being built in Na Sai ‘Suburbia’

Other issues I note as I wander the village are in regard to hygiene and potable water. The clean water problem I will cover in a subsequent post on the nearby Pom Om village I visited after Na Sai, as it gives me the opportunity to contrast two kinds of applied ‘solutions’, and their outcomes.

Permaculture Arrives to Na Sai

SPERI and PRI aim to bolster a bottom-up approach to securing the Na Sai village against outside economic interests. Supplementing (not supplanting) traditional methods of agriculture and key skill areas (like building, waste systems, etc.) with modern permaculture techniques is integral for sustainable development, and is in stark contrast to the typical unsustainable ‘development’ normally thrust upon such communities.

Meet Mr. Nhat, at right (his teeth are stained black, like many villagers, from chewing areca nut, wrapped in Betel leaf, a common habit in south-east Asia). Back in April 2006, Geoff and Nadia Lawton taught a Permaculture Design Certificate course at HEPA. Due to his farming skills and enthusiasm Mr. Nhat was chosen by both the villagers and SPERI as the most suitable candidate to attend the course as a Na Sai representative. He has since attended two further permaculture courses and has taken great interest in supplementing his traditional knowledge with modern permaculture techniques.

Composting is something the Black Thai have never done, and thus this concept was somewhat of a revelation to Mr. Nhat. Indeed, even gardening close to home was a strange concept for this particular tribe.

Traditionally the Black Thai organised themselves into important social groups to coordinate the best people for specific tasks. For example, they had house building groups, where you could get involved with building a house with a team of skilled villagers, and in return, when the time came that you needed your own house, the building group would pitch in to build yours. Similarly, there were wedding groups, funeral groups, and rice-growing groups. SPERI has taken this model, a system the Black Thai are already familiar with, and encouraged the establishment of three further groups – a handicraft group, herbal medicine group, and gardening group.

Mr. Nhat’s new garden is attracting interest amongst the villagers, even as he and his family are enjoying improved nutrition and variety in their diet, and even greater food security. The Nhat family have taken such an interest that Mr. Nhat’s son is now on a long term internship at HEPA.

I was somewhat astonished at the level of enthusiasm displayed by Mr. Nhat – as evidenced by this section of land, approaching an acre, that, over the course of one year, Mr. Nhat and his son have transformed from an overgrown slope into a neatly terraced, fully planted garden, complete with retaining stone walls.

Pineapple, ginger, cinnamon, sweet potato, cassava, taro, peanuts, and much more….

Mr. Nhat has also improved the hygiene for his household by creating a dry composting toilet, and also by fencing off his section so animals are not free to wander around his garden – where they would otherwise trample and eat his crops and defecate on paths, etc.

Keep an eye out for future articles and more details on the Nhat family, as I plan to visit Na Sai again, and interview and write case studies on these individuals and their work.

Na Sai villagers burn wood chips (high in carbon) instead of composting it.
SPERI and PRI are educating the people to build soil with it instead

Mr. Nhat’s daughter-in-law collects herbs from their herb garden

During our stay with the Nhat family, the local police made their way up the rough road on a motorcycle and came to the house – not to check up on these seditious foreign visitors, but to ensure we were safe and being properly looked after! The two policemen, along with another official (that had invited himself along with us the previous day), and a couple of other villagers that dropped by to meet us, all combined to make a rather large assembly for the lady of the house. There was no shortage of food however – all were well fed and watered, served in the traditional way when guests arrive, with the men eating separately from the women.

I am looking forward to going back to Na Sai and giving some more personal accounts from the villagers themselves. Until next time, I’ll leave you with a few more photos of village life:

The local officials also thought it a suitable occasion to get stuck into some rice wine

The extended family concept is alive and well in Na Sai

Separating rice grains

Washing in the river

Fishing – wait for the animation

Preparing the day’s rice at 5am…

…while the guests slumber

Continue on to read Letters from Vietnam – Ke Village


  1. Hi Craig –

    This is a National Geographic-quality article and set of pictures you have produced. Absolutely amazing. You have no idea how envious I am of you! Brilliant stuff, mate.

    – Nick

  2. Fantastic. Love the memories this brings up for us, even though places we visited in Vietnam were no where near the ‘innocence’ of this place, Sapa near the Chinese border being the closest. Keep up the great work, and lucky you, being where you are at this very unstable time.

  3. What a magical place. Beautiful pictures, thank you.

    So sad to hear of the GM threat, lurking amongst all the more visible dangers.

    I look forward to seeing more about your work.

    Please send my best wishes to the people of Na Sai and my thanks to them for allowing us a glimpse of their world.

  4. Hi Craig (Bro),

    I am so proud of you Craig. You are an amazing writer and your photographs are breathtaking.

    Love You,


  5. Hi Craig, when you emailed me this link I expected to see a few more photos of Vietnam. Instead I found your well written article and heaps of wonderful photos of a people and a place I knew nothing about. Thank you & keep up the good work.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing! Well written and beautiful photography~~~ places like these need to be cherished and honoured forever. My hope is that we can all live more like this. Again, many thanks.

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