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Letters from Vietnam – Ke Village

The trip to meet the Ma Lieng people at Ke Village, Vietnam, was a bit like a chapter out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. For starters, to reach the village I had to get ferried across a chocolate river in something resembling a dugout canoe. And, when I got there, I was met with a tribe of villagers who were almost supernaturally tiny.

The river’s chocolate hue was due to heavy rains flushing the nation’s soil to the sea – also making the river abnormally swollen and swift. Carrying expensive camera equipment in a very suspect-looking vessel, with a freeboard of only a few inches, was disconcerting to say the least – every person’s slightest movement rang alarm bells, and I had to work hard not to overcompensate in our bid to keep the canoe upright.

We made it to the other side, though, our gear dry, albeit with our nerves a little jangled.

Entryway to the Ke Village, home to the Ma Lieng people

So, whew, welcome to the Ke Village. This visit was in stark contrast to our trip to see the Black Thai, at Na Sai, only a few days earlier, as you shall see.

Who Are the Ma Lieng?

The Ma Lieng are not only small in stature – they are also, population-wise, the smallest minority group in Vietnam.

The Ma Lieng were only discovered in the 1980s – a dispersed population of, at the time, less than 500 individuals found in the heavily forested and mountainous Vietnam/Laos border districts of Quang Binh province in central Vietnam. The new Ho Chi Minh highway we took to get here roughly equates to what the Americans called the Ho Chi Minh trail (what the Vietnamese called the Truong Son Road, after the mountain range it went through). This trail was the main support route for transferring soldiers, weaponry and supplies from northern Vietnam to the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam in the south.

The forested region of the Ma Lieng was thus hard hit by bombing during the American (Vietnam) War.

Since discovering the Ma Lieng, the Vietnamese government, in their well-intended bid to help this almost extinct minority, have encouraged the tribe to move down from the hills, closer to the roads where they can be more easily accessed and supported. The villagers have obliged, and, as a consequence, are now somewhat out of their element. Ke Village is now one of five Ma Lieng settlements in the region (Ke, Chuoi, Cao, Ca Xen & Rao Tre Villages).

Inside a traditional Ma Lieng home – a simple structure, built to last only a few seasons

Historically, the Ma Lieng were semi-nomadic. They didn’t travel large distances, but, rather, were forced to move regularly due to their traditional slash and burn method of farming. They would scorch the land, then cultivate for a few seasons until yields diminished, then move on to another area. Sustainable farming was really ‘not their thing’. Aside from the little they grew, they supplemented their diet with roots and herbs from the forest.

The forest had sustained them for generations. It was all they knew. And so, in the early days, after they had moved down closer to the roads, visitors would often discover the new settlements empty – as the Ma Lieng would return to the life they knew by day, only returning to the village to sleep at night.

Why So Small?

It could be surmised that a lack of nutrition is the cause for their reduced stature (most are less than 1.5 metres tall). A study of other pygmies around the world has come to a more complex conclusion though – indicating that a shortened life span (the Ma Lieng have a life span of around 59 years, a full 12 years less than the 71.3 year figure for the overall population) has caused these tribes to adapt by becoming fertile, and ceasing their teenage growth, sooner. Of course, either way, the nutrition aspect would still factor in – either as a direct or indirect cause – as nutrition effects life span.

Andy Kenworthy, a fellow PRI contributor, takes notes

Meeting the Ma Lieng

Meet Cao Van Dung (left – roughly pronounced ‘Zoong’) – Ke Village chief and respected elder. Mr. Dung greeted us warmly, and escorted us to the village’s new community building where we sat to hear him speak on current village issues.

Dung was quick to say that life had improved for his community. “We now have enough to eat”, he said, and “life was very hard before.” He explained that villagers were now beginning to keep animals and home gardens. But he continued to say that their problems were not all solved. Top of his list of concerns was their agricultural experimentation. Gardening in a way that doesn’t deplete the soil is something completely new for the Ma Lieng. Rather than their traditional slash and burn mentality, the need to stay in one place makes careful land management and nutrient cycling a primary focus. But, experimental learning can be painful – particularly when you have a village of dependent mouths to feed. A failed harvest means more than just a lesson learnt on the road to discovery.

Even a short visit to the village made me think that what they lacked the most, perhaps, was confidence. Unlike the Black Thai who have a long tradition of capably working the land and applying ingenious inventions to their work, the Ma Lieng are having to learn whole new methods for maintaining their existence, and discouragement seemed to be their biggest impediment.

As we spoke, while the other elders in the meeting sat to one side, with their eyes nailed to the floor (see pic above), the conversation inevitably drifted to the need for outside assistance.

Like many developing communities, there is a clear temptation for the people to feel help must always come from outside their borders, by way of charity, as opposed to cultivating and harvesting talents and ingenuity hidden within their own community.

SPERI Head of Community Development,
Dam Trong Tuan, hands one of several
bags of clothes to a Ma Lieng
representative for distribution

For example, Mr. Dung had expressed they had stopped raising pigs some time ago, but were now going to try again. When I asked why they had stopped, he said it was because the pigs had been getting sick. When I asked why they were getting sick (in a Permaculturist’s bid to test observational learning), he responded that they “don’t have the vaccines” that wealthy people have.

I had asked what was the cause, not the cure – but the leap to the need for an outside help, rather than looking at what can be adjusted to remove the problem at source, was immediate. For them the cause was not an animal management issue, but the lack of an external input.

Two Ways to ‘Help’

This way of thinking has been inadvertently encouraged by the Vietnamese government. When working to provide housing for the Ke Villagers, the government simply did the obvious – hired contractors to quickly build some simple, ‘adequate’ housing structures.

A government-built house for the Ma Lieng

This is where contrasting two currently divergent ways of working for the Ma Lieng becomes not only interesting, but critically important if we are to really address the fundamental problems the Ma Lieng face. One way seeks to merely, and hurriedly, patch the problems with feel-good solutions that help little in the long term (although they do help some outside contractors in the short term), and the other way, well, really wants to address village issues with meaningful, holistic answers.

The house pictured above is a simple one-room structure – one that has, significantly, entirely ignored important traditional beliefs in its construction. For the Ma Lieng, like many indigenous Vietnamese, an important aspect of a ‘home’, as opposed to a ‘house’, is the household altar and the supporting ‘spirit pole’ (or ‘Cot Ma’) next to the altar at one corner of the structure.

The spirit pole, the foundation of the home, is always hand-picked by the person who will own the home. It should be free of climbing vines, and be impressive in its overall appearance. After the house is built, the spiritual leader of the village worships the spirits (most of the indigenous minorities hold pantheistic beliefs) and dedicates the spirit pole. Indeed, before, during and after the construction, the spiritual leader will make no less than five visits to dedicate the pole and prepare the home for habitability.

In this spiritual sense, by the standards of most of the indigenous peoples here, the contractor-built home above is unfit for habitation. And, in a practical, and psychological sense, the house fails yet again. Practically, because if something needs fixing with the structure, the Ma Lieng are unable to do it for themselves, as it has been built wholly without their input or involvement, so they do not understand how to repair or rebuild it. Psychologically, because receiving this ‘gift’ of a house is demeaning and removes the potential for skill- and self-respect-building guidance and instruction.

Working With the Ma Lieng – ‘Teaching them to Fish’

An alternative method, which is proving far more successful, is being implemented by PRI’s sister organisation – SPERI (Social Policy Ecology Research Institute). SPERI had staff live in Ke Village for a total of five years (one staff member was there for three years alone), so they could grow to understand their culture, their traditional methods of agriculture and handicrafts, and to develop a relationship with the people. SPERI has also, with generous contributions from outside donors, been essentially providing housing for the inhabitants of Ke Village – but in this case the Ma Lieng are involved throughout the entire process. The outcome is that the villagers work alongside skilled craftsmen, learning and gaining confidence as they build a place they really feel comfortable with – a place they can truly call ‘home’.

A SPERI/Ma Lieng collaboration

A Ma Lieng original structure now becomes a house extension, next to the new home

The Ma Lieng are very pleased with the work of their own hands

SPERI is endeavouring to do a similar work with gardening and animal husbandry. Teaching the Ma Lieng to farm sustainably around their new permanent homes is critical to their long term viability. The ambition now is to establish a Farmers’ Field School (FFS), a smaller community-level version of the larger regional training site at HEPA, where the villagers can learn the theory and practice of Permaculture design principles.

In short, SPERI is working to bring solutions to the Ma Lieng people in a way that supplements their traditional knowledge, rather than supplanting it. Instead of imposing rapid, thoughtless interventions (that in effect say “no – you’re doing it wrong, here’s how it should be done instead”), this way of working means the Ma Lieng are less likely to totally discard their valuable accumulated knowledge, and as such can find value and self-respect in their own cultural identity – giving them the psychological armaments that will help them move forward in their new environment.

Like Na Sai, I look forward to visiting the Ma Lieng at Ke Village again, and having the time to get more first hand accounts of their lives. For now, the glimmer of hope I saw in the words and eyes of some of the inhabitants is mirrored in my own mind, as I witness the work being done on the ground to help these people up onto their feet, so they can live their own lives with dignity, and in harmony with the resources and people around them.

Ma Lieng chicken houses

Time to go back across the chocolate river…

Continue on to read Letters from Vietnam: The Hmong People – Claiming Back Lost Skills


  1. Craig, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t contain a giggle to myself, picturing as soon as I started reading yr article, how ‘distressed’ you would have been at the situation in the canoe and panicking about yr camera gear – understandably.

    Keep them coming, we are really enjoying reading them. All great stuff.

  2. Hi Craig, tks for another great story of your adventures and work, great photos, how about one with you in it ?

  3. Hi Craig! Great to see what you guys are up to, being so far away from Slovakia. What amazing stories! It is inspirational for me and my own way of living to see how Permaculture can influence the Ma Leing to not look to ouside help, but to the talents withing themselves. Looking forward to hearing more! Cau! Paul

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