Lat Village, named after its inhabitants' ethnic group and located
just outside of Da Lat in the central highlands, lies precariously on the
margin of modernization. Locals generally welcome tourists who
provide a direly needed, although unpredictable,
source of income. In exchange for a few dollars paid via a
Vietnamese tour guide (who secured
safe entrance into the village and permission from the proper
I got an intimate peek at everyday life where the old and the new collide
against a background of poverty.
We rolled into the village accompanied by a light sheet of fog. The
atmosphere cast a peaceful, antique mood about the place. Villagers
are extremely poor, and selling goods to the few tourists who stop by can
prove extremely lucrative. The elders strictly monitor such business
to stifle unhealthy competition and maintain peace.
In traditional village life, age is the primary determining factor of status,
responsibility, and power. Thus, we were greeted
by the village patriarch. He did not know exactly how old he was,
but boasted to
have seen over 100 rice harvests (and he looked it too). He would
collect the proceeds from our visit and be responsible for
distributing the bounty to the group.
We began our visit by stepping into a "long house" and grabbing a chair
(a six-inch stool consisting of three 2x4s hammered into a post and lintel
structure). The patriarch explained that the dwelling places were so long
because they housed an entire extended family. The Lat practice
matrilineal inheritance, so every time a daughter gets married, the house must
be extended to provide space for her new family.
There were no walls or partitions to provide an iota of privacy.
The furniture consisted of a stove for
cooking located opposite the entrance, sleeping mats for each
immediate family, and a large round container near the patriarch's bed,
reaching all the way to the ceiling.
The gigantic cylinder was full of the family's most valuable asset--rice.
Personal belongings were stored in worn sacks arranged closely around each bed.
Next came the visit's highlight. We were to partake in a "ceremonial"
drinking of rice wine. Quite a privilege for the women among us, we were told,
because this is a rite in which Lat women are not allowed to partake.
The patriarch lifted up a ceramic pot standing about knee-high which was full
of wine. A net covering the opening kept the hovering insects away from
the precious beverage.
The straw (a long plastic tube about half an inch in diameter, the likes of which I'd
previously seen used only in the transfer of automotive fluids)
was packed with feasting insects.
The old man quickly expelled these
unwanted visitors by blowing them a safe distance across the room before
re-inserting the devise and taking a hearty sip himself.
Next, he set
the jug down in front of me. His generous grin revealed raw,
swollen gums, but my curiosity got the best of me and I couldn't resist
such an enthusiastic invitation. So I stooped over and just
Cautiously at first, then more forcefully as I realized it would take
considerable effort to taste the prize--the tube
was worn and lined with several tiny holes. Finally, the sharp, sweet
syrup reached my mouth. The acrid taste forced me to swallow immediately,
and my stomach seemed to catch on fire.
Indeed, a few sips of this wonder
drink could instantly transform any poor villager into a happy ruler of his own domain.
It's no wonder nearly 10 more pots sat lining the floor awaiting
their own ceremonies...