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Vietnamese of Isaan

Vietnamese of Isaan

Thailand’s long-established Vietnamese Community

There is a traditional Lao adage which insists: "Lao and Viet - Cat and Dog", implying the impossibility of the two peoples ever getting along well together. Yet again, another old saw - this time attributed to the Khmers - has it that: "The Viets plant the rice, the Khmers watch them working, but the Lao listen to the rice grow".

Sayings like this, rooted not just in centuries, but in millennia of rivalry and competition for land, are vivid indications of the mistrust which developed between the numerous, industrious, Sinicised Vietnamese, and their less numerous, more easy-going, Indianised neighbours - the Lao, the Cambodians, and of course the Thais.

Traditional rivalries between Vietnamese and Thai were not improved by the arrival, in the mid-19th century, of European colonialists. Thailand, through a fortunate mixture of good judgement and wise kings, was able to safeguard its independence, albeit at the cost of some peripheral territories. The Vietnamese, however, were swallowed by Imperial France, causing an initial outflow of refugees to Thailand at the beginning of this century.

These first Vietnamese migrants - calling themselves Viet Kieu, or "Overseas Vietnamese" -  settled in Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakhon, away from their French overlords, but close enough to their Indochinese homeland to be able to foment revolt. This was the beginning of the Vietnamese nationalist movement, which was observed by the Thais with profound mistrust.

Subsequently, in 1946, a renewed wave of Viet Kieu migrants sought refuge in Thailand following the Second World War, the re-imposition of French authority over Indochina in 1946, and the establishment of a communist regime in Hanoi in 1952. During these years an estimated 50,000 Vietnamese crossed the Mekong, seeking shelter in Thailand's broad north-east. Like earlier Viet migrants, they settled mainly by the Mekong, in Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom, and Ubon Ratchathani. Today these provinces, together with the recently constituted province of Mukdahan, still form the main centres of Vietnamese settlement in Thailand.

Right down to the present day, the Vietnamese remain perhaps Thailand's least-known minority. The reasons for this are based on earlier historical rivalries, compounded by Vietnam's promotion of communism in Indochina and tacit backing for the (now defunct) Communist Party of Thailand. Put simply, the Thai authorities - indeed Thai people in general - didn't trust the Vietnamese. The Viets of Isaan knew this, and worked diligently to improve their living standards, whilst playing down the question of ethnicity.

Happily, now that Vietnam has abandoned socialism in favour of free-market economics, bridges are being built across the Mekong not just in concrete and steel, but in cultural and commercial relations, too. In earnest of this, the Thai authorities have begun the long delayed granting of citizenship to all grandchildren of Viet Kieu migrants in the north-east. As this process continues, the long-silent Vietnamese of Isaan are rediscovering their cultural confidence and ethnic roots - secure, at last, in their country of adoption.

Visitors to Isaan, both Thai and foreign, are increasingly able to take advantage of this development when travelling through the Mekong provinces. A good starting place would be Nong Khai, just one short stop from Vientiane, the Lao capital, with its two Vietnamese quarters and numerous, delicious Viet restaurants. Yet to experience the cuisine, and to meet the Viet Kieu of the Mekong Valley, there is no need to cross the Friendship Bridge.

Nong Khai itself has a small Vietnamese community, and in parts is redolent of French Indochina. A row of Sino-French style houses lines Meechai Road to the east of Soi Si Khun Muang, parallel to the river, whilst shops along the same street are today packed with wares from Vietnam, as well as from Laos and China. Excellent Vietnamese food is available too, especially in the vicinity of the Tha Sadet ferry pier. Visitors might try the Udom Rot, which specialises in paw pia yuan (Vietnamese spring rolls), chao tom (grilled sugar cane rolled in spiced shrimp paste) and dua chua (bean sprout salad).

West from Nong Khai, along the narrow road that follows the Mekong to Chiang Khan, lie several settlements where business revolves around the resident Viet Kieu community. The first such town is Tha Bo, an unremarkable but prosperous settlement with a large church, known locally as wat satsana krit - the "Christian temple". The presence of churches, and sometimes of small cathedrals, in the riverine towns of Isaan is a sure sign of Viet Kieu residents. Many of the refugees who fled North Vietnam in 1952 were devout Catholics, and they brought their faith with them when they came to Thailand.

Further along the same road, directly opposite the bend in the river which shelters the Lao capital, Vientiane, may be found the affluent little settlement of Sri Chiang Mai. The wealth of this region - which is apparent from the well-stocked shops and the frequency of direct air-conditioned coach services from Bangkok - rests on the manufacture of khanom paw pia yuan, or Vietnamese spring roll wrappers.

On the outskirts of Sri Chiang Mai, and in many of the neighbouring villages, may be seen rows of rattan spring roll drying frames, and in warehouses near the bus stop great piles of ready-bagged wrappers are stacked to the ceilings. Si Chiang Mai is the "spring roll capital" of Thailand, and exports its produce not only to Bangkok, but to Hong Kong and Singapore, Paris and London. The trade is almost exclusively in the hands of local Viet Kieu and Lao settlers, and business is booming.

Turning eastwards from Nong Khai a sizeable Vietnamese presence may be found down river at Nakhon Phanom, directly opposite the Lao city of Tha Khaek. Here the traveller can sample some of the best Vietnamese food in Isaan, whilst revelling in panoramic views of the Mekong River and the jagged mountains of Laos beyond. Trade between Nakhon Phanom and Vietnam, already well-established, will be set to boom when a second Mekong bridge is constructed, as planned, between the Thai city and Tha Khaek. Eventually a modern, hard-surfaced road will lead from here directly to the Vietnamese port city of Vinh. For the present, however, trade is conducted by a regular ferry service. Thai nationals can cross easily and with minimal formalities, though nationals of other countries still require a Lao visa validated for entry through Tha Khaek - a permit best acquired in Bangkok, before setting out for Isaan.

Fifty-three kilometres further down the Mekong towards the sea is the important Buddhist centre of That Phanom, site of the north-east's most important temple fair every February, and the cultural heart of Isaan. Here, too, links with Vietnam are readily apparent. Hundreds of Lao and Vietnamese merchants cross the river to participate in the regional market each Monday and Thursday. Goods from across the river are widely displayed, including Lao herbal medicines and forest products, Vietnamese pigs and animal skins, and a selection of other exotica. Other indications of Vietnamese (and Franco-Vietnamese) influence include colonial-style shophouses and restaurants where the traveller can buy French-style baguettes known locally as khao jii, best eaten with French-style paté and coffee. And why not? Hanoi, after all, is much closer geographically than Bangkok, and the Gulf of Tonkin is just over the hills.

Prosperous communities of Vietnamese are similarly to be found at Mukdahan, directly opposite the Lao town of Savannakhet, and in the major Isaan city of Ubon Ratchathani. The night market in the former provincial capital is notable for its baguettes and paté, spring rolls and nam-nyang, or barbecued pork - all clear signs of Viet Kieu influence. Well worth a visit, too, is the Enjoy Restaurant, specialising in Vietnamese food, located on Phitak Santirat Road close to the town centre. Perhaps the best known Viet restaurant in Isaan, however - a talking point familiar with aficionados of Vietnamese cuisine as far afield as Bangkok and Chiang Mai - is the Indojin ("Indochina") on Ubon Ratchathani's Sanphasit Road.

Discovering Vietnamese Cuisine:

One of the delights of Vietnamese cuisine is the delicious and extensive menu available. There are said to be nearly five hundred authentically Vietnamese dishes which, as a rule, are superbly prepared, visually pleasing and generally reasonably priced.

The traditional basis for Vietnamese meals is com trang - boiled long-grain rice - which is accompanied by a selection of fish, meat and vegetable dishes and eaten with chopsticks.

By contrast Chao gio, or spring rolls, are considered a side dish which may be served fresh, or deep-fried until the rice paper wrapper turns a crispy golden-brown.

One of the most popular ways of eating rice-paper wrappers is as the staple ingredient of nam-nyang, or Vietnamese Barbecue. In this old favourite lean, seasoned pork is pounded into a paste, packed in banana leaves and boiled before being speared on rattan sticks and charcoal grilled. The resultant Vietnamese-style kebabs are served with a generous selection of fresh lettuce, mint, basil, chopped garlic and hot green chilli peppers. To this appetising melange should be added sliced green banana (including the skin), together with diced starfruit and fresh cucumber. Other obligatory ingredients include vermicelli noodles and, of course, rice-paper spring roll wrappers.

To eat, take a wrapper in the hand and add a selection of kebab meat, diced vegetables, fresh fruits and spices. Finally garnish to taste with one of three sauces - sweet and sour, peanut, or tamarind-based - and pop, emulating the delicate Vietnamese style as closely as possible, into the mouth.

Try them - they're delicious!


Text by Donald Wilson; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media