The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Exclusive from Ba To: Ground Zero for the Mysterious, Deadly 'Plague' of Quang Ngai, Vietnam

For at least a year, reports have come out of Ba To District, Quang Ngai Province, in central Vietnam, about a mysterious disease which causes skin to callous or die and flake off, and cause internal organs such as liver and kidneys to fail. The latest count is well over 200 individuals suffering from the disease and more than 25 dead. However authorities have admitted to under-reporting fatalities in order to prevent public panic--so the actual numbers could be much higher--we just don't know.

Ba To is a very remote district and few foreigners have visited the area since French-colonial times. It is located in the southwest corner of Quang Ngai Province, bordering the provinces of Kon Tum, Gia Lai and Binh Dinh. As I am one of the few outsiders who actually has spent significant time visiting the district, I thought I should share impressions and photos of the area, particularly if it could assist anyone who does wish to aid the local people.

View from the western Central Highlands along Highway 24, down into Ba To district. US servicemen and South Vietnamese officials used this main route through the district to travel from Kon Tum (or Pleiku), east to what is now Highway 1 along the coast.

Most residents of Ba To belong to the Hre ethnic minority. The Hre are one of several 'lost tribes' of the ancient Champa kingdom. They are left stranded and isolated as the Vietnamese kingdom pushed southward and their Cham brethren fled south toward Nha Trang, West to Kon Tum, or by see to Hainan Island (China). The Hre participated in building The Long Wall of Quang Ngai, which partitioned the Vietnamese from the Hre. The wall begins in the north of Quang Ngai province and follows the mountains and rivers south into the province of Binh Dinh. Here they are pictured at a ceremony last year to inaugurate the wall as a national monument.

Beautiful scenery in Ba To District.

Tree ferns in a landscape much resembling New Zealand.

The Hre of Ba To District live in compact villages on hilltops surrounded by rice paddies.

The Hre in Ba To previously practiced animism. Now many are Christian (Protestant). 

Hre culture contains elements common to other hill tribes (such as spirit houses or the brewing of ruou can--rice wine in large jars) as well as the Cham. Sacred wells, as also constructed in Hoi An by the ancient Cham (though little-known) are central to their traditional Hre culture.

A Hre village overlooking rice paddies.

A hot spring bubbling up in Ba To.

The Ba To Insurrection Museum. Ba To was historically a Communist stronghold and a notable uprising occurred here against the French at a mountain outpost. The government rewarded local revolutionaries with a museum and infrastructure improvements at the district capital. To their surprise and dismay however, many local residents have since converted to Christianity, which the government views as a political threat, claiming that Christian minorities 'are following America."

Traditional clothing and implements crafted by the Hre and on display at the Ba To museum.

A wine jar, fishing baskets (for mountain streams) and metalwork crafted by the Hre in Ba To District, Quang Ngai. 

Hand-crafted metal gongs are a popular musical instrument among Vietnam's hill tribes. They are often played in religious ceremonies and festival gatherings. Various sizes play different tones.

Baskets and weapons made by the Hre in Ba To. The two largest are worn on the back and used for foraging in the forest. The smaller are used for carrying seeds and small plants in farming.

One of the most troubling questions about the Ba To 'Plague' is why the government hasn't done more to find the source of the disease. State-controlled media has claimed that the government has sought assistance from the World Health Organization and the USA. However, officials from WHO and the US have repeatedly stated that they have received no such requests. The reason for this is quite obvious to me: the government doesn't want foreign agencies to see the intense persecution of local Christian minorities.

The other question is why hasn't the government considered the most obvious possible causes of the disease (particularly since no known cases have spread beyond the district), namely poisoning from mining. The surrounding districts are known to be sources of bauxite and gold, and both are mined legally, and illegally, and produce deadly toxins in the process. Does someone in power have a stake in it?

All photos copyright Adam Bray 2012.


Bassplayer13 said...

I served as an Army infantry advisor with MACV in Ba To from May, 1970 to February, 1971, after which I was transferred to Quang Ngai city for the remainder of my tour. The district comprises some of the most beautiful and lush land I have ever encountered and the Hre people I came to know were extremely friendly and happy. They also had the reputation of being fierce soldiers in battle, which is why we had relatively little "action" during my tour. The majority Vietnamese in the area were quite racist - I recall that their term for the Hre was "moi" which is a considerable ethnic slur; the French referred to Hre as Montagnards, or mountain people. It seems the racism and discrimination still exist.

Adam Bray said...

Thanks for your post. It is indeed very beautiful, and I too have heard some of the racial slurs.

Sadly also, the cause of this illness remains 'officially unknown' since I wrote this.

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