Little House on the Paddy

Life in a northern Vietnam village

At day's end there is a pretty view of rolling green hills from a porch in this village in northern Vietnam. The evening breeze shuffles the leaves on the eucalyptus trees and the sun's angled rays grace the rice paddies with a luminous sheen.

Life is good for farmer Hoang Van Quang, his wife, Nguyen Thi Hanh, their three children, and two in-laws - Mr. Quang's mother and his younger sister. The family's animals are just one sign of prosperity: A water buffalo glares from its paddock, four pigs grunt and roll over in their sty, and underfoot, eight ducklings and 35 chickens peck their way toward table-readiness.

It is no thanks to socialism, but this family is in the middle of an economic great leap forward. Everyone is anticipating the day, a year or two from now, when they can trade in their wood house for the sturdy prestige of brick. The parents are proud that their two daughters do well in school and hope they will eventually attend a teachers' college in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, about 45 miles to the south.

Not too long ago, everyone in this village farmed collectively. Whistles went off at 7 a.m. and then at 11 a.m. to mark the morning shift, and afternoon work hours ran from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. About five years ago - Quang doesn't remember exactly - the government gave him "land-usage certificates" that effectively granted the family ownership of several acres of paddy, as well as land to raise vegetables and fruit trees.

Technically, "the people" hold title to all the land in Vietnam. But Quang and his wife consider that they have "full autonomy" over their property. "If we work hard, we get more; if we work less, we get less," Quang says. And they set their own schedule.

The end of collective farming was part of a massive shift in Vietnam's economy that began in the late 1980s. The Communist planners in Hanoi decided that state-controlled socialism - absent aid from the Soviet Union - would lead to disaster and embraced a policy of free-market reforms. The country is still poor, but many people are a lot less poor than they once were.

With the rice already transplanted and the children on vacation, the days of late summer aren't the most hectic in the year. Today, Ms. Hanh has washed some sweet potato leaves that will be fed to the pigs, done the laundry, and set some corncobs to dry in the sun. "Life goes on," she smiles. "If I don't finish something today, I can always do it tomorrow."

The one-room house has a clay-tile roof, a dirt floor, and three large wooden beds where the seven family members sleep on thin straw mats. An electric fan hangs from the roof, along with bundles of mosquito netting over the beds. A battery-powered clock tells the time.

The kitchen is a separate, smaller building where Hanh cooks over an open fire. A cupboard holds a few metal pots, bowls, and plates. The meals mostly center on rice and animals the family raises. "If we want some meat, we kill a chicken," Quang says. Every two or three weeks they visit a nearby town to shop for fish sauce, salt, soap, and other necessities of life.

The money to buy these things comes from selling produce or slaughtering a pig. The family doesn't have a savings plan. "If I get some money, I usually spend it right away," Quang explains.

A tall bamboo pole at the edge of the wide, brick porch supports the television antenna. Like parents everywhere, Quang and Hanh worry about how much time the children spend in front of the tube. "During the school year," the father says, fingering a remote control swathed in protective plastic wrap, "we try to keep it off so the kids keep studying."

Huong, the elder of the two daughters, doesn't seem to need much prodding. She brings out a worn English textbook to show two American visitors and begins trying out phrases.

A brand new straw hat with a bow hangs over one of the beds. The parents explain, beaming, that Huong received it for doing such a good job in school.

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