QUANG TRI, Vietnam - Ho Long's family farm has 2,000 banana trees, from which they can pick some 20 bunches of the fruit each day. But unlike other families, Ho Long does not sell the harvested bananas in his mountain farm. Instead, twice a day, he hops on his Minsk motorbike and drives some five kilometres to the crossroads to sell their produce.
"They sell better here," the 24-year-old said, adding that he makes 160,000 to 200,000 dong (10 to 12 U.S. dollars) each trip.
Long, who belongs to the Van Kieu ethnic group living along the Vietnam-Laos border, has definitely benefited from the economic opportunities opened by the new roads that better connect the countries of Mekong region. He is able to bring his bananas to places frequented by potential customers. In fact, Huong Hoa district in the Thanh Luong crossroads here has earned the monicker 'Banana Crossroads' because it has become a popular 'meeting point' of vendors like Long.
Produce from each hectare of the banana tree plantation brings in around 40 million dong (2,500 dollars) in income annually, Long calculates. In contrast, farmers can only make 15 million dong (930 dollars) a year if they plant cassava. "Revenues from banana trees are also many times higher than rice, and it's easy because we don't have to spend too much time taking care of them," said the banana seller, who lives in Quarter 3, Thuan village, 98 percent of whose residents are from the Paco and Van Kieu groups.
Tran Thi Phuong, a retiree from Quarter 2 of the same village, agrees. "In the old days, this region planted mostly rice, and if we were lucky, we had enough to eat. Over the last few years, we turned to planting cassava. Revenues are better, but we can only harvest once a year. We still don't have enough money for daily expenses," he explained.
Phuong says that many families have started to plant bananas instead. "Next to cassava, bananas have become the main source of income for people in the region," he added.
Phuong's wife, however, laments the lack of ways to transport their produce elsewhere, a situation that leaves many families no choice but to sell fruits from their farms. In other words, they don't have the same opportunities as those who make it to the crossroads.
The Paco and Van Kieu are two of several ethnic groups living in Huong Hoa here in central Quang Tri province. The Van Kieu make up 39.3 percent of the district's population, and 5.5 percent are Paco. The Kinh, the largest ethnic group that accounts for 87 percent of Vietnam's population, makes up 55.2 percent of Huong Hoa's residents.
ROAD TO RISKS?
But not everyone in the communities along the East-West Corridor is totally happy about the changes it has been bringing about. Some are concerned about the social challenges that arise from easier mobility across borders and the emergence of transboundary infrastructure projects. Among others, they say that while easier movement facilitates commerce, it may also ease the spread of HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, especially in the border towns.
For instance, a report by the health service of Laos' Savannakhet province -- through which the East-West Corridor passes -- shows that there are a good number of people living with HIV and AIDS there, many of whom go to Quang Tri to work and avail of 'entertainment services'. Savannakhet shares borders with Thailand and Vietnam.
Not a single case of HIV and AIDS has been found among the Paco and Van Kieu communities, but Pa Suong of the People's Committee of Thanh village says they cannot be complacent. "I'm concerned that the younger generation will fall prey to bad influences," he said.
A CARE International report on HIV and AIDS has expressed concern about the pandemic along the Lao Bao border area in Quang Tri, next to Laos. "The combination of a large number of mobile traders, their high disposable incomes, freedom away from family, the use of prostitutes both in Lao Bao and in Laos, the reported non-usage of condoms and the indications of low and very basic levels of knowledge of HIV and AIDS makes the population (both host and migrants) of Lao Bao very susceptible to HIV infection," it pointed out.
The tradition of 'sim' among the Van Kieu and Paco communities is also seen as a potential factor in risky behaviour that may lead to HIV and AIDS. According to the report, pubescent girls and boys among these groups have the tradition of 'sim' to search for potential life partners. In 'sim', young people of the opposite sex meet in a communal house or in small huts to get to know each other better and discuss their future together. These days, more often than not, these meetings lead to sexual encounters -- but the youngsters do not always use condoms or safer sexual practices.
According to 20-year-old Ho Van Duong from Quarter 10 in Thanh village, many Lao youngsters from the Van Kieu and Paco groups cross the border to Vietnam, where the same ethnic community lives, to go 'sim'. The same happens among the Van Kieu and Paco youth in Vietnam who go over to Laos, since it is one ethnic community found on two sides of the border.
A World Bank-sponsored project aims to enhance knowledge about reproductive health and to change the sexual behaviour of youngsters in the Paco-Van Kieu communities in Thanh. Carried out by the Youth Union of Thanh village and Huong Hoa, it includes training activities and the distribution of information during festivals and other events that focuses on sexual health and the prevention of HIV and AIDS.
Condoms are now also increasingly available in several places in the community, such as in the headquarters of the Village People Committee, in 'sim' houses and in coffee shops where young people gather. For the first time, Paco and Van Kieu girls and boys, though not without embarrassed smiles, can discuss issues like condom use, safer sex and how these can help protect them.