Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam (8-part series)

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P1: Leading lives aloft

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : 06/04/2017 11:40 GMT + 7

Members of an ethnic minority group in the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang, home to the UNESCO-recognized Dong Van Karst Plateau, have settled in fortress-like stone houses atop mountains for generations.

During a recent trip to Ha Giang Province, a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporter visited some of the nearly 100 mountain-top hamlets in Dong Van and Meo Vac Districts where Mong ethnic minority people still reside.

One of them is Ha Sung A Hamlet, resting at a teetering height of 1,500 meters above sea level, in Pho Cao Commune, Dong Van District.

The reporter could only reach Ha Sung A Hamlet after crossing Ha Sung Pass, one of the most treacherous road sections on National Highway 4C.

After trudging through a snaking, rocky road, steep slopes and gaping abysses that give passers-by vertigo, visitors will arrive at a cosy ‘nest’ overlooking the national highway.

The house’s owner, Cu Xe Xinh, welcomes guests with a mug of corn wine, a specialty of the area.

“The Cu lineage [belonging to white Mong people] have ‘occupied’ the mountain peak for generations. My parents’ home, tucked away on the other side of the mountain, was passed down from my grandparents and ancestors. My siblings’ dwellings are a stone’s throw from mine,” Xinh said with a typically Cu accent.

He revealed that his forefathers began living on Ha Sung Mountain hundreds of years ago.

Over the past few years, local authorities have tried to persuade these alpine residents to descend the mountain and settle on the plains or low-lying mountain sides.

A number of households obeyed while others have refused to leave due to a lack of cultivating soil in the lowlands.

Another striking example of the ‘world of stones’ is Tia Chi Do Hamlet, situated on a tottering mountain side of Giang Chu Phin Commune, Meo Vac District.

Arriving at the village is a reward for the strenuous trek along precipitous slopes and through verdant ivory bamboo forests.

Pathways to the dwellings are all built from stones.

The houses are positioned on stone foundations which stand up to four or five meters tall, and are surrounded by high stone hedges.

Crisscrossing stone walls can also be seen beneath the luxuriant ivory bamboos.

Giang Mi Tua, another Mong man, said that all the local teenagers know how to stack the slabs properly.

The slabs stick firmly to one another without the use of any adhesives into sturdy 5-6m-high walls that continue to stand the test of time.

One late afternoon, a Tuoi Tre reporter rode his bike through the rocky karst formations that stretch as far as the eye can see, on his way from Sung Man Commune to Thai Phin Tung Commune in Dong Van District.

He stumbled his way through precipitous rock formations toward a dwelling paved with rugged rocks.

Newly weds Vu Mi Da (left) and Lau Thi Xay pose in front of their ‘fortress.’ Photo: Tuoi Tre

The plain-looking house, which has a stove and a bed in a corner, is the ‘home-sweet-home’ of Vu Mi Mua, his son Vu Mi Da and Da’s wife, who he wedded two months ago.A 3m-high, close-knit stone wall, which resembles a fortified embankment, runs more than 100 meters around the house.

“It took me and my son more than five months to build this house,” Mua said.

He pointed to the availability of farming soil as the reason why his family has chosen to live atop the mountain, where they can grow corn in hollows.

The stone wall shields the house from biting winds and keeps thieves at bay, Mua explained.

Such forts are a common sight on pinnacles across the UNESCO-recognized Dong Van Karst Plateau, which spans several communes; with their numbers reaching nearly a thousand.

The ‘strongholds’ come in clusters in Giang Chu Phin, Cang Chu Phin and Lung Phu, and scatter in other places such as Pa Vi and Pai Lung.

The Dong Van plateau was recognized by the UNESCO’s Global Geoparks Network in 2010 as one of the 77 geological parks in the world and the second in Southeast Asia, after the Langkawi Geopark in Malaysia. It remains the only one of its kind in Vietnam to earn the title so far.

Apart from the geological, geomorphologic and scenic value, the plateau also boasts traditional cultural richness with the presence of 17 ethnic minority groups, including Mong, Dao, Lo Lo, Tay and Nung, who have shared their living space with the karst formations of various shapes for many generations.

Masters of peaks

Most researchers on the Mong ethnic community by Vietnamese and foreign pundits, including geologist Le Ba Thao and author J. Scott, have maintained that these people traditionally inhabit terrain 1,000 meters above sea level or higher.

Vietnamese researcher Nguyen Manh Tien observed in his book titled ‘Nhung Dinh Nui Du Ca’ (The Song of Crests) that Mong people have long occupied the loftiest terrain they set foot on.

“They are indeed the master of the highest peaks, which I call the country’s roof,” he noted.

Tien added that such dwellings are typically scattered across a large expanse, which posed tremendous difficulty to enemies who would besiege and raid the villages, as large troops found it tough to march through treacherous, steep mountains.

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P2: Growing crops on rocks

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : 06/05/2017 10:56 GMT + 7

Mong ethnic minority people work in their fields in Meo Vac District, Ha Giang Province.

The Mong ethnic minority’s painstaking approach to farming in the UNESCO-recognized Dong Van Karst Plateau in the northern province of Ha Giang reflects their incredible ability to adapt to their surroundings and persevere against the elements.

A long-standing practice of cultivating rice and other drought-resistant crops has taught generations of farmers on the Dong Van rock plateau to chisel hollow spaces into rocks along mountainsides and fill them with soil for farming.

The UNESCO-recognized plateau spans across Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van, and Meo Vac Districts in Ha Giang Province.

It is hard to believe that these limestone-covered mountainsides serve as a ‘granary’ for dozens of local households.

Mong farmers, mainly women, labor tirelessly over their crops in order to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Men and women in Sung Po B Hamlet, Sung Tra Commune, Meo Vac Distric begin their day in the early morning hours, plodding through rugged paths on their way to the fields. Each carries the burden of soil-filled bags ready to be emptied into ditches along the mountainside so that seeds can be planted.

The hollows vary from the size of a few hands to one or two square meters.

More than 10 local residents remove weeds and apply fertilizers to corn sprouting from the rocks in a 300m² field owned by Sung Dung No.

The field is home to more than 100 tiny, crisscrossing land plots intertwined with razor-sharp rocks.

Asked why so many hands were needed to work a single field, No’s son explained that Sung Chu Lau, one of their neighbors, and his family members were also lending a hand. No’s family would then help that family work their own field, keeping with the tradition of entire communities preparing each family’s farming area together.

Lau’s corn field is considered the most gorgeous in Sung Po B Hamlet. His father, an early settler, was lucky enough to lay claim to a relatively even and rock-free plot. Even land and fewer rocks meant the family was faced with fewer challenges while transforming it into farming land.

Transforming the land also meant building rocky dykes to scoop up loam pushed into the fields from mountain tops during heavy rains.

From No’s paddy one can see Sung Thi Giang’s field spanning 100 meters across a steep mountain flank. Giang wears a brightly colored traditional outfit as she makes her way over the spiky rocks with expert coordination.

A single trip or fall could lead to serious injury, or even death.

Like others’, Giang’s farm work is at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to irrigation.

She generally sows in early March when rainfall begins to ease and harvests a few months later while it is still the dry season.

Corn is essential to the Mong way of life. As a food, it is a staple of their diet. The people also use the stems as firewood throughout the year.

Ly Thi Kia pours soil she has carried up the mountain into the hollows in her field in Sa Phin Commune, Dong Van District. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Despite being rather late in her efforts to transform a plot into farmland, Giang was fortunate to acquire a plot near her home.

A large number of newly-weds in Sung Po B Hamlet are forced to travel far from home in search of their own plots, as the pieces nearby have all been claimed.

Back home from work on one late afternoon, Ly Thi Kia, deputy chair of the Sa Phin People’s Committee, quickly changed into an immaculate white traditional dress and put on her headdress.

Near her home is Lung Cam Village, the setting for an award-winning film titled Chuyen cua Pao (Pao’s Story).

“Mong women all wear dresses, regardless of where they’re going,” Kia said smilingly when asked if she was worried about staining her outfit.

She picked a fertile plot, turned the soil to break it up, and raked it into her bamboo basket before briskly carrying it up the slops, crossing over adjacent fields and harrowing rocks towards her paddy.

Halfway to the top, she emptied her basketful into the small hollow she had prepared some days earlier.

Kia repeated the process throughout the morning, painstakingly carrying soil and manure to the holes before properly turning the mixture.

“We must stack the rocks properly to anchor the soil if we want the soil to remain cultivatable for a long time,” she said.

Sa Phin Commune is home to 407 hectares of corn owned by 639 households. Most of the fields are perched on mountain ridges.

The taxing soil transport, performed mostly every day by women, is indicative of the residents’ incredible perseverance and iron will.

Most households can grow only one crop per year, as the hardened soil in the hollows turns uncultivable during the dry season.

A number of farmers have grown tam giac mach (buckwheat), noted for its high resistance to the scorching climate and limited need for water, to make bread and use as cattle feed.

However, many choose to leave their hollows empty during the dry season as tam giac mach degrades the soil and adversely impacts future maize crops.

Over the past few years, to cope with an incessant shortage of food, the Dong Van District administration has encouraged the piloting of a plan calling for farmers to plant two crops each year.

The plan flopped, however, due to the scarcity of irrigation water for the second crop.

A number of households have recently adopted a model in which they grow ‘co voi’ (Elephant Grass) to feed cows during the off-farming months.

The model has proved a success and the grass has earned farmers sufficient incomes while helping to manage soil erosion and soil fertility.

According to Sung Dai Hung, director of Ha Giang’s Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, the Mong group, of which he is also a member, were originally water rice farmers.

Over time, they came to inhabit mountain peaks and were forced to develop new farming methods.

This fact has also been validated through research findings regarding the Mong community and their long-standing water rice farming practices.

The word “Mong” in Han (ancient Chinese characters) is comprised of two components, thao (wood), or rice seeds, and dien (land or field).

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P3: The fight for clean water

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : 06/11/2017 09:35 GMT + 7

Vu Pa Sinh is pictured fetching water from a hollow in Sa Phin Commune, Dong Van District in the northern province of Ha Giang.

The ethnic minority Mong people in the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang have been involved in a water ‘war’ for decades.

For many years, the Mong people in Meo Vac and Dong Van Districts, part of the UNESCO-recognized Dong Van Karst Plateau, and other neighboring areas have suffered from a dire scarcity of clean water, particularly during dry seasons.

The way they obtain, use and store their hard-earned water supply is indicative of their incredible resilience in trying circumstances.

The Ly Cha Tung Hamlet in Sa Phin Commune, Dong Van District is dotted with clusters of homes on one side of a mountain.

Two large hollows sit at the foot of the valley, one of which is natural and the other man-made.

These are the main sources from which the 57 households in the hamlet obtain water.

On an afternoon in mid-May, a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporter spotted local resident Vu Pa Sinh making his way through the hollows carrying two 30-liter water containers, one of which was on his back.

The shallow cavity Sinh sourced the water from is shaped like a crossbow three to four meters square in surface area.

The water inside appeared clean.

Another nearby pit is much larger with cement walls, but appeared to have limited supply.

Sinh then loaded two containers brimming with water onto his motorbike and continued his journey toward his home, perched on top of another nearby mountain.

In addition to his collected supply, there are two rudimentary tanks connected to troughs in his yard for rainwater collection; however, these were also leaking.

Having enough water is a constant struggle for Sinh’s five-member family.

“Used frugally, the two rainwater tanks can satisfy our basic needs for three months, while the supply from the hollows allows us to survive another two or three months,” Sinh said.

For the remaining six months, he must pick up water from nearby Thai Phin Tung Commune.

“The new suspension reservoir in Thai Phin Tung came as a blessing,” Sinh added. “It saves us from time-consuming trips and long waits further afield.”

His family uses at least two 30-liter containers per day, with most of the water drunk by his herd of cattle.

Only a small amount is used for cooking and drinking.

Sinh’s family mostly rely on the hollow and the suspension reservoir in the neighboring commune for personal hygiene, including taking a shower and washing clothes on a weekly basis.

The asphalting and expansion of the road from Sinh’s home to neighboring communes have eased the burden his and other families must take in their ‘quest’ for clean water.

His motorbike also spares him from the long, arduous walks he would have to take years ago, when he would make his way on foot for several hours at a time.

Vu Mi Da, a resident of Ta Phin Commune in Dong Van District, walks on precarious rocks while carrying a container of water home. Photo: Tuoi Tre

These walks would involve dozens of kilometers on tough roads in baking heat in search of the very few lakes or ponds left.

With only simple containers such as plastic cups, they poured the muddy water, filled with sand and sediment, into old plastic bottles to bring home.

They would then wait until the sediment had settled to the bottom before using the water.

Ly Thi Kia, deputy chair of Sa Phin Commune People’s Committee, revealed that the commune is home to three absolutes: Mong people, households in dire of water, and rugged rock areas.

The area is also known for its shortage of food and the number of young people working in China, given the fact that Ha Giang Province borders the Chinese Yunnan and Guangxi provinces to the north.

In 2002, a suspension reservoir was built in Sa Phin Commune to tap into a water supply that flowed down a limestone mountain to the south of Sa Phin A Hamlet.

The low-capacity lake has been almost completely idle for a few years now however, with its floor practically exposed.

Another suspension reservoir, with a capacity of 3,000 cubic meters, was constructed to the north of Sa Phin A Hamlet in 2008.

The pool, however, encountered technical problems and is currently under repair.

State-agencies and schools have also been affected by the periodic scarcity of water, which can last several months each year.

“We all have to purchase water. Schools can buy water from Lung Tao Commune for VND1.2 million [US$52] per truck, or six cubic meters, thanks to some good ‘connections,” Kia, Sa Phin Commune’s deputy chair, revealed.

“Meanwhile, the local People’s Committee get their supply from Yen Minh District for VND1.5 million [$65] per truck,” the official added.

In such institutions, water is invariably kept under strict control, with a staff member entrusted with keys to make sure the ‘prime asset’ is being used properly.

In the midst of another water scarcity during early May, the district administration approved an allocation of VND20 million ($871) for the People’s Committee and one local boarding school to purchase water.

According to Dinh Chi Thanh, deputy chair of the Dong Van People’s Committee, more than 70 percent of the district is covered by rocks, which makes it difficult for vegetation to grow, let alone thrive, and results in forest coverage of around only 35 percent.

Like Sa Phin, other ‘rock locales,’ including Lung Thau, Van Chai, Ta Lung and Ta Phin, also suffer from a relentless paucity of water.

The district’s administration has thus come up with several strictly enforced water protection measures, including forest protection, in which residents are forbidden from felling trees or fetching wood in a bid to maintain moisture and the natural ecosystem.

The acute shortage of water also impacts residents of districts that neighbor Dong Van.

Apart from storing rainwater, resourceful farmers have devised other ways to collect water, ranging from reinforcing natural rock cavities to retain as much water as possible, to using pipes to carry moisture from the mountains to their homes.

Thanh, deputy chair of the Dong Van People’s Committee, revealed that security teams are frequently deployed at the suspension reservoirs throughout the district to safeguard water supply, as well as monitor and regulate residents’ usage in times of crisis.

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P4: Unique metalwork

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : 06/18/2017 18:04 GMT + 7

Chu Dung Xiu and his son Chu Mi Cho cast iron for plowshares.

Only a few skilled ethnic Mong men in the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang are capable of forging cast iron triangular plowshares strong enough to work their people’s rocky farmland.

For the Mong people who inhabit the UNESCO-recognized Dong van Karst Plateau in Dong Van and Meo Vac Districts, as well as adjacent locales, cast iron plowshares are more than just an essential tool for alpine agriculture, they are a source of pride spanning from generations of farming the rugged landscape.

At a market session in Meo Vac District, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters spotted a group of Mong men in their dark traditional outfits sipping corn wine and smoking pipe tobacco beside 10 plowshares they were selling.

The men are well known at the Meo Vac market for the metalwork skills passed down by generations of blacksmiths from the Chu lineage, to which they belong.

Shortly after the market session ended, the reporters began their trip to visit the men in the “blacksmithing” hamlet of Sung Cang in Sung Tra Commune, less than 20 kilometers from Meo Vac Town yet still a journey made treacherous by the 10-kilometer motorbike trail through steep slopes and over bottomless chasms.

The cluster of houses forming the hamlet is perched precariously on a rocky mountain flank blanketed in dense fog.

Chu Dung Xiu, one of three Chu family members in the hamlet, gave his guests a hearty welcome and requested they film and photograph his family’s blacksmith work.

“We don’t want to conceal our craft secrets. People should learn these skills and spread the knowledge to others,” he said.

Blacksmiths from the Chu family lineage in Sung Cang Hamlet display their plowshares for sale at a Meo Vac market session. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Several years ago, Xiu turned over the management of his shop to his two sons – Chu Mi Cho, 28, and Chu Mi Sai, 26.

The two head blacksmiths still construct each of their shop’s wares entirely by hand.

As Cho forged a mould, lid, and handle, he added pinches of coal and clay to give each piece calculated detail.

Cho revealed one of the most technically demanding parts of his job is preparing the mould for the plowshare blade with perfect curvature and precision so that the plowshare is capable of cutting through the soil.

The most crucial phase is smelting cast iron manually.

“Raw materials to produce cast iron must not be too pliable or brittle. The must be very hard,” Cho noted.

To check, Mong blacksmiths simply strike the metal and listen to its sound.

The next step in the process takes years of experience to master: pouring cast iron into the mould.

Once the furnace was heated, Cho and Xiu added charcoal and ore before tending to the fire as it released billowing smoke, dust, and flying ash.

As soon as the ore melted, the father and son duo poured the glowing mush into the mould. Meanwhile, the hiss of boiling-hot metal plunged into a water cistern for cooling filled the room.

Later on, Cho’s seven-year-old son, Mi No, returned from school and made a beeline for the furnace where he helped Xiu tend the fire and watched his grandfather and father hard at work.

Mong boys typically learn the craft through close observation, allowing images of each step to be gradually imprinted in their minds and soaked into their blood.

By the time they are 14 and 15, many Mong youths are already able to forge plowshares.

“Only Mong people know how to forge plowshares, and only Chu descendants can make quality tools able to withstand the rugged terrain,” Sai shared, beaming with pride.

Unlike other crafts, young, highly skilled blacksmiths tend to have considerable advantages over their older colleagues and are typically capable of forging better plowshares.

“The job involves extreme heat and taxing conditions that can deteriorate an artisan’s eyesight quickly. Only young blacksmiths who still have good vision are able to produce equipment with perfect curvature and straight lines,” Sai explained.

Kids from the Chu family lineage observe their fathers and grandfathers making plowshares from a tender age. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Xiu, the 56-year-old father, has let his sons carry the family’s legacy for several years now.

Unlike traditional crafts practiced year round in the lowlands, Mong people’s furnaces are operated only during the first three months of the year, when rain soaks cavities on Dong Van Karst Plateau and farmers begin plowing to grow corn and other crops.

Apart from making plowshares, the Chu-family men farm, trade cattle, and sell precious herbs and food they gather on local mountain peaks.

According to Vang Mi Dinh, an official in Meo Vac District, the local industry and trade unit has sent several apprentices to Mong hamlets over the past several years to make attempts at learning the craft.

“They observed closely, took careful notes, and imitated the whole process. However, the plowshares were unusable,” Dinh said.

“The items were distributed to residents, who then traded them to Mong blacksmiths for better ones. The Mong artisans smashed the unusable plowshares and built them anew. The plan failed,” he added.

Dr. Mai Thanh Son, of the Social Sciences Institute in the Central Region, believes that there was a time when Mong people were able to extract iron ore for melting and crafting.

No one uses the ore extraction techniques these days; however, probably thanks to the ready availability of broken and discarded iron tools they can melt down and reform.

Mong people simply strike hard on an iron piece and observe how the piece breaks and the sound it produces to ensure the raw material for plowshares is neither too brittle nor pliable.

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P5: ‘Wife-pulling’ custom

Báo Tuổi Trẻ English

Whether or not the custom is obsolete or inappropriate in today’s world, ‘pulling a wife,’ a deeply-rooted practice of Mong ethnic men, remains a unique cultural trait of the community.

Whether or not the custom is obsolete or inappropriate in today’s world, ‘pulling a wife,’ a deeply-rooted practice of Mong ethnic men, remains a unique cultural trait of the community.

The custom is traditionally observed by the Mong who inhabit several districts in the northern province of Ha Giang.

According to the practice, a man who wishes to marry a girl he loves must be able to ‘catch’ her and bring her to his house in order for the wedding to take place.

Traditionally, the ‘pulling a wife’ ritual is just for show, as most couples would have already consented to the marriage beforehand, and the girl would fake resisting her lover’s grip to add to the drama.

Alternatively, the custom is also of great help to couples whose parents oppose the marriage, as once the girl has been ‘kidnapped’ and brought to the man’s house, she can no longer be rejected by his family.

In springtime, particularly at Lunar New Year festivals, paths meandering around rugged rocks across the UNESCO-recognized Karst Plateau, are frequented by groups of young Mong men and girls, who dress their best in traditional costume.

This is also a time when many young couples will practice the custom and find their lifelong partner.

Inside a ‘stone fortress’ perched on the flank of the Ma Pi Leng Pass, Mua Thi Mai held her baby and stared at the gaping abyss near the thread-like Nho Que River beneath, as if it represented her unknown future.

The pass, at the heart of Dong Van Karst Plateau and one of the northern region’s most spectacular, snakes its way through Meo Vac District.

Five years ago, when she was just 17, Mai, in her most beautiful traditional dress, went to a spring festival in the neighborhood alone.

At the event, she was ‘pulled’ by Li Mi Sing to his home to officially become his bride.

The couple had fallen in love before and made an arrangement for the ‘pulling wife’ custom to happen at the springtime festival.

Three days later, Sing’s family sent a representative to let Mai’s parents know she was now their son’s wife and their daughter-in-law.

Despite holding a small nuptial ritual at the time, the two families and the couple have yet to throw an official wedding celebration five years later.

Similarly, Vu Mi Tuan and Sung Thi Mai, who reside in Lung Phin Commune in Dong Van District, have given birth to two children, with the eldest now eight years old.

However, their wedding plans remain elusive.

Tuan ‘pulled’ Mai at a springtime market session in Lung Phin Commune around 10 years ago.

It is the norm in Mong culture that couples with children delay holding the wedding until they have enough money.

According to researchers, Mong’s long-standing marriage custom can be finely divided into ‘pulling,’ ‘catching’ and ‘stealing’ wives.

With regard to ‘pulling a wife,’ couples usually date and make an arrangement at crowded places, particularly at spring festivals, for the men to take their women to their home as wives.

‘Wife catchers’ will ask any girl of their choice to become their wives regardless of the girls’ consent, and agree to give exorbitant dowries.

Several young men in northern Vietnam have abused the seemingly harmless tradition, arguing that the ritual grants them the right to make any girl their wife as long as they can successfully bring her home.

‘Wife stealers,’ meanwhile, try to steal or talk the girls who they fall for into eloping with them even though the girls have already become engaged or even married.

Da Di Mua (left), 26, his wife and their two young children pose in front of their home, with their 10-year-old child sent to a boarding school in Meo Vac District. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Only ‘pulling a wife’ lingers in today’s world, while ‘wife catching’ and ‘wife stealing’ practices have been on the decline.

Whatever the form, the bridegrooms’ parents are elated when their sons get married.

Despite their own and their parents’ discontentment, brides are considered ‘their in-laws’ ghosts’ after the in-laws move a cock in a circle three times above the couples’ heads.

(White) Mong residing in Lung Pu Commune, Meo Vac District also choose to flirt with their potential partners in a bottom-tapping fest by patting on their bottom or waist.

If the act is reciprocated by a tap from the girls, the couples will have a matchmaker talk to the parents on both sides, and they will be allowed to wed.

During the event, the youths can also pat their partners’ private parts, an act that will not be considered obscene.

Aside from these customs, Mong bridegrooms’ families typically present hefty conjugal dowries including money, jewelry, cattle, wine and clothes to the brides’, despite the couples being still minors.

Da Di Mua, 26, and his wife Da Thi Dinh are an example of this conjugal dowry tradition.

The young lovebirds already have three children, with the eldest being 10.

“Twelve years ago, when I was only 14, my parents found my wife for me. She was 19 then and was five years older than me. Her family accepted our hefty conjugal dowry,” Mua shared.

The ‘wife pulling’ and ‘nuptial challenge’ practices have also brought about undesired consequences, including child or premature marriages, and a lack of understanding between lovers due to the limited opportunity to get to know each other.

A large number of young Mong women have resorted to chewing ‘la ngon’ (a fatally poisonous leaf) in suicide attempts after a short time living with their in-laws.

Statistics by agencies reveal that in recent times, young women have broken away from their in-laws shortly after their marriage, with the in-laws mobilizing people to bring the ‘runaway brides’ back.

Melancholic songs about local women’s miserable married lives have become a major part of the Mong folk heritage.

Sung Dai Hung, director of the Ha Giang Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs and a Mong native in Dong Van District, is strongly supportive of the ‘pulling a wife’ practice, which he still deems humanitarian.

“The substantial conjugal dowries have proven out of reach for poor Mong families. The ‘pulling a wife’ practice thus ensures youths’ freedom to seek love and rich men’s chance to marry the girls of their dreams,” he observed.

“However, underage youngsters, who are only 15 or 16, should not ‘pull’ wives and tie the knot,” he noted.

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P6: Getting drunk at the market

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : 06/21/2017 10:10 GMT + 7

Mong ethnic men from the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang often use market sessions as an excuse to binge drink with friends until their sympathetic wives carry them home.

It is not uncommon for the local market to be filled with wives, mothers, and children patiently waiting for the men in their lives to finish their drinks before heading home.

One early morning in late April, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters were making their way through the crowds at Sa Phin Market in Dong Van District when a man donning a traditional black Mong shirt stumbled past and fell to the ground.

“Leave him alone. He’s only been drinking corn wine. He’ll be able to get home on his own after he wakes up,” an elderly wine peddler told the concerned reporters.

The scent of corn wine, a local specialty, wafts through the heart of the market, a gathering hub where nearly a hundred men sit at rows of tables downing drink after drink when sales begin to slow down for the day.

Dozens of women dressed in brightly colored traditional dresses calmly wait nearby for their husbands to finish drinking.

Lao Chong Ngo, 37, cordially invited the Tuoi Tre reporters to join him and his drinking crew as they sipped from seemingly endless glasses, the scent of alcohol clinging tightly to every breath.

A man passes out from alcohol right in the heart of Sa Phin Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The joyous vibe might leave even the most somber of visitors feeling ‘high’ without the slightest need for indulgence in the corn wine.

“Mong people like to bond with others and love socializing during gatherings,” Ngo said, explaining that he was at the market despite not offering anything for sale during the day’s session.

Sitting next to Ngo were his mother, wife, and young son, all three smiling as their eyes stayed glued to the drinking table, waiting patiently for Ngo to finish.

“As a wife, I’m supposed to wait for him. I’ll keep waiting if he continues drinking,” Ngo’s wife said.

Lu Thi Dinh, 43, was also quietly waiting for her husband, whose face had turned red from drinking.

“My husband has his hands full herding cattle and working the corn field all year. He really needs some time to drink and mingle with his buddies when he comes to the market,” she said.

“This is our way. We live, lie down and die on rocks. We drink wine distilled from corn grown on rocks. We come to the market only to be guided home by corn wine,” said Thai Pa No, an elderly man residing in Lung Tao, Dong Van District.

Drunk off corn wine, the Tuoi Tre reporters rambled down the asphalted road towards Sa Phin Cow Market, a local mountaintop where farmers from nearby communes gather to trade livestock.

Groups of men huddled over cups of wine, chatting away as their wives stood contentedly behind them.

Later that afternoon, two women struggled past, guiding a man home as he drunkenly tried to break free and rush back to the drinking table.

“I’m used to it. It’s my duty to get my husband home when he’s drunk,” said Ly Thi Tinh.

Seo Thi My, who has peddled wine at Sa Phin Market for 20 years now, calls the scene common.

“If the women don’t take their husband home, he’ll pass out right at the market and they’ll have to wait for him to wake up,” she added.

My sells an average of six to seven liters of corn wine each market session. On good days, when market-goes linger until the afternoon, she can sell up to 10 liters.

“The men sweat all year round on paddies spread throughout the mountain range, so they rarely see one another,” My further explained.

Women are always on hand while their spouse drinks with his buddies. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Market sessions throughout Dong Van and Meo Vac Districts, including Khau Vai, Nam Ban, Son Vi, Lung Phin, Sung La, Pho Cao, and Pho Ban, all have space reserved for drinking.

According to Dr. Mai Thanh Son, of the Central Region Social Sciences Institute, market sessions in the highlands are festive occasions during which women dress their best and men drink themselves unconscious while confiding in their friends.

“The marketplace is not only a retail area but also a reflection of local folk culture,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Ly Trung Kien, head of the Dong Van District Party Committee’s Propaganda Department, shared that Mong women take great pride in the large company their spouse enjoys and the number of drinks he is offered.

This is indicative of Mong women’s tolerance and contentment with their nuptial life, she noted.

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P7: A different type of funeral

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : 06/23/2017 19:05 GMT + 7

A family in Dong Van District in the northern province of Ha Giang divides meat from a slaughtered pig offered by a visitor during the funeral.Tuoi Tre

Generations of ethnic Mong people in Vietnam have sought redemption and salvation for departed relatives through unique funeral rituals.

Funeral musicians loudly blew their khen, a Vietnamese windpipe, while circling the funeral area, showering the space with a melancholic medley of enigmatic sound.

Cutting through the noise was the nauseating smell of freshly slaughtered cows and pigs mixed with the pungent scent of corn wine.

The aromas from these Mong delicacies were inescapable to funeral visitors.

The funeral was for Vu Khai Lu, 61, a resident of Chung Pa B Hamlet, nestled in Meo Vac District in the northern province of Ha Giang.

Lu’s body had been casually wrapped in cloth as it lay on a bamboo stretcher hung in the heart of the main chamber under strips of colorful votive paper dangling from the ceiling above.

All eyes were fixed on the shamans as they repeatedly poured wine and spooned rice into a kettle and pot placed next to the body’s head.

Khen and other traditional instruments, still playing, made the gloomy funeral scene even drearier. When the music paused, however, mourners took advantage of the opportunity to refill each other’s wine glasses.

The melodies are meant to guide the perished person towards heaven and reincarnation in their next life.

Every night during the funerary service, the shamans walk around the home to the sound of khen music with wooden swords and handfuls of ranh grass to ‘fight against the enemy’.

On the porch, three big pots of water boiled over a blazing fire.

Nearby a group of local youths who had just butchered a large pig were dividing the meat into portions.

Fresh pig legs and ribs were hanging everywhere.

As a traditionally dressed couple and two young men struggled to guide a large pig towards the corpse, a shaman began tying a linen strap to the animal’s neck before fastening the other end to the deceased’s left hand while mumbling softly.

The animal was then immediately slaughtered in front of the couple.

Half an hour later, another couple brought another pig to the body, which was also slain immediately following a similar ritual.

According to Vu Mi Su, a retired teacher and elder in the hamlet who presided over the funeral, the strap-tying rite is meant as a presentation of the pig as a gift for the deceased in the afterworld.

Relatives, in-laws, and friends customarily bring a four-legged animal to funerals – either a cow, pig or goat – depending on their financial situation and relationship with the dead person’s family, Su added.

Portions of the meat are given to the host family to treat guests, the animals’ owners, and musicians during the days-long service.


A shaman ‘feeds’ Vu Khai Lu’s dead body while it lies on a stretcher during his three-day funeral. Photo: Tuoi Tre

By the end of Lu’s funeral, a total of 20 pigs, three cows, and a number of goats were offered, a modest showing compared to larger services which can receive dozens of pigs and goats and more than 10 cows.

“The host family cannot reject the offerings and are thus indebted to the animal owners. The family will give back the exact number of cattle heads when they eventually attend the funerals of their visitors,” Su added.

Before bringing the dead to their final resting place, Mong people traditionally leave the bodies to sun-dry in their yard for half a day.

The perished, including men, are dressed in traditional linen outfits for women before burial.

Experts on Mong culture attribute the long-standing practice of laying the corpse on a stretcher to the people’s mountainous habit and the painstaking difficulty of transport in the area.

The bulky coffin is typically placed in the graveyard before the rites are performed and the body is carried to the final resting place by stretcher.

Most corpses give off a foul odor after two or three days of lying bare during the funeral.

Longer services, meanwhile, pose health hazards, as a number of cases have been recorded in which the living have contracted contagious diseases from the dead who are placed uncovered on the stretcher.

The most extreme case recorded to date is an attack of meningococcal meningitis, caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitides.

The disease became an epidemic in the community after a days-long funeral in Can Chu Phin District in the early 1990s, eventually claiming 13 lives.

In recent years, an increase in awareness of the health perils involved in the practice has led some Mong families in Ha Giang Province to adjust the rituals and instead place their perished relatives in coffins shortly after their last breath.

However, to create widespread changes to the practice would take a revolution. It seems the rituals are hardwired among the Mong people, who fear any changes may do harm to the future generations, Su noted.

Sung Dai Hung, director of the Ha Giang Department of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs, said it would be incredibly difficult to sway beliefs held by members of the lineage, and change is impossible without a consensus being reached.

A few years earlier, his entire extended family convened a meeting before hesitantly deciding to put Hung’s late father in a coffin shortly following his death.

They did not begin adopting the new practice until three years later, when nothing wrong has happened to the dead man’s grave or the lineage.

Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – Conclusion: Aspiring to freedom

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : 07/02/2017 14:40 GMT + 7

Mong people, including children, love to sit atop mountains across the UNESCO-recognized Dong Van Karst Plateau in the northern province of Ha Giang.

An ethnic group of Chinese origin who in ancient times were once cornered by troops from the East Asian empire, Mong people have settled and thrived on mountain peaks in northern Vietnam for the last three centuries and lived in the spirit of freedom.

The rocky slope in Seo Lung 2 Hamlet, tucked away in Thai An Commune, Quan Ba District in Ha Giang Province, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters heard a khen (Vietnamese panpipe) tune resonating from a wooden chalet on a steep mountain flank.

The haunting melody, played by Ma Khai So, a respected 87-year-old intellectual and famed khen artist, motivated the reporters to ascend the slope to his house.

So is one of very few artisans who can both perform Mong’s legacy of 360 khen pieces and fully understand their significance.

The elder revealed that the tunes embody most of the Mong group’s cultural values and race-related memories.

The heritage, divided into four categories, predominantly reflect the community’s spiritual life, with only a small portion intended for recreational purposes.

So validated his revelation with a long khen piece played at an unhurried pace.

“Did you notice that the tune is as inarticulate as Mong people’s accent?

The tune, said to be the voice of freedom, is part of our group’s soul, history and culture,” he noted.

Hunted down by Han, a major ethnic group of China, the Mong people fled to other countries, including Vietnam, a few centuries ago and have put down roots in the Southeast Asian country ever since, So explained.

Mong girls are seen trudging on the rugged terrain on their way to a festival. Photo: Tuoi Tre

“We Mong people have called the mountain peaks home everywhere we have roamed. We consider ourselves ‘orphans’ and ‘exiles’ and cherish the spirit of freedom, while natives tend to think of us as ‘tramps,’” the elderly man elaborated.

According to researchers, songs about the group’s ‘orphan’ plight are among its five major categories and make up the largest amount of their folk music legacy.

“This is most evident in the ancestral worshipping and funeral rites. All Mong lineages have a ‘driving away the Han enemy’ oration,” Sung Dai Hung, director of the Ha Giang Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, shared about his own ethnic group.

Hung is himself a Mong native from Dong Van District.

When a Mong man dies, he is dressed in a traditional linen outfit to prepare him for his afterlife.

The practice dates back to a historical myth in which Han troops allegedly slew only Mong men during their hunt while sparing Mong women out of their fondness for their remarkable beauty.

The women were taken captive as ‘possessions’ by the Han pursuers.

The men thus had to disguise themselves if they were to survive the merciless hunt.

Hung added that the Mong people had chosen to live atop mountains far from the maddening crowd to remain elusive from their Han foes.

His forefathers recounted that up to nine out of ten Mong people were massacred by their enemy during their flight to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese researcher Nguyen Manh Tien, author of a book titled “Nhung Dinh Nui Du Ca” (Singing Heights), observed that the Mong people’s choice of habitat was the price they paid for their independence.

Ma Khai So, a respected 87-year-old Mong intellectual and famed khen (Vietnamese panpipe) artist, performs with his instrument. Photo: Tuoi Tre

“Despite being latecomers to Vietnam’s northeastern and northwestern regions, the Mong people, known for their steadfastness and intrepidity, fought against the earlier occupants of the lowlands, namely Tho Ty, Quang Tay, Phia and Tao Thai,” Tien wrote in his book.

Their defeat in the wars and refusal to yield in to the victors’ dominance prompted them to cluster at a height of 800 meters.

The lofty locations, which serve as sturdy fortresses from Han troops and other intruders, however, also lack a natural water supply, vital for farming and daily consumption, and thus are not infested with leeches.

Dr. Mai Thanh Son, of the Central Region Social Sciences Institute, under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, confirmed that the Mong people’s choice of habitat is also of historical necessity.

Pundits on Mong history have said that the ethnic group had no choice but to drive away the Lo Lo people, earlier inhabitants on the mountain peaks, shortly after they set foot in northern Vietnam.

It explains why orations given at worshipping rituals held by the descendants of Mong lineages all mention the Lo Lo people with profound respect and gratitude.



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