Ethnic people’s stone ‘fortresses’ in Vietnam – P1: Leading lives aloft

Most of the local children know how to break stones and stack them properly to build houses

Vu Mi Mua’s ‘fortress’ is perched precariously on a mountain in Dong Van District in the northern province of Ha Giang.

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.

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