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).