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The road less traveled: A seldom visited backpacker gem in northern Vietnam

Tuesday, June 27, 2017, 09:29 GMT+7

Backpackers passing through on a weekend trip may lose a piece of their heart to the stunning landscapes and storied culture of Thu Cuc, a tempting village in the northern Vietnamese province of Phu Tho.

Snugly nestled in the mountainous district of Tan Son, approximately 130 kilometers from Hanoi, Thu Cuc Commune, named after a legendary female hero, is a sleeping beauty waiting to be waken up. 

Despite its location at the T-junction of National Highway 32 and 32B to neighboring Yen Bai and Son La, the locality often goes unnoticed by tourist groups and backpackers who opt for nearby towns as ‘stopovers’ on their journey through the northwestern region.

From the T-junction, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters decided to explore Thu Cuc and experience its delights.

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The road leading to Thu Cuc Commune. Photo: Photobucket

Soi and U Hamlets, the commune’s two most remote villages, are hidden amongst the landscape’s verdant greenery, speckled with ripening rice paddies and cozy palm-roofed cottages casting shadows on the Bua River and its wooden dam.

Heavily reliant on rice farming for their livelihood, ethnic Muong in U Hamlet have long given high priority to irrigation systems.

Every year since the 1960s, local residents have built a wooden barrier called the U Dam across the Bua River in order to control the flow of water and create an irrigation reservoir.

The dams have since become magnets for locals and residents from neighboring localities to unwind and relish the breezy ambiance.

The dam, which measures around five meters high, is constructed with two layers of keo lumber, then covered inside with bamboo wattles, which in turn are coated with palm leaves and layered with dirt. 

This unique manual dam building technique is believed to have been adopted by Muong people in both Thu Cuc and the rest of the northwestern region, where the dams are completely rebuilt on a yearly basis.

Those interested can visit U Hamlet in December to see villagers erecting the dam anew.

The Bua River section near the dam meanders through pristine stretches of forest and around a maze of boulders.

Until now, many members of the Mong community, including young women, still cross the river using rafts made from reeds chopped with poles from nearby forests. 

Apart from the untouched charm and picturesque landscapes, travelers in Thu Cuc are pampered by locals’ sincere and hospitable offers of pickled rau san (a wild vegetable), steamed spring shellfish, and grilled fish.

Usually, while eating these delicacies, visitors are told of the fascinating saga of Thu Cu, whose name was given to the locality.

According to a cheery Mong villager who allowed the reporters to stay overnight in his house, Thu Cuc was discovered by Muong people who hailed from Hoa Binh Province, approximately 75 km from Hanoi.

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Idyllic scenery in Thu Cuc Commune. Photo: Tuoi Tre

These early settlers struggled to eke out a living due to prolonged drought and unforgiving elements.

A local girl named Thu Cuc then volunteered to traverse the rugged terrain in search of a new productive rice strain to help fellow villagers escape poverty.

When approaching her hamlet, she was devoured by predators, leaving behind the bundle of rice stems she had collected.

Making the most of the precious strain, Muong farmers soon turned Thu Cuc’s sacrifice into a bumper crop.

Locals then set up a shrine in honor of the intrepid, charming girl at the spot where her rice bundle was found, and hold a procession to carry the rice seeds from the shrine to their hamlets every year.

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