by Hoang Chien Thang
|Lucrative land: An overview of Chu Quang Phuc's garden-pond-livestock-forest model at the mountain's 1,300m peak
|Back to basics: Chu Quang Phuc now focuses on breeding sows and other animals along with forest development. — VNS Photos Chien Thang
Standing near a stream at the foot of mysterious Mu Muon Mountain, we can barely see the 1,300m peak, close to which a family makes a living from the land.
The summit is unreachable on wet days, says Nguyen Dieu, one of my companions as we contemplate the ascent on our motorbikes.
The reason for our visit is to talk to Chu Quang Phuc, who three years ago settled on this eminence in the northern province of Bac Kan's Cho Don District.
Here it is rumoured he turned seemingly inhospitable land into a sheltered farming haven, using whatever natural resources were available, accumulating land and animals, and even a wife, in the process.
Our team of four decide to brave the road conditions to conquer the steep slope on our Honda Blade's – slipping and sliding, and sometimes falling, the breeze getting stiffer as we close in on heaven, our backs sweating from the strain, miles from civilisation, where every turn is, well, probably not death but danger.
We survive, albeit with scratches, our destination full in view, first as a horizontal skein of smoke and later as a low-roofed house silhouetted against Dong Vien Commune sky. It is hard to believe such a simple dwelling is home to the reputed "lord" of Mu Muon Mountain.
Seeing strangers approaching, Phuc's wife, Thom, looks apprehensive but she recognises my two guides who are close with her family.
She is cautious, though, when she finds out we are journalists, as she gestures us to dismount and park our motorbikes.
She is afraid of the press, she says.
It crosses my mind that if Thom is an honest and hard-working individual, what would make her hesitate to talk to journalists?
We learn later that a reporter visited their mountain hideaway when her husband wasn't home, took pictures and wrote what Phuc later describes as an outrageous article, exaggerating the family's lifestyle and income.
Thom is afraid her neighbours and local residents will think her family is showing off.
We are taken to Phuc, who is sitting behind the dilapidated house. He has heard us arrive and rises to greet us good-naturedly.
"You can write about everything here but you have to write truthfully," he says, offering us some wine as we sit down. He says everyone in the village thought that after getting married he would return to the lowland to settle down but he decided there was a better living to be made at the top of the mountain.
Thom brings food, with child in tow, and sits down as Phuc waits, looks at his wife and then us, and continues.
"At first, we bought 3ha of forest for wood collection," he says.
Then he deduced that forest planting could be lucrative and fish ponds would give them an income in the meantime, so they invested all their money, and whatever they could borrow, in afforestation.
Meanwhile, they raised pigs, chickens, fish and livestock – learning from friends and books to develop their economic model, which Phuc describes as garden-pond-livestock-forest.
Thom helps with the daily work, financial planning and, until the farm income stabilised last year, she went to the market each day and sold whatever could be gleaned from the slopes.
As we chat in the gathering late afternoon, our attention is drawn to snorts and squeals from the pig pens – feeding time – and we agree it's an opportunity to have a look around the farm.
The couple leads the way to the farrowing yards which house 60 breeding sows, most of which are pregnant. We watch a worker throw in chopped green leaf stems and leaves which he harvested from the mountain, plus leftovers collected at the market.
"I received VND12 million ($600) recently for a couple of pigs. I can't breed enough to keep up with the demand of restaurants around here and many other provinces," Phuc says.
From the breeding pens we look across a palette of cinnamon and orange orchards, five ponds of fish and shrimp, not to mention the forestry, all testimony to this seemingly simple couple's perseverance and determination.
In fact, Phuc says, he has accumulated more land recently to make a total of 13ha. He hires people to cut grass and plant trees, spending VND30 million (US$1,500) a month on labour, which he says stretches the finances because the fruit trees have yet to produce.
Their main income is derived from pigs, chickens, fish and, wait for it, 500 lesser bamboo rats. The market price for a kilo of these rats is VND300,000-400,000 ($15-20) Phuc explains, his rats weigh around 2kg each.
The garden-pond-livestock-forest model has been successful, but what concerns Phuc now is the difficult access to the farm, having to traverse a hazardous track between the main road and Mu Muon peak.
He's been on to the local authorities to get some improvements done.
"I hope a suspension bridge will be built soon for convenience." Another problem is shortage of funds for development – he wants to borrow more money.
"I need more investment capital from the local authority to expand my forest and implement other projects," he says
After a walk around the farm and more discussion, Phuc persuades us that the garden-pond-livestock-forest model would work for others in the area.
He recommends it as a sustainable way to escape poverty.
Preparing to pick our way down the mountain, even we city folk can see the financial returns coming off the farm, and it hasn't reached full production.
I'm also persuaded by the almost palpable confidence and contentment of Phuc and his family.
We hit the bitumen, with Mu Muon Mountain etched in our minds. Phuc's model of cheap land, a simple life and a burgeoning forest income down the track seems like a highwater mark which anyone can attain.
However, it's not difficult to understand why more people don't brave the elements – isolation and particularly the poor access are major obstacles.
Perhaps, as Phuc says, a suspension bridge is the answer. More farmers would move to Mu Muon Mountain, more pork, fish and fruit would be produced and more gourmands would salivate over the aroma of simmering bamboo rat. — VNS