A day with the Mông of Mèo Vạc

Update: July, 15/2016 - 10:00
Family: A Mông family stands in front of their house in Cán Chu Phìn commune.— VNS Photo Vương Bạch Liên
Viet Nam News

by Vương Bạch Liên

Vừ Thị Sua took me to her house eagerly when I told her I wanted to visit the Mông in Cán Chu Phìn commune.   

The young girl had a sweaty face from collecting grass for her pigs at the foot of a mountain nearby.

It was my first trip to Mèo Vạc. I planned to spend a day experiencing the daily lifeways of local people.

Cán Chu Phìn commune is located in Mèo Vạc district of the northernmost province, Hà Giang, about 500 kms from Hà Nội.

Mèo Vạc  is located in the extreme north of Việt Nam, next to the Chinese border. It is surrounded by limestone mountains and stunning landscapes.

On the road to the district, I enjoyed amazing karst landscapes and dramatic rice terraces. The northern region is one of the most beautiful parts of Việt Nam.

The region has much to offer. The daily lives and unique traditions of the local ethnic peoples intrigued me. 

Shy young children often hide their faces with their hands when they meet new people. They refuse to talk to strangers and run away when unknown people try to photograph them. Their parents are also reserved. But if you are kind to them and are really interested in their lives, they open their hearts to you.

Sua’s house is located at the top of a mountain. It rained just before we walked to her house.  The road was full of stones, making travel difficult.

On the way to her house, we passed small wooden houses surrounded by stone walls. Many locals came out of their houses to wave to me, smiling gently.  People were drying colorful clothes and dresses on clotheslines in front of their houses.     

Sua’s little wooden house is quite isolated. All daily activities happen in one room.  The beds are close to the kitchen.  

She showed me a large  tray of mèn mén (cooked corn powder) in a corner of the house. Mèn mén is a staple food for Mông people. It is very important for them, just like rice is a staple for Kinh people. Sua usually eats mèn mén, boiled vegetables and chili every day. She only eats meat about once a month when her family invites guests.       

“I love eating mèn mén. I started eating it when I was small. Now I know how to cook this dish. I want to teach others how to cook it because it is part of my culture,” she said with a big smile as she offered me a taste of mèn mén. It tasted quite strange to me, but I appreciated her generosity.   

Near the house’s main gate, her mother was weaving lanh (linen) cloth. The Mông make dresses from lanh cloth. When they need money, they sell their handmade linen dresses in the market. The Mông also often use lanh cloth to make burial clothes for dead people.

“All the Mông women here know how to weave lanh cloth. Girls who do not know how to weave cannot find a good husband easily,” she explains.

Many Mông people living in others regions do not know how to weave now, so her family hopes traditional weaving will continue in their region.

The colourful cloth Mông women weave adds vitality to this stark northern landscape of rocky mountains.

Like most girls her age, Sua quit school after 9th grade. The high school is too far from her house for her to commute. She spends her days helping her parents do housework, farming the maize fields, looking after her sisters, and feeding pigs.

The oldest daughter in the family is 18 years old. She is the main provider for the household, since her parents are old now and cannot work as well as they did before.

“My mother drinks lots of wine and often gets drunk. A few days ago, she attended a wedding, got drunk and went to bed very early,” she said.

It’s not unusual for a Mông woman to drink wine.  Corn wine is a daily part of Mông meals. They make their corn wine themselves.

Mông men and women drink a lot. Wherever I work in the mountainous regions, I am always invited to drink corn wine with the locals sharing a table with me.  Even when I cannot drink much, they tell me to keep drinking, saying they won’t answer my questions if I don’t drink with them.

Difficult but optimistic life

Like Sua’s family, many Mông people lead difficult lives here. Since their land is full of stones, locals can only grow corn in the fields and breed goats.

Sùng Mí Chạ, deputy Chairman of the people’s committee of Cán Chu Phìn commune, says the commune houses 1,030 households, of which 48,6 per cent are poor. Only ten per cent of households have escaped poverty by breeding and trading cows.

I met young people who share the simple dream of studying in school. They dream of family motorbikes to carry heavy loads of grass to feed cows, so their mothers can stop carrying such loads on their backs for long distances. They also dream of household water tanks - because now they travel long distances to find stream water and they often must wait for rainwater to bathe.

The suns goes down as I leave Sua’s house. That evening the lights went out, so she used fire to light her house.

From the top of the mountain, the small houses of Cán Chu Phìn commune, lit by electricity and moonlight, were twinkling like stars. I wondered at Sua’s ever-present smile when her life is so hard.

Their tough lives do not erase the innocence and optimism of the Mông people. People here seem as strong as the stones, with hearts full of love for their family and parents. It was a very meaningful trip for me and I learned more about how to share with those less fortunate.— VNS





Textile arts: A Mông mother weaves lanh (linen) cloth. — VNS Photo Vương Bạch Liên
Colourful: Mông girls in Cán Chu Phìn commune. — VNS Photo Vương Bạch Liên