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Teacher learns to preserve Muong homes

Update: December, 08/2014 - 15:29
Rebuilding: Carpenters and local Muong people restore an ancient stilt house.

Fascinated by the cultural uniqueness of the Muong ethnic minority and concerned that their skills could disappear, one teacher has taken upon himself the task of preserving their stilt houses. Ha Nguyen reports.

Teacher Nguyen Xuan Thang has helped to preserve hundreds of ancient stilt houses of the ethnic Muong group at Lam Son Village in northwestern Hoa Binh Province's Luong Son District.

A graduate of the Thai Binh Intermediate School of Pedagogy in 1970, Thang, who hails from the Hong (Red) River Delta, moved to the isolated Lam Son Village to teach children at the Lam Son Primary School.

"When I arrived at the village, I found everything to be very strange to me, from the daily habits of the Muong people to their culture, particularly their way of building ancient houses on stilts, which I found to be quite attractive," recalled Thang.

Every day after teaching, Thang asked his students to tour isolated hamlets near Lam Son to enjoy the landscape and understand more about the residents and their culture.

"I found out that the Muong ethic group never build their house in line as Kinh people in the lowland do, but they always build their houses on stilts with either a hill or mountain behind them to make them convenient for daily activities," noted Thang.

Intact: An original ancient stilt house of the Muong ethnic group. — VNS Photos

A Muong house on stilts often has three floors or levels: the top is for storing food and family belongings while the middle is for daily activities and rest after work, and the bottom or ground level is for storing the tools of production and animals, cattle and poultry.

Each house owner could design and decorate the interior based on their own preferences, but the basic structure of compartments and rooms in the house are the same, observed Thang.

In the past, village residents often used precious wood such as iron wood and chukrasia tabularis to build their house on stilts. Round and square wood are often used as house columns and are buried one metre deep in the soil.

But in modern times, to avoid pests such as wood boring worms and white ants, they often pave the foundation with stone or concrete before burying the house columns, revealed Thang.

In 1980, after 10 years of studying how to build the stilt houses, Thang began collecting construction materials for such houses.

He recalled, "At first, many people thought I was daft because no one has done this kind of work before. In spite of all that, I decided to collect materials for rebuilding ancient stilt houses. If I didn't do it, they could be lost for ever."

After class, he wandered around all corners of the isolated hamlets to collect materials thrown away by residents such as rafters, battens and pieces of wood from the stairs.

Traditional colours: A Muong girl prepares a brocade scarf. — VNS Photo Truong Vi

After several years, Thang's garden began to resemble a stockyard of stilt house materials. In 1990, he bought an ancient stilt house from an ethnic Muong family to further learn the technique of rebuilding the house.

He recruited a group of carpenters specialising in the repair and construction of stilt houses. But the work was not easy because many people preferred brick rather than stilt houses, and supplies of precious wood had since dwindled.

"I advise them to use wood from trees such as eucalyptus or acacia auriculiformis to build stilt houses," Thang recalled.

Thang and his group also knew how to position the Muong window to harness supernatural power. According to Muong customs and traditions, the window is the place where people could see off their relatives to heaven.

The number of steps on Muong stairs must be odd, such as five, seven or nine, in the belief that this preserves wealth, happiness, success and prosperity for the resident family and its descendants.

"At first, several families followed my advice. As a result, their stilt houses, built with acacia auriculiformis wood, looked as nice as houses built with precious wood and were aesthetic in appearance," Thang explained.

Bach Hoang Le, 82, an elderly resident, thanked Thang for successfully preserving his 300-year-old stilt house which he inherited from his ancestors. "Members of our lineage tell each other to protect the house for younger generations," Le said.

The teacher has so far helped village residents repair and preserve hundreds of stilt houses, including the most ancient one belonging to the Muong hereditary mandarin (before the 1945 August Revolution) and worth of billions of dong.

In addition, Thang recently succeeded in repairing a dozen stilt houses of hereditary mandarins in Luong Son District's Nu Hoang Valley to enable travellers and tourists to better understand the precious values of the Muong ethnic group in Hoa Binh in particular and in Viet Nam in general.

Muong researcher Phan Cam Thuong lauded Thang's work, saying he has helped much in preserving Muong's ancient culture.

Hoang Ngoc Kieu, Lam Son Village chairman, said: "Thanks to teacher Thang, though he is from the Kinh majority, he devoted his time and efforts to helping the Muong people preserve their ancient stilt house and bring into play their special culture, which might have fallen into oblivion." — VNS

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