The Can Chu Phin commune is located in the Meo Vac district in Vietnam’s north, about 500km from Hanoi. On the road to the commune, I enjoy views of amazing karst landscapes and dramatic rice terraces in what is one of the most beautiful parts of Vietnam.

The region has much to offer, such as the daily lives and unique traditions of the local ethnic people, the Mong. 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 you try to photograph them. Their parents are also reserved. But if you are really interested in their lives, they open their hearts to you.

Vu Thi Sua, for instance, takes me to her house eagerly when I tell her I want to find out more about the Mong. On the way to her house, we pass small wooden houses surrounded by stone walls with clotheslines in front bearing colourful clothes drying in the sun. Since Sua is by my side, many people come out of their houses to wave, smiling gently.

Sua’s little wooden house at the top of a hill is quite isolated. All daily activities happen in one room and the beds are close to the area used as a kitchen.

She shows me a large tray of men men (cooked corn powder), the Mong’s staple food. Sua usually eats it with boiled vegetables and chillies; the family only eats meat about once a month when there are guests.

“I love eating men men. I started eating it when I was small. Now I know how to cook it. I want to teach others how to cook it because it is part of my culture,” Sua says with a big smile as she offers me a taste. It tastes strange to me, but I appreciate her generosity.

Sua’s mother is weaving lanh (linen) cloth. The Mong make most of their attire from lanh, selling colourful dresses in the market when they need money. Lanh is also used for burial shrouds.

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

Many Mong people living in other regions no longer have this knowledge now, so her family hopes to keep the tradition alive here at least. The colourful cloth adds vitality to this stark landscape of rocky mountains and stony fields.

A family in front of their house. The Mong are a shy people but will open up if you show interest in their lives.

A family in front of their house. The Mong are a shy people but will open up if you show interest in their lives.

Like most girls her age, Sua quit school after the ninth grade. The high school is too far for her to commute. She spends her days helping her parents, farming maize fields, looking after her younger sisters and feeding the pigs. She is the oldest daughter at 18 and 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,” Sua says matter-of-factly.

It’s not unusual for a Mong woman to drink wine. Home made corn wine is a daily part of Mong meals, and both the men and women drink a lot of it.

The difficult life that Sua’s family live is common to many Mong people here. Since their land is full of stones, they can only grow corn in the fields and breed hardy goats.

Sung Mi Cha, deputy chairman of the Can Chu Phin people’s committee, says the commune comprises more than 1,000 households, of which almost half are poor. Only 10% of households can be considered relatively wealthy, having bred and traded cows.

I meet 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 have to travel long distances to find stream water and often must wait to collect rain water to bathe.

The sun goes down as I leave Sua’s house. That evening the electricity is out, so she and her family are depending on the fireplace to light the house.

From the top of the mountain, the small houses of Can Chu Phin commune, lit by electricity and moonlight, twinkle like stars. I wonder at Sua’s ever-present smile when her life is so hard.

But their tough lives do not erase the innocence and optimism of the Mong people. People here seem as strong as the stones, with hearts full of love for their families, especially their parents. – Viet Nam News/Asia News Network