Southernmost village: Life beyond the threshold

By Hoang Nam, Pham Linh    April 26, 2020 | 01:20 am PT
Located half a kilometer from Ca Mau Cape, Vietnam’s southernmost point, Mui Village in Ca Mau Province is characterized by door-less, stilt houses built from mangrove timber.

Locals nurture the dream the area one day would be turned into a tourist attraction with homestays, restaurants, specialty foods and souvenir shops, following a new proposal from Dat Mui Commune to provincial authorities.

Mui (Cape) Village lies 100 kilometers south of Ca Mau Town in Vietnam’s southernmost peninsula. When visiting Ca Mau’s southern region, tourists typically tour Ca Mau Cape (Mui Ca Mau) National Park or stay at motels along Highway 1. Unbeknownst to many, however, is this unique village inhabited by Dat Mui locals in Ngoc Hien District, northeast of the national park.

Stilt houses line both sides of Vam Mui River.

Stilt houses line both sides of the Vam Mui channel. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

A tall curved bridge crosses the Vam Mui channel. On each side of the channel, stilt houses raised over the water line up one after another. The area simultaneously acts as residence for mollusk fishermen and dock for small wooden fishing boats. Interestingly enough, stilt houses collectively feature no door.

66-year old Ba Ly, who retired after two decades of fishing, recently took up the profession of fishnet weaving. Every day, on the floor in a corner of the house, he weaves while supervising his grandchildren frolicking in the yard. When the sun is shining on Ba Ly’s porch in the afternoon, rays seep through holes in the metal wall panels and land on his calm face. In another corner, his wife rests in a hammock.

A while later, after he has finished a net, Ba Ly beckons his grandkids over to help him spread and check the net. A fishing net measures over ten meters, making up roughly one-third the length of a house. The senior couple divide the kids into two groups, each holding and stretching one side of the net. Every corner of the house is flooded in light as the back of Ba Ly’s house is doorless.

Ba Lys family earns a living from fishnet weaving in their doorless house. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Linh.

Ba Ly's family earns a living from fishnet weaving in their doorless house. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Linh.

Ba Ly is one of Mui Village’s senior locals. He reminisces, 30 years ago, there were only a few dozens houses in the village set against a wilderness backdrop of brackish water and mangrove forests. His generation mainly sustained on wildfish and forest crops. The tradition of doorless stilt houses is a generational one, passed down from his grandfather’s and father’s times.

According to "A History of the Reclamation of the South", authored by late cultural researcher and writer Son Nam, Ca Mau flourished towards the end of the 19th century, when the French arrived. They came in sailing ships without stopping by Saigon. At the time, some inhabitants of Cho Lon or Saigon's Chinatown also migrated south to Ca Mau to start a new career.

"Houses were tucked away on elevated plateaus behind river streams while the estuary was a coastal body of brackish water, sediment and grassy land plots. It was thus hard for these French to inspect from the main river," the book reads.

Mui Village remains perhaps the only place still preserving the tradition and characteristics of stilt houses described above.

According to Ba Ly, traditional Mui Village stilt houses generally have either three comparments or two roofs. The walls are typically lined with coconut leaves while the floor, beams, and pillars of the house are made of mangrove timber. The house floor rises 1 to 1.5 meters above sea level.

A doorless stilt house in Mui Village. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

A doorless stilt house in Mui Village. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

Nowadays, some newer houses have cement pillars and floors as well as corrugated iron panels instead of coconut leaves for a roof. "Before Highway 1 was built, the neighborhood was safe and secure so there was no need for doors," Ba Ly said.

69-year-old Vo Van Xiu, also named Bay Xiu, Ba Ly’s next-door neighbor, is a war veteran awarded six medals and orders. He was once assigned to execute a population de-densification policy in Dat Mui. Bay Xiu talked a lot about the prosperity and fertile land of his hometown which he believes helped shape its optimistic and generous people.

Bay Xiu recounted, in 1975, he returned to Ca Mau from Can Tho City, also in the Mekong Delta. At the time, he could easily catch gobies and eetail catfish and had to pay attention to crabs when trudging through mangrove swamps. As for Dat Mui’s specialty, giant mudskippers, "no one bothered catching them".

"We used to chop off 20-30-meter-tall mangroves in the forest to build houses. Some tree trunks were as large as the arm circle of three people and required a few days to cut down," Bay Xiu said.

In particular, stilt houses adapt well to high tides as the sea levels in Ca Mau periodically rise every year. Bay Xiu recalled, back when houses were built of wood and coconut leaf, he ran a grocery store and placed his products on the front porch. By the evening, high tides would sweep his store display away. "High tides usually occured in October and November for three days then receded but we could not predict when they came," Bay Xiu said.

In 2010, the local administration offered Bay Xiu support to build his house. He ‘bargained’: "I will only agree if you let me build a stilt house." Upon their agreement, Bay Xiu retracted wooden planks from his old house to build a new one.

This time, his new house features a perron, doorstep, and pillars all made of concrete. The roof and walls are now made of corrugated iron. The biggest update, however, is a metal sliding door in the front.

Vo Van Tung, 60, former Mui Village head, said he was not born here but moved here from Ca Mau Town a few decades ago. "When I first arrived, the seniors here told me there used to be a lot of mosquitoes in the area. To clear the mosquitoes, they had to constantly burn smoke under the houses. The houses had no doors so the mosquitoes could easily exit."

The stilt houses with no doors don’t just evoke tranquility; they are reminiscent of reclamation times. Amidst a natural resource shortage, agricultural and fishing businesses aren’t as profitable as they used to be. The prosperity and fertility that Bay Xiu previously mentioned seem absent in present-day Mui Village.

However, some successful cases show otherwise, like Tu Cuong who bought land to build a motel and eatery near the highway. He often retreats to his house in Mui Village.

Or Nguyen Thi Nhan, a distributor of fish, built a cement house after years of saving. Nhan came to Mui Village two decades ago to assist her father in shrimp farming and started her own business.

"When we first arrived, our family stayed in a traditional doorless stilt house made of timber and leaves with only one room for my parents. Now, we live comfortably in a two-bedroom house. With the highway nearby, we have built a door to prevent thefts," Nhan said.

Truong Van Se, vice chairman of the Dat Mui Commune People’s Committee, said that security in the area is stable thanks to the village’s community culture, living habits, and minimal traffic.

Yet for the past two decades, the population increased while road systems expanded. In 2000, the entire population of Dat Mui Commune included only 2,000 households. Today, the total count has jumped to 3,400. Mui Village alone has increased from 20 to 300 households.

The majority of the population make a living as fisherfolk. As the population increases, profit decreases but luckily, income remains relatively stable and doorless stilt houses gradually swap for cement and steel equivalents.

"Since the national government campaigns against exploiting forest preservation areas, locals opt for steel, metal, cement, and wood from the southeast region instead when choosing materials to build their homes," said Se.

To boost local income and derive benefits from the yearly hundreds of thousand tourists who visit the Mui Ca Mau National Park, Dat Mui Commune has proposed to transform its residential area into a tourist draw.

Many of Mui Village inhabitants are banking on this change. During the interview, Vo Thanh Thung proudly bragged that he has two grandchildren, one currently in the elementary school across the bridge and the other in kindergarten.

Everyday, he crosses the river to drop his grandchild off for school at 6 a.m. then returns at 4 p.m. for pick up. "As long as we can keep them in school it is good. And it would be terrific if we could develop tourism here," Tung said.

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