For 30 years, 13 families live off-grid with zero 'conveniences'

By Hoang Tao   March 31, 2022 | 11:53 pm PT
Thirteen families of the Van Kieu ethnic minority have been living off-grid inside a national park in the central province of Quang Binh without electricity, phone service and other "necessities."

The households belong to the Doong Village, Tan Trach Commune in Bo Trach District. The village is situated in the middle of a 10-hectare-wide valley surrounded by primeval forests and limestone mountains in the strictly protected zone of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Though the path leading to the Doong Village is just three kilometers long, it takes more than an hour of walking on the narrow, bushy path to get there.

Thirty years ago, Nguyen Soai Trac, 41 then, and some people from Quang Ninh District's Truong Son Commune came to this area looking for honey. When he saw the vast valley and its fertile land, he moved here with his wife and children. Soon, the Doong Village was established with an initial population of about 20 people in four households.

Doong Village is situated deep in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh Province, surrounded by primeval forests and limestone mountains. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

The Doong Village is situated deep in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh Province, surrounded by primeval forests and limestone mountains. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Since the village is located deep in the dense forest, villagers encounter wild animals often.

Ho Thi Vai, Trac's wife, now 66, claims that once when she went fishing, she "saw the footprint of a tiger as big as a bowl of rice." And often, when she goes deeper into the forest to pick bamboo shoots, she hears wild animal noises.

"The most common is the wild boar; many of them have very dangerous long fangs and have to be avoided," Vai said.

Since there is a small stream flowing down from the Truong Son Forest near the village, Trac and his wife have started wetland rice cultivation. They get two harvests a year, yielding enough rice to feed his family for a year.

Their diet consists primarily of rice, fish caught from the stream and wild vegetables.

However, by 2004-2005, the stream had run dry for unknown reasons. The people Doong Village were forced to abandon their rice fields since there was no water to irrigate them. As a result, many households relocated to other places.

The village now has 13 households with 52 people. Apart from one family that migrated from elsewhere, the rest are Trac and Vai's children and grandchildren.

Life in the village is almost self-sufficient, despite the lack of electricity, phones, medical facilities, roads and other amenities.

The village established its first Party Committee in 2016 with Nguyen Van Choc, 31, serving as its secretary.

Choc said that despite many broad, flat areas around the village, they cannot be used to grow rice because there is not enough water. The soil is also not suitable for highland varieties. So the villagers grow some maize, potato and cassava, but not too much because they can’t eat all of it and selling them does not generate much profit.

Choc said that 12 of the 13 households have about 55 buffaloes and cows. When they reproduce, the families share the cattle among themselves.

Occasionally, traders from the plains visit the village to buy cows or buffaloes for around VND3 million ($131.18) or less per head.

Once they reach an agreement, the villagers take the cow or buffalo to the expressway for delivery. It takes about three and a half hours to get the buffaloes and cows to go out of the village and on the big street.

Residents only leave the village when they need to buy cooking oil, salt and other very basic necessities.

Ho Thi Thu, Choc's 30-year-old wife, said she only goes to the market once a month when her husband receives his salary. But with a monthly budget of just VND1 million, she is always short of money.

Ho Thi Thu cooks food using an open stove since there is no electricity in her kitchen. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Thu cooks food using an open stove inside her kitchen which has no electricity. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

The village has 26 small children, 24 of whom were born in their homes.

Ho Thi Vai was the village's first "midwife," and she has since passed on her know-how to Thu, her daughter-in-law. Thu has assisted in the delivery of 10 children. She has had no formal training other than what her mother-in-law taught her.

She said she uses a string to tie around the umbilical cord of a newborn, before cutting it off with a bamboo stick.

"Since we don't have any medicines here, mothers only have extracts from herbs, leaves and roots after delivery, rest for three days and return to their daily activities," Thu said.

The village has a school that was built in 2010, but teachers assigned to it face numerous challenges. They feel isolated since there is no phone service here that allows them to connect with the outside world.

Whenever Tan Trach Commune's officials send documents to the Doong Village, it takes 4-5 days for them to arrive.

Wildlife protection

Because the area is home to many valuable animals, including chamois, wild boar, monkeys, douc langurs, hornbills, and precious woods, the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park Forest Protection Unit established a group of rangers in 2019, two of whom live in the Doong Village.

The village also has two forest protection groups with a total of ten members who patrol the area on a regular basis to prevent poaching and other violations.

Of late, villagers have gradually started to connect more with the outside world. The integration began when four children began to attend high school in Dong Hoi Town and Cho and his nephew, Nguyen Van Sinh, were hired to become forest rangers.

For almost ten years now, the village has also become a stopover during tours to explore the famous Son Doong and En caves.

Despite their poverty, the villagers refuse to leave their homes because they are accustomed to being self-sufficient and "don't know how to make money."

Nguyen Soai Trac hopes there will be a water pipeline installed for his village so people can grow wetland rice. Photo by VnExpress/Honag Tao

Doong village head Nguyen Soai Trac wishes for a water pipeline that will allow villages to grow rice. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Tran Huong Lam, Deputy Party Secretary of Tan Trach Commune, said they were planning to build an irrigation system to help Doong residents grow wetland rice and has sought funding from higher authorities to carry out the project.

Bo Trach District had proposed a relocation plan to villagers so they would move out the national park's core zone, but the latter did not agree. District officials say making a road to the village is "almost impossible" because it is a strictly protected forest area.

"We simply hope that the government will help us with a 3 km water pipeline to the village so that we can cultivate rice and also get phone service to communicate with the outside world," said village head Nguyen Soai Trac.

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