In the darkness of the early morning the Dong household begins to stir. It’s 3am in Khuoi Khon village in northern Cao Bang province, and the family is getting ready for another day. Below the wooden stilt house, pigs, cows and chickens also slowly wake up, eager for their morning meal. The floor creeks as Ms Do, the agile 60-something matriarch, quickly makes her way around the house with only a headlamp to guide her.
The Dong family are members of the Black Lolo ethnic minority group and maintain a very simple life. Electricity, if it works, is generated by a small pump powered by a nearby stream. Water flows from the hilltops into the homes through an intricate network of bamboo pipes. Untouched by modern conveniences, the Black Lolo maintain ancient traditions and a quiet existence within a close-knit community.
Thanh, Ms Do’s son, helps to get his three older children ready for school. As their eyes slowly awaken, he gathers their bags together. It will take them about 30 minutes to walk down to the community school.
A big pot of rice boils away on the fire as Ms Do packs pickled vegetables and stir-fried pork with vegetables into small buckets. Thanh and his wife, Chi, will stay out and work the rice fields for the entire day, as it’s the rice harvest, while Ms Do will stay in the house and do the daily chores.
Chi appears from the bedroom dressed in a traditional ethnic costume. Made from fabric that a neighbour wove, the clothes are an uncomplicated plain black. The only embellishments are on her long sleeves, with patches of pinks, greens and golds in various patterns.
‘It took me two years to make this shirt,’ Chi said. She pairs the shirt with loose-fitting black pants.
With her nine-month-old baby girl strapped to her back by a long piece of fabric, Chi adjusts her black turban then carefully picks out a white beaded necklace to go with her outfit.
As Thanh and Chi say their goodbyes for the day, Ms Do is downstairs hacking away at a massive banana tree trunk for the pigs’ breakfast. The oinks gradually get louder as the enormous wok of gruel that sits metres away envelopes the air. The four pigs act as the Dong’s ‘savings’. When money gets tight, the family will sell a pig at Bac Lac market, eight kilometres away from the village.
All able-bodied adults in Khuoi Khon village are out on the rice terraces by 5.30am. Rice is the village’s cash crop and they will try to make the most of the short harvesting season.
Armed with only a sickle, Chi and the women gather handfuls of rice straw and place them neatly in piles. Thanh and the men collect the bundles and beat the rice grains into a hollowed out tree trunk. The leftover straws are then spread back on top of the cut roots, to be set afire later. This slash-and-burn cultivation rejuvenates the soil while keeping the rice organic.
As the sun slowly warms the field, the workers take a break from their backbreaking labour. Sitting on a slope, the women take off their non la, the conical straw hat that has become synonymous with Vietnam, revealing their black turbans while gazing the lush green valley. Chi checks herself with a mirror tucked inside her turban and adjusts her necklace. Her friends try to have a body language conversation with another village who are harvesting nearby.
In the meantime, Ms Do is busy tending to the household chores. With her sleeping granddaughter strapped to her back, she manoeuvres 20 kg bags of rice with ease. She spreads out the recently harvested rice onto bamboo mats for drying in the hot sun, smiling as she rakes the rice around. She said that she will continue to rotate the rice grains for two days before they are dry enough to be stored.
‘I’m from central Vietnam,’ she explained. ‘I fought for the Vietnam People’s Army during the war. I met one of the villagers [from Khuoi Khon], followed him back to the village, and never left.’
Lunch for the workers in the field is served on the rice terraces. Banana leaves are placed on top of the cut rice grains as everyone gathers around. A heaping mound of cooked rice sits in the middle of the group, still warm from the early morning. With a small banana leaf cupped to a makeshift bowl in one hand and chopsticks in another, everyone impatiently starts picking at the feast. In between bites of pork and vegetables, the Black Lolo people sip homemade rice wine; their preferred drink for rehydration.
Taking the rice down from the hillside and gathering firewood becomes a priority before nightfall. Men take a quick shower via a broken bamboo pipe that feeds water to the village from the mountaintop. Women do the laundry. A herd of cows meander their way back to their barns after a long day of grazing. Little boys run up and down the trails playing with bamboo sticks with misshapen wheels attached. The girls play with a balloon they found on the road while walking home from school.
By dusk, Khuoi Khon village is quite busy. Everyone is home preparing for the evening meal. Thanh’s family has invited some neighbours over to celebrate the end of the harvest. Ms Do has been cooking all day for the feast. Dinner includes various vegetable and meat dishes, two kinds of soup, and pots full of rice.
Newspapers are laid out on the floor with two sets of food, one for the men and one for the women. With only a few candles and a single, flickering light bulb, everyone sits down and eagerly begins to eat.
On a normal night after dinner, the women of the Black Lolo community unwind by weaving cloth or playing with the kids, while the men take a puff of thuoc lao (tobacco) through a bamboo pipe, which they believe aids digestion.
On this night, however, Thanh pulls out bottles filled with homemade corn wine they brewed the night before. Both the men and the women drink the moonshine from teacups, laughing and chatting about the day’s events.
By 9pm, with stomachs full of food and alcohol, Thanh’s visitors bid their farewells to the family. Silence falls as the village prepares for another night and, then, another day.