An exhibition on opportunities to study and work in Japan and a ceremony to award winners of the second Japanese writing contest were held in Ho Chi Minh City on May 25, as part of activities marking the 40th anniversary of Vietnam-Japan diplomatic ties.
Nestled in the mountainous area bordering Laos, Nam Giang District in Quang Nam Province was once a remote and poor place. However, during the past several years things have improved for local villagers, with new roads ensuring easier access to the area and benefitting both locals and those looking for a trip to less visited parts of the country.
The recent investment in developing local infrastructure has seen more visitors coming to the area, and one drawcard is the wealth of insights on offer into the colourful culture of the rugged mountains.
On a recent trip to Nam Giang (which is still better known by its old name of Giang District), I was surprised to find that all the local names start with the word "Pa", a word whose exact origins have baffled local language experts. But some say the word may mean to persuade someone to follow, or to cut a tree in a way that it will fall in a given direction when used in the Co Tu language. Some of the local villages include Pa Lanh, Pa Don and Pa Pang.
Nam Giang is in the Truong Son region, along the famous Highways 14 and 13, which have played a vital role in connecting the nation. The Truong Son region of Quang Nam covers eight districts, with the terrain divided by the 2,600m high Ngoc Linh Moutain.
Although the district has been officially known as Nam Giang for the past five years, Giang is still the most common name among many local people. Nguyen Tri Hung from the Ethnic Minorities Committee of Quang Nam says the name Giang came from two local rivers that converge near a mountain.
"The current is very strong where the two rivers meet, and this results in swirling water that looks a bit like the wet rice being processed in a rice mill, which is called a Giang Xay in Vietnamese," says Hung. "Traders who travelled here by boat named it Giang Xoay, and Giang for short, with the local wharf called Ben Giang."
Giang is now easy to access, but in the past it was an extremely remote, mysterious and dangerous place. People led a difficult life and farming was held back by a lack of equipment and technology.
On the road
After finishing my breakfast at Ben Giang I rode my motorbike along Highway 14D to the Dak Ooc border gate in La Dee Commune. Stopping here and there to see the sights, I traversed 75km in a little over two hours.
Highway 14D was built more than ten years ago. The houses in villages such as Pa Ting, Pa La and Ba Lua along the highway are no longer stilt houses, all of them have metal or tile roofing, and this remote border area now has more reliable electricity supplies and mobile phone coverage. Motorcycles are seen all over the villages and in addition to the cross-border trading centre, there are shops run by local people.
Roads have played an important role in this mountainous area, and the local economy has seen added growth from the discovery of aloe wood and gold sand deposits in local rivers a few decades ago.
Thanks to the sweat and hard work of people from the region, a path has been cleared through the forests and mountains, ensuring local industries can develop further.
"We used to have to travel for two or three days, but now we can do the same trip in a few hours of driving," says a former aloe wood hunter who had stopped his truck by Khe Vinh Bridge - an area famous for gold sand. "Honestly, people who used to harvest aloe wood or dig gold here now can't recognise the landscape. Highway 14D changed everything."
Thanh My Town on Highway 14 was a stop for gold diggers and aloe wood hunters in the past. Now the town is still bustling, and continues to be a popular stop for buses travelling south.
Passing the Thanh My Bridge, also on Highway 14, just over half an hour later I was standing at the Bung River Bridge - a great spot to take in the view of the sprawling forests around and white clouds covering mountain tops.
A local Co Tu man, Dinh Ghinh, says that during French colonial times, residents had to trek through forests and get across the Bung River just to get to Ha Nha to buy necessities. The journey took about six or seven days and was extremely miserable.
"Now looking at the highway, we feel it's a lot better," says a former gold digger.
The Ho Chi Minh Highway linking with the Thanh My - Axo route has connected Giang with the north through Thua Thien-Hue Province, and Quang Tri Province in the south.
Visitors to Giang can also explore Ro and Ngoi villages located beside the highway. The villages are also nearby the Xoi (Eating) Bridge, which has an interesting local legend behind it.
Local people say the area around the bridge was a place that saw frequent attacks by tigers, hence the name of the bridge. Ngoi Village is also called Pa La Village. Alang Nhon, a retired Co Tu official says, Ngoi means "buffalo" in the Co Tu language and they take that name as in the past the villagers raised a lot of buffaloes.
Roaming the paths of Giang, another thing that attracted me was the lon bon fruit trees that grow on the plains and are often sold along the highway. The trees are common here as they grow well in the local soil and are prized among locals as an edible and easy to cultivate wild forest fruit.
According to history books, when Lord Nguyen Anh was fleeing Tay Son troops in Quang Nam forest, he survived by eating the forest fruit, which he named "nam tran" (treasure of the south).
The biggest change in Giang are the new roads that have been built during the past few years. This makes a great difference for people who live in the moutainous area, as travelling on foot or by bicycle is difficult in the rugged terrian.
This remote mountainous land now has the new Dong Truong Son Road, with Thanh My town as its starting point.
When the Dong Truong Son Road is completed, it will connect the town with Da Lat resort city, a prospect many residents of Thanh My hope will spur economic growth.
Residents in Pa Ting, Ca Dang and Pa La villages also hope to benefit from a road being built to link their villages with Grang Fall, a tourism project backed by Japanese funds.