Children of Doong village, located near the world's largest caves in central Vietnam's Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. Photo courtesy of Binh Nguyen/Tuoi Tre
Living around the world's 300 longest and most beautiful caves in the central region's Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park are a village of five families of different minority groups.
The founder of Doong Village, Nguyen Sy Toa, belongs to the country's most prominent ethnic group, Kinh. But he had decided to settle down at the place he was born and has been trying hard to have the village's children to join the normal community some day.
After the British Cave Research Association (BCRA) announced Son Doong Cave at the park in Quang Binh Province as the world's biggest one in 2009, a path to the cave was discovered.
Tuoi Tre reporters were using the path in June 2011 when they found the five families who'd been staying in the area since 1990. There are no official records about this village and its residents.
The families have fewer than 30 members. Some of them belong to the Van Kieu ethnic group and some to the Ma Cong group.
Toa married a Van Kieu woman and brought other families to set up a village in Doong valley near the cave in 1990. He was chosen head of the village for his eloquence and literacy.
The 62-year-old village head said that his father, a Kinh man, had also married a Van Kieu woman and settled down in the mountainous area of Quang Tri Province, to the south of Quang Binh.
But shortly after Toa was born, his father brought him back to Dong Hoi Town in the province to give him a stable life with better living conditions in the lowland area.
After his father was killed in a bombing raid in 1966 during the Vietnam War, Toa, then 17, returned to his mother's place and she took him along as they lived a nomadic life around the central region's mountains with several other minority groups.
"When my father died, I missed my mother and all the memories about the mountains where I was born," he said, explaining why he returned to the area.
Toa had five children, the youngest of whom he named Cong Chua (Princess) in the hope she would find a good husband.
He said a boy came to propose when Cong Chua was 14 years old, so he asked the boy to leave the engagement gift, which was VND1.2 million, and wait until his daughter was 18.
Many other boys came later with VND2 million, VND4 million and even VND5 million for her hand, but Toa said he rejected them all to keep the promise made to the first boy, who returned in early 2011 for a simple wedding.
Toa said he regretted that he didn't ask a cameraman to take photos of the wedding.
"I've lived in the jungle for so many years and I totally forgot."
However, Toa did not forget to find a teacher to teach the children of the village to read and write.
He said he was afraid that the children would later find it hard to join the community if they were illiterate, so he agreed to pay a teacher between VND1-2 million a course until the children learn to read and write.
The first teacher quit the job after a few months, so Toa then went around looking for another one. A commune People's Committee nearest to the cave eventually agreed to send a teacher to Doong Village.
The teacher receives VIP treatment with frequent gifts of roast chicken, pigs and wild honey as motivation to stay on the job. The village has four children who are currently receiving education from the teacher.
"The kids here are scared of people coming from outside the village, but they also want to be like those people," Toa said.
"I have told them that they have to learn to read and write, or those people would look down on them like monkeys."
His wife, Ho Thi Ka Ro, said teachers hesitate to come to the village not because they are scared of the living conditions, but because it can be hit by severe flooding at any time.
The flood waters are high and can wipe away anything, Ro said.
Toa family still lives in a makeshift tent after his wooden house was destroyed by last October's flood.
A herd of 11 cows, the most valuable asset of the whole village, was swept away while grazing.
People in the village were saved as they managed to climb a high jackfruit tree, but their houses and animals were all gone, Toa said.
But the village head said he has stopped thinking about coming back to a normal life.
Many of his old friends from the lowland area have asked him to start a normal life and business, but Toa said, "I won't come back."
"If they want to help me, my friends can help the children in the village go to normal schools," he said.
"My wife and I have taken the jungle as our home."