Where buffaloes have more than iconic value

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A young boy drives his buffalo cart full of sand in Ha"ˆUc Village, Thua Thien-Hue. Photos by Tuyet Khoa

On the streets in Ha Uc Village, the honking of vehicles is supplemented with the sounds of guttural commands like tac and ri.

The commands are issued by men giving orders to buffaloes pulling their carts. Tac means stop and ri means slow down, and there are other sounds to make the animals move forward, turn left or right or just keep going.

The village in Thua Thien-Hue Province's Phu Vang District, around 35 kilometers from Hue, is called the "buffalo cart village."

For many years now, the buffaloes have been used to cart sand from the seashore to construction sites of homes and tombs.

In a country where the buffalo has been all but forgotten after elevation to the status of a national icon with the image of a young boy sitting atop one with a conical hat on his head and a flute on his lips, Ha Uc seems to be the only place upholding the long-standing tradition of using the animals for many purposes and treasuring it like a member of the family.

A sick buffalo is taken care of like a son or daughter, and the health and other aspects of the animal are a main topic of discussion anytime locals, especially the men, get together. 

Locals do lament that there are not many paddy fields for them to deploy their buffaloes, and the local climate is not very suitable for cultivation, anyway. 

It is hard to find a buffalo on the road between 9 a.m. and the afternoon, because the asphalted roads or white sandy terrain would be too hot for them. 

But in the village, almost every house has a two-wheeled wooden cart and a buffalo.

One villager, Nguyen Tin, said it was the middle of summer and few people will put their buffalo on the road. 

"Neither us nor the animals would be able to sustain the heat," said the 56-year-old, who has been running a buffalo cart for 15 years.

Tin said they usually work between 3 and 9 in the morning, or 4 p.m. till 11 p.m.

The drivers need to walk alongside their animals as the latter are already pulling a heavy load, each cart carrying some 700 kilograms of sand.

Nguyen Thien, one of the first men to do the job in the village, said he walks his buffalo every day except when he or the animal is sick.

Though Thien said his experience of more than 20 years is a safety guarantee, his wife wishes the 70-year-old husband would retire, although she does not say so in as many words.

She recounts several accidents that her husband and other villagers have suffered.

"He's too old to walk with a buffalo at night. He cannot see well and many times the buffalo has stepped on his feet.

"Some other people have been butted by the buffaloes and have died," the woman said.

Nguyen Van Quyet, 49, was killed in such accident in December 2008 when trying to help a colleague control his newly-bought buffalo.

Quyet left behind a wife and five little children, plus a makeshift house, and the buffalo's owner had to be hospitalized, she said.

Rich neighbors

Thien said the "buffalo days" began in the early nineties when their neighbors in An Bang, another village in the commune, began to receive large sums in foreign remittances. This led to a surge in housing as well as tombs construction.

Ha Uc residents quickly tapped the market by supplying sand from the beach, and the buffalo cart was the only possible means of transport, given the sandy territory.

Improvements have been made to local infrastructure but buffalos are still the favorite means of cargo transport in the neighborhood.

Some poor families in An Bang have also joined the business, and the commune now has nearly 200 buffalo carts.

Thien said strong people can make around four trips a day, each taking nearly three hours to and fro, covering a distance of eight kilometers each time. Each trip fetches around VND60,000 or less than US$3.

"It's a hard job but it guarantees income. We won't have anything to eat if we depend on the paddy fields alone," Thien said.

Women and children also make money from the business by selling grass to the buffalo owners.

Thien said there has been less work with more people offering services, so old people like him are rarely sought for.

Usually young people are summoned and they help the old colleagues by asking them to come along and share half the payment, he said.

Nguyen Tuan, a young buffalo cart driver in the village, said the initial investment is around VND25 million for a strong buffalo and a cart, which can be used for between five and seven years.

He and all three of his brothers have been following in their father's footsteps since he was 10. None of the children were sent to school, so they could not find any other job, Tuan said.

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