Le Hai Son

For thousands of years, more than 2,000 pơ mu trees (fokienia hodginsii, a species of conifer tree belonging to the cypress family) have stood in Tay Giang District, Quang Nam Province. Of these, 725 are recognized as “Heritage Trees”. This population is considered the largest and most precious primary forest in the Southern Annamites, and is among the last rare, old-growth forests in Southeast Asia.

The pơ mu cultural village, Tay Giang, viewed from above

This pơ mu forest stretches over 450 hectares, located about 40 kilometers west of the center of Tay Giang District, in the territory of the two communes of Tr’hy and Axan. Isolated deep in the woods, this “kingdom of pơ mu” was not discovered by the wider world until 2010. This “one of a kind” pơ mu forest has long been protected by local people.

Hundreds of ancient trees have withstood gale-force winds and raging storms, standing steady over time. The largest pơ mu tree in this forest stands over 50 meters high, with a trunk three meters in diameter, and roots that form a curious shape. It takes six or seven people with outstretched arms to encircle this tree. Some of the pơ mu trees are named, for example Đình Làng (literally: village communal house), which is nearly four meters in diameter and more than 20 meters in height, plus hundreds of other centuries-old trees with names like Voi (elephant), Gu (bear), Rng (dragon), Ngũ H (five tigers), Tê Giác (rhino), M (mother), or Trưng Sinh (longevity). Their continued existence results from the relentless preservation efforts of many generations of the Co Tu people living in the Annamite Range, a land of high mountains and dense forests.

The moss-covered trunk of an ancient tree

Since ancient times, Co Tu people in the mountainous district of Tay Giang, Quang Nam Province have held a ceremony to express their gratitude to the forests, mountains, rivers, streams, plants, crops, deities and Giàng – the Great Lord of the Central Highlands’ ethnic minorities. They believe that where there are forests and Giàng, there are humans, animals and plants.

As a custom, at the beginning of the year, when flowers are blooming and birds are singing all over the highlands, and the fields have been cleared for new crops, the Co Tu people conduct their forest thanksgiving ceremony. In the immense space of the mountains and forests, village boys and girls perform a lovely dance, in harmony with the sounds of gongs and other traditional instruments, as if they are sending up a prayer to the deities and their ancestors. Local people believe Giàng and other divine beings have given them the strength to overcome hardships and survive in the majestic Annamite Range.

After the ceremony, the Co Tu people walk around an ancient pơ mu tree to affirm their promise to protect the forest

The Co Tu people feel responsible to the community, particularly when it comes to cultural preservation. The two most important cultures here are the village culture and the forest culture. As long as the village culture is strong, the forest culture remains. If the village culture no longer exists, the forest culture will become extinct as well. Thanks to the role of village elders in the preservation and upkeep of the values of local conventions and customary laws, the forests here are kept intact, and kept from “dying”.

For ages, ethnic Co Tu people have taught their children to be grateful to the forests and to protect them. Forests are a source of life, a shelter for many generations of villagers. After holding their solemn ceremony to show their gratitude to the forests in the pơ mu forest, everyone cheerfully performs the tân tung da dá dance (also known as the tribute-to-heaven dance) to pray for bumper crops.

Elder Clau Blao plays a beautiful melody on a pan-pipe by the tree after the ceremony

The will to protect the forests and live in harmony with nature is deeply engraved in the minds of the Co Tu people. This will is expressed in the folk song:

“Con chim trên tri cao cn rng xanh bát ngát

Con cá dưi ngun cn dòng nưc trong veo?

Con ngưi Cơ Tu cn mrng che ch

Cho dân làng ta sinh sôi ny n

Cho mùa màng ta luôn bi thu

Cho ngưi Cơ Tu khp muôn nơi mãi mãi trưng tn…”

(The birds in the sky need a luxuriant forest

The fish in the stream need a pure source of water

The Co Tu people need protection from Mother Forest

May our villagers prosper

May our crops produce high yields

May the Co Tu people everywhere live on forever…)