Dinh Mi Tro, 25, a Mong man from Sa Lung Village, has not played one of his people's most popular instruments since his lover left him to marry another man.
The leaf-horn – a wind instrument on which players use their lips to make the leaves vibrate – had helped the young man win the heart of May, a beautiful girl who lived in his village eight years ago. But their teenage love affair was broken two years later. Tro was forced to move far away from home to study and May could not wait for him, as Mong women are supposed to marry early.
Ironically, shortly after, the heart-broken teenager had to drop out of school and return home to help his ill-nourished family on their farm.
However, Tro, who is the first of three sons, has returned to school and wants to start a business after he graduates next year.
"She was my first love. We had great passion. I was the best leaf-horn player in the village and we were besotted with each other," Tro recalls.
"I played the leaf-horn near the rocky wall at the back of her house, urging her to come out and meet me," he says.
"The leaf horn is a popular instrument for young men who are courting because all they have to do is pluck a couple of leaves from the roadside and play."
The 25-year-old says that the leaves of wild liana are the most commonly used, while the khen (bamboo pan-pipes) is more often seen at weekend markets or festivals.
"Beautiful girls are most attracted to love songs, so naturally, that is what the young men play, hoping the girl will agree to go out on a date with him."
Tro says fewer men use the horn to flirt with girls now, because direct interaction is more socially acceptable.
In the Mong language, Tro means overcoming hardships, and he was given the name by his parents in the hope that he would lead an easy life.
"We had to wait six years after we were married for our first son. It was a big problem for us because other couples in the village already had at least five," says Tro's father, Dinh Nhia Lua.
Lua says that he has to pass the newborn child through an unlit stove following a spiritual custom of the Mong people, which is said to help the child grow up to be big and strong.
Tro's two younger brothers were born over the next eight years, but the family of five had to live in a small wooden hut until 1999, when they were able to build a new traditional house made of soil, rocks and timber. The village, situated on a rocky plateau in Dong Van District some 500km northwest of Hanoi, is home to 37 families with a population of over 100. The villagers make a living from farming maize and rice in the small pockets of fertile land that are dotted around the rocky outcrops, sometimes up to 1,000m above sea level.
"Maize is our main crop and primary food source because it has a higher yield than rice," Lua explains.
"Rice farming requires lots of water and its growth is more susceptible to changing conditions, but rainfall in the rocky plateau is rare between October and April. In the dry season, we have to plough and sew as soon as it rains, even at midnight."
A sign of the changing times in the remote village is that the horse is no longer the main means of transportation.
"We have not bred horses here for over 10 years because the village is now accessible by road and they get sick easily in the winter, while oxen and cows are useful for farming," says Tro's mother, Vu Thi Dao.
Farming the rocky fields is a thankless task that provides barely enough for the villagers to get by, but they outdo themselves when it comes to building homes for their families.
The easily recognizable Mong houses are built from the natural materials available, such as soil, rock and pine trees, and they're built to last.
The 40cm thick walls of the houses are made from local mud, giving them a dark yellow color, while the foundations are constructed from stone blocks set in a 50cm wide trench.
Local masons fill wooden moulds with the mud and apply pressure until it becomes a solid block.
"We don't use mortar or cement to bond the blocks or joints. The main structure of the house is a wooden frame with various girders and beams, while it is roofed with terracotta tiles," the host describes.
He says the walls and roof keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer and it will stand for decades.
Each house is split into three sections, the largest of which is the central living area and place of worship. Beside that, the kitchen houses a large stove used to cook daily meals and brew maize wine, while the remaining area acts as sleeping quarters. Mong people keep a constant wood-fire stove lit in those quarters, as temperatures in winter can fall to as low as 5C .
Above the bedroom is a garret, which hosts reserve for guests or to store valuable commodities such as food and maize wine. The wine is an intrinsic part of the local culture as the Mong express their hospitality by getting their guests drunk. If a visitor refuses to drink even a little of wine, it means they are insincere.
Residents paste cardboard on the wall to act as the ancestral altar and attach cock feathers covered in blood on the cardboard every Lunar New Year festival, praying for a prosperous and happy year.
As a form of protection, the Mong enclose their houses with rocky walls. When wild animals attempt to breach the walls, the rocks slip and fall making a loud noise, scaring the animals away. Lua said the house cost him around VND20 million, excluding the 600 liters of maize wine and 200kg of pork that the hosts provided for the masons and carpenters. Tro now lives in a new house close by because his parents want their first son to marry soon.
He has been working hard to raise enough money for the wedding, even though he has yet to find his future bride.
"The wedding has been a long custom in the community. Rich or poor, each man should save enough for his marriage feast, which includes 40kg of pork, 5kg of chicken, 45 liters of maize wine, two hand-made brocade skirts, a silver necklace and a sum of VND400,000," Tro details.
Mong men wear casual fashion and ride motorbikes instead of horses, but the villagers still retain their traditional weddings, ancestral worship, housing and hospitality.
Chairman of Lung Tao Commune People's Committee Dinh Mi Sinh says nearly 80 per cent of the 3,400 local residents are underprivileged, with a monthly income of just VND400,000 (US$20).
"Our farmers work an area of 397ha, and two thirds of that is taken up by rocky, infertile land. Maize is still the major agricultural product with an income of VND3.5 million (US$160) per capita," Sinh says.
The chairman says the commune has been struggling to improve living standards and still relies heavily on the State budget because there is no other source of income.
"Despite upgraded roads and connection to the national grid, the commune is still seeking ways to boost economic development. The locals have no market or trading centre in the community, while the majority of people still live on low yield farming," he adds.
Tro returned to his education at the Dong Van Secondary School, 21km away from home, earlier this year.
"I had a two-year gap in my education because I had to put my family first, but I think education can still play a key role in my life. I would not be able to start a business without basic writing, reading and arithmetic skills," he says, adding that he still struggles with his Vietnamese.