I heard about Kontum whilst browsing the net and scouring travel blogs to find some different, off-the-beaten track destinations in Vietnam. This was months ago and we, M. (colleague) and I, even had plans to explore the area during one of the few breaks we were granted in the long teaching year… In the end, we ventured to Hue instead. Closer and much easier to reach by train from Quang Ngai… Plus Kontum sounded interesting enough to warrant more time than the two days we could spare, so I added it to the list of must-see stops on my autumn travel itinerary.
Kontum is a mountainous area in the Western Highlands of Vietnam, close to the border with Laos and famed for its coffee growing and hill tribes. Relatively sheltered from the impact of tourism, ethnic minorities still adhere to many of their traditions and customs and the slower pace of life. Of course, they did not escape the attention from the various colonial powers that ruled Vietnam. After being overpowered and subdued by the French, Catholicism was imposed on the hill tribes and it became the dominant religion alongside animism, or the belief in good and evil spirits and the power of nature. The Kontum landscape is dotted with churches rather than Buddhist Pagodas. During the Vietnam War, many battles were fought in and around Kontum and often American Vietnam War Veterans revisit the area in an effort to find closure.
There are about 54 different ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, but unless they wear their traditional attire, to the untrained un-Vietnamese eye it is hard to see any differences between the different tribes.. This does not stop them from being discriminated against though. Having slightly darker skin than the majority Viet (or Kien people) certainly puts them at a disadvantage and they have been largely excluded from the progress that can be seen elsewhere in Vietnam.
Our visit to Kontum involved a 12 km hike, an independent bicycle tour and a car trip through local villages just outside the town, a region populated by the Bahnar, Sodra and Jolong people. Each village has its own communal building, the ‘rong’, in the centre. Although each ethnic minority’s rong may have a slightly different style, all are impressive tall structures built using bamboo and a tough grass for the roof, although recently corrugated iron has become more common. In the past only men were allowed to enter the building to attend meetings and discussions and take decisions for their community. Young men between the ages of 17 and getting married would spend their nights in the communal house, so that in case of an attack on their village, they could be mobilized without delay to defend the village lands and territory. These days, officials from the Vietnamese Government descend on the villages once a week to ‘help them run their affairs’; women are no longer excluded from meetings and young men can be seen resting and loitering in the cool shade of the rong during siesta time rather than at night. As the hill tribes now live peacefully, the men are unlikely to be called upon to fight against intruding neighbours and instead of fighting each other with weapons, men and youths from different villages test each other’s skills and prowess on the volleyball court in front of the rong, or… pitch their voices against each other in a karaoke contest on rice-wine hazy Sunday afternoons…
The rong is the focal point of the village, the place were people gather to celebrate festivals on auspicious days. Buffalo and other animals are ritually slaughtered in front of the rong as an offering to the gods and to provide food for the feast. Needless to say that at such events copious amounts of rice wine will be consumed… Inside the rong, buffalo horns and other dried food bears testament to the animal sacrifices.
As our first night was spent in a homestay in one of the Bahnar villages we were privileged to be invited to take part in a celebration that was held for some Korean business men visiting Kontum. We rubbed shoulders and shook hands with the Vice President of Kontum Province and as ‘honoured guests’ shared his rice wine… It is the one and only time we saw men, women, boys and girls dressed in their traditional clothes as they danced around a fire to mesmerizing music…
Life in the Kontum hills is still very simple, as we experienced in our homestay and saw during the trips in and around the town.
We slept on thin mattresses on the bamboo floor of the living quarters, which were built on stilts to keep out undesirable animals. Across the landing was the dining room: a large wooden table and some wooden benches. Two girls cooked us an amazing dinner on a wood fire, as the locals would, only we were given ‘Vietnamese’ food as the food eaten by the hill tribes would probably not be appealing to us…
Most families in and around Kontum live of the land and subsistence farming is the norm. They cultivate rice on a small plot of land to provide enough food for the year, although some also grow other crops, such as casava, keeping the leafy tops for eating and selling the roots to local factories to be turned into noodles.
For a long time the hill tribes lived a nomadic lifestyle and would move location every ten years or so, but lately they have settled and remained longer in the same area. Nevertheless, they have been reluctant to move into to more modern housing provided by the Vietnamese Government and prefer to build their houses in the traditional style they are accustomed to, leaving the brick-built dwellings empty.
To outsiders, the villagers’ lifestyle is spartan and austere and houses consist mainly of one room only with little or no furniture. Rattan mats provide seating and sleeping areas; food is cooked on a wood fire in a kitchen area of the house. On our second day, we were invited to take tea with the village chief of the Johong tribe, enjoying his hospitality and learning more about the tribe’s way of life, translated by our guide, Mr Manh.
Modernisation and progress is slow in the villages and there is no running water, so water has to be collected from springs and rivers, which are also used for bathing and handwashing. Our homestay was near a river and in the late afternoon, we heard the gleeful noises of children splashing and swimming in the river. Not only was this their time for fun, they also bathed and washed their clothes at the same time.
One thing that caught our attention was the large number of children in the villages, small children. With Catholicism the main religion and the locals strictly adhering to the practice of no contraception, coupled with the lack of alternative entertainment, many families have lots of children… But poverty often means they do not have the resources to feed and educate their children so ‘orphanages’ take in and look after the many abandoned children. And when the Vietnamese government tried to improve the situation by handing out condoms, parents gave them to their children instead to blow up as balloons… Maybe the younger generation will take more heed as their aspirations grow to be part of mainstream Vietnam.
Lunch anyone? This little boy had just caught a lizard… not a pet, but lunch indeed… Not sure whether I really would have wanted to join him for lunch…