Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Rongs of Kontum.


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…

My Absolutely Fabulous Travels With ‘Joanna Lumley’.


Two days into our travel, I tell Liz, ‘You remind me of Joanna Lumley.’  She smiles. ‘Funny you should say that, we used to know each other, you know’.  Liz and Joanna may not have been best buddies, but they certainly rubbed shoulders as they both worked for the same modelling agency, quite some time ago…   Glam chick, down to earth explorer of an abandoned island, and of course Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous…  Liz does not ask which guise of Joanna I refer to ..  Truth be told, as our travels unfold, she fits all of them, although it is the ‘Patsy moments’ of those first few days that are the most memorable…

Being an intrepid traveler by now, it is refreshing to travel with someone who is experiencing ‘adventure travel’ for the first time.  Not that I am that adventurous…. But I have become quite blasé about hopping on planes and this time, we are sampling budget travel.  Using trains and buses, negotiating border crossings rather than queuing at immigration at busy airports, and leaving quite a few of our arrangements to the last minute and to chance.  Travel flashpacker style. Minimalist, taking just the bare minimum.  Laptop and smartphone, what else can we need?  ‘Remember,’ I warn Liz, ‘We have to be able to carry everything’ as she lists the essentials she will be cramming in her suitcase.  Pop-up over-the-bed mosquito net.  Mosquito repellent impregnated jungle-ready trousers.  Mossie/bug/midge proof jacket, complete with zip up face covering.  Instant camera (do they still exist?) and the obligatory selfie-stick….

After just three days in Vietnam and hauling her heavy suitcase along the full length of the platform at Quang Ngai train station, Liz decides that maybe she can dispense with some of the less important items in her suitcase.  To her defence, the platform in Quang Ngai is actually non-existent as all the pavement slabs have been removed and the area next to the rails looks as if a digger has been having a whale of a time mixing stones and sand and depositing it in huge, uneven clumps.  Whilst I spend my last night at the Language Centre teaching my last two lessons – a minor interruption of my holiday – Liz spends her evening repacking her suitcase and selecting items and souvenirs to be dispatched to a place of safekeeping in Hanoi, the last stop on her trip.

We finally start our real holiday the next day, with a six-hour bus journey to the mountainous inland area of Kontum.  A little of the beaten track, public transport and bus services to Kontum are still somewhat lacking in luxury.   Our bus turns out to be a 16-seater to be shared with about 20 people and doubles up as a parcels-and-packages delivery service.   Boxes on the roof, in the boot and under every seat and crevice in the vehicle.  Still quite comfortable compared with the sardine travel I experienced in India and it looks like my backpack will be perched on my lap for the duration of the trip.  Liz is not impressed and desperately tries to defend her personal space in the van… With all the seats taken and only a little bit of standing room near the sliding door in front of her, the van stops to pick up yet another passenger.  He squeezes into the narrow space between Liz’s anguished face and the window.  She explodes with British ‘Patsy’ indignity.  She furiously waves her fan – newly purchased in Hoi An – in the direction of the ‘bus conductor’ and implores, ‘Excuse me!!  Excuse me!!  You cannot be serious!! I cannot look at his butt for six hours…  Excuse me!!’  Her cries fall on deaf ears.  Luckily the man only needs a short lift and soon Liz can breathe a sigh of relief, until the next stop…  But by then she has accepted the inevitable… the constant ebb and flow of extra passengers on the bus.  And let’s face it, tiredness kicks in and sends everyone to sleep.


Another issue that causes consternation is money, Vietnamese Dong in their millions and the ubiquitous US dollars Liz has been advised to bring on her travels.  Currency is not a problem for me, having worked in Quang Ngai for the last year means I have a Vietnamese bank account and do not yet have to worry about exchanging money.  And further afield I wield my currency card: topped up with small amounts at a time to be used at ATMs, in local shops and restaurants and even for online payments.  An essential travel companion: I carry very little cash and there is very little risk if the card got stolen or lost.

It isn’t until we reach Kontum that Liz needs to replenish her supply of Dong.  In cities such as Danang or Hoi An, which are on the regular tourist route, dollars are common currency, but Kontum has not yet reached this level of international interest and dollars are pretty much alien.  As dollars are not accepted in our hotel, we venture to a bank.  Surely, we should be able to exchange dollars in a bank.  It’s Saturday morning and the bank is quiet.   We are quickly motioned to sit down with one of the tellers.  Liz produces her notes.  She tries her luck with a wodge of Hong Kong dollars first, left-overs from a previous life.  ‘Can I have some Vietnamese Dong, please,’ Liz enunciates, slowly accentuating each and every syllable. . The bank employee looks terribly confused and studies the notes.  I point to the board behind her, ‘HKD… Hong Kong dollars… You clearly know about them, you are giving an exchange rate on the board.’  The girl shakes her head, uncertain about what to do.  Liz decides to leave the HKD for another time, and puts the big guns on the table: US dollars…  The girl counts the notes, studies them, checks the pictures, calls her supervisor.  The process is repeated, only this time both sides of the notes are under scrutiny..  The supervisor is at a loss and turns to her boss for advice.  No joy there as her boss angrily swats her away; she clearly has more important things on her mind than tending to the needs of customers, picking her nose for instance…  The girls revert to their task and sort the notes in piles of the same denomination, and discard any ‘unclean’ notes: the ones with writing on them, or other marks.  ‘Hello, the exchange rate is on the board behind you…’  Liz is beginning to see red and it does not take long for the situation to evolve into a Patsy moment…  Fed up with the lack of any progress and the inability of the bank staff to make sense of our language – both verbal and body – she snatches her crisp dollar notes.  ‘These are perfectly good bank notes, dispensed by a BRITISH bank!!  We are British and this is good British money!!  I will go somewhere else…’  Liz stomps out of the bank…  Luckily, the ATMs around the corner are more forgiving and willing to accept bank cards that have not been issued in Vietnam, albeit at a nice commission for them…  And when we reach the more popular tourist destination of Dalat, exchanging dollars becomes child’s play.

Hmmm… if ever Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders are looking for inspiration for a new Absolutely Fabulous…  How about ‘Patsy and Edina go trekking in Vietnam’… we could provide them with plenty of original materials…  We haven’t laughed so much for a long time…

The pleasures of Hoi An.



Hoi An is a picturesque little town, located in Vietnam’s Quang Nam Province, just to the South of Danang.  Originally an old trading port founded in the 16th century, Hoi An boasts architecture dating back as far as the 15th century and has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site since 1999.   Many of its original wooden buildings, showing both local and foreign architectural styles, have survived and these days house a plentitude of touristy souvenir shops and restaurants catering for the eclectic palette of local and foreign visitors.  Only the early bird gets a glimpse of the history hidden under the mass of local paintings, lanterns, bags and other keepsakes paraded in the shops.


During the past year, Hoi An has been my favourite go-to-place to have a break from the monotony of life in Quang Ngai City.  Teach, sleep, eat, prepare lessons, teach, sleep, eat, prepare more lessons, mark essays…  A bland life-work balance diet lacking the spice and seasoning of frivolity, sheer fun, spontaneity, occasionally punctuated by solo cycling marathons to the nearby beach and equally solo trips to the gym.  Not a life, really…  I cannot say I wasn’t warned before arriving.  ‘Prepare to be bored,’ Jeremy warned me last summer, as I had just accepted the job in Quang Ngai.  His job offer for a position in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City came in a few days too late.

Hoi An never failed to impress.  The prospect of a sumptuous Western breakfast at Rosie’s Café would always lift the spirits and an awesome beach just a short cycling distance from the town centre was just the icing on the cake.  And when my four month break from teaching finally kicked off this week, it was the place where I chose to start from… So last Sunday, exactly one year to the day of my first visit to Hoi An, I met up in Danang with my travel companion Liz and we set off by taxi for Hoi An for a spot of relaxation, jet-lag therapy and ‘acclimatisation’ – Liz to the temperature and me to the slower pace of life.20180316_14535520180316_15361720180316_16394820170902_11004520170902_08380120180903_095223

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Our visit coincided with one of Vietnam’s national holidays.  The crowds I was expecting only materialized in the evening, so we had plenty of time to leisurely meander the streets around the Thu Bon River.  Last year’s Vietnamese flags seemed to have made room for even more lanterns dangling from electric wires overhead, or in shop front window enticing tourists to fill their suitcases with a colourful array of bulbous or air-balloon shaped light coverings.   Bridal couples posed for photographs and girls dressed in traditional áo dài wandered through the area.  A peaceful encounter, apt as the name Hoi An means ‘peaceful meeting place’.20180316_14483220180902_17402920180902_19292020180902_17412420180902_201615

Although I journeyed to Hoi An a few times throughout the year, I never stayed until the evening.  Day trips were more feasible with only one day off each week, but on this trip I had the opportunity to experience Hoi An by night.  Late afternoon, with dusk on the horizon, Hoi An transformed from a quiet, tranquil town into a bustling place, teeming with people.  They swarmed around the Japanese bridge and swamped the night market just at the other side of the river.  They jostled for space on the bridge across the river.  Hoi An at night is indeed a spectacle to behold when all the lanterns swinging in the daytime breeze suddenly dazzle the black and blue hues of the evening sky.


Hoi An is definitely a must-see destination on the itinerary of any visitor to Vietnam, be it for the architecture, a whiff of history, a shopping splurge or just people watching.  This charming town will never disappoint.  Many tourists though descend on the town to take part in the famed lantern festival in Hoi An which happens each month at full moon.  The darkened streets are set ablaze by the light from small paper lanterns floating on the river. There is no full moon when we are there, but the custom of watching bobbing lanterns being swept along the gentle flow of the river is no longer preserved for sacred days or even the locals whose traditions have been hijacked by tourists wanting not just to watch this ritual, but be part of it as well…

We wander to the night market, buzzing with tourists inspecting trinkets and more lanterns on display.  And of course interesting foods…  We look, we ponder, we take pictures… frog in a frock anyone…. ? We decide to avoid street food for now and find sustenance in a more comfortable restaurant.  Wimpish?? Maybe… but who can say no to some good old fish and chips in Vietnam??