Tuesday, March 19, 2013


A traditional 'rong' house towers over a Bahnar neighborhood in Kon Tum

It’s a sunny day here in Kon Tum in Vietnam's highlands, so I decide to take a hike about town. Reaching the edge of town I enter a highland community, and find a neighborhood very different from the Vietnamese. Most homes I see are less affluent than the usual brick houses in Kon Tum. These homes are wooden, and built on stilts. A tall rong house in the center rises high above the humble residences surrounding it. The highlanders have a saying about rong houses. “The higher the roof, the stronger the village.”

Some children in uniforms chatter away as they make their way home from school on the crumbling road I'm taking. A highland woman shuffles along slowly, with a handmade basket backpack hanging over her shoulders. Despite the sunlight, women don’t wearing conical hats for shade like the Vietnamese do. Most of their heads are wrapped in scarves. Curious children peer out at me from stilt house windows. Everyone here is darker skinned, and their facial

Bahnar woman with traditional backpack
features are different then the coastal folk. I can’t help but think that they resemble indigenous people I once saw in Guatemala. These people aren’t ethnic Vietnamese at all.

“Hello!” I hear from a long haired local lady, as I walk by a house doorway. I return the greeting, and I’m surprised to hear that the young woman speaks English fairly well.

I introduce myself, and ask. “What kind of people live here?”

“This Bahnar people”, she answers. Another of the larger ethnic groups, the Bahnar are thought to be the original inhabitants of the highlands.

“My name Luu,” she says, and then she introduces her approaching confidant, “My friend Ba.” I’m not surprised that I’ve met these ladies so easily, Kon Tum has the reputation of being the friendliest town in the highlands. There are many Bahnar in town, and they are not as shy as the Vietnamese.

The pair invite me into the humble home, which belongs to Ba’s family. I learn Ba will be enter university soon. Luu’s house is in a village an hour away, and she’s studying to be a teacher.
With no furniture in the room we sit on the floor, and Ba offers me juice. As I look around, I notice some pictures on the wall. An old black and white photo of a young soldier with a US made helmet stands out.

“He my father,” Ba says. “He with American Army.” I’m not surprised that she said he was with the Americans, rather than with the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). Most Bahnar militia were trained by American Green Berets, and fought with them side by side. Her father passed away a few years ago.

Beautiful old wooden church of the Bahnar Catholic community

Back during the war, their families didn’t live in town, they lived out in villages. Luu described to me how her mother hid from fighting when the North Vietnamese Army arrived. “My mother, when (the North) Vietnamese come, they go down”, and then she pantomimes that they went down into tunnels. “Then they go away, they come (back) out.”

A US Army veteran I know, Phillip, had resupplied Bahnar outposts by helicopter. “They were good fighters,” he had told me. Among the American’s, the Bahnars had a reputation as being more brave than the ARVN. Thousands of Bahnars were killed during that long war of attrition. 

Luu said that many years after the war ended, Bahnar soldiers were offered permanent residency by the US government. Some veterans in her village left, and are now in America. But others lack money for the expensive paperwork, and remain.

Ba says some GI’s married Bahnar women, and took them to the US. She said, “Bahnar very much like American. American very much like Bahnar.”

I wonder how much of that has to do with religion. Although the Bahnar were historically animists, many were converted to Catholicism by the French. Few Montagnards (hill tribe people) are Buddhist, further setting them apart from the Vietnamese. Not far from this neighborhood is a magnificent old wooden Catholic church, where Luu and Ba attend services. With it’s dark wood and gold painted trim, it looks like its straight out of medieval Europe.

Another friendly Bahnar walks in the front door, and he shakes my hand. It’s Ba’s brother. I ask Luu how many siblings she has.

“Have eight brothers and sisters,” she replies.

“Wow!” I exclaim, “that’s a big family.”

Curious Bahnar children watch me as I pass by their home
Then Luu asks me, “You like to go see my village?”

I would love to accept her hospitality and go, except for two problems. For one, I have to hit the road in a couple of hours to continue my journey. But the other reason is that foreigners are not allowed in certain hill tribe villages without official permission, or a government guide. I might get away with it, but I don’t want Luu or her village to get into any trouble after I’m gone.

Instead of driving to her village, we opt for a walk in the nearby countryside. Leaving the Bahnar neighborhood, we're soon walking in farmer's fields. It’s a hot afternoon, and the two ladies cover their heads with coats to protect them from the blazing sun. Motioning to a cornfield Luu says, “This my family field.” They also grow rice, and manioc. Like most Bahnar, they don’t work in the city, most highlanders still work traditional agriculture.

Walking further, we reach the banks of the Dakbla River. They’d like to cross and show me the other side, but there’s no bridge. 

“Want to go swimming?” Dang asks. They mean swim across the river with their clothes on. Since the river is deep and I’m carrying a cell phone and camera, I decline. So we head back to town.

Like most Bahnar women, both Luu and Ba are quite short, and they can’t get over how tall I am. With my long legs, I have to slow down my walking pace for them to keep up. Since highlanders are generally shorter than the already short Vietnamese, I must seem like a giant to them.

“Oo, you very handsome!" Luu says to me, and her and Ba giggle.

Luu asks if I’m married, and when I say I’m single, Luu says, “You marry me!” Then she giggles again, and flashes a lovely smile. This is my first marriage proposal in Vietnam. Of course there are many women in Vietnam who would gladly marry an American as a ticket out of poverty. But I’ve only just met Luu today, she’s just kidding… or is she?

Scenic scene of Bahnar farmland outside Kon Tum, with the Dakbla River beyond.

It’s getting late. It’s time for me to leave Kon Tum, and I find myself lingering. Unlike when I was in Saigon or at the beaches, these two sweet young ladies didn’t try to sell me anything, didn’t ask me for money, in fact they didn’t ask for anything at all. They invited me into their home, gave me some juice, and showed me around their community. These are friendly highland folk, who have showed me some much appreciated hospitality.

As I depart, Luu waves to me and says, “See you again. Miss you!”

I was so touched, I really wish I could see them again.

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