Kontum, tomb houses and tribal villages is the seventh post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.

So last night, leaving nothing to chance, I drag a chair across the room and unscrew every light bulb that I can’t personally trace directly back to a plug in the wall, and sleep blissfully for 6 hours. In the morning, I go down for breakfast and no one from the group has arrived yet because it’s early. I order coffee (which is served with condensed milk) and look out the window.

All of sudden, I start to cry. Like out of nowhere, tears start streaming down my cheeks. I realize I am crying because I miss Talia so much and I wish she were here to experience this with me. And also because it’s impossible to be here and listen to the stories and meet the people and not be profoundly moved by the experience. I still cannot get over that simple act of kindness and generosity from the day before. How can these people be so welcoming and giving to us? At some point, I have to leave the table and go upstairs to get my act together and am glad I don’t run into anyone in the lobby.

So when we all gather in the lobby to get going, I chuckle at the sight of our British companions. Diane is dressed like the proper English woman that she is – in a skirt, floppy hat and very sensible shoes. Tasha has on a mini skirt, chandelier earrings and a bright red leather belt. You would hardly believe we are on the same trip. Sam and I are dressed like the slobs that we are…

Today we get two different official government guides because we are visiting two separate provinces. I guess they don’t trust each other. Vietnam has a total of 54 different tribes, all with different cultures and the central highlands, where we are now, has 8 distinct tribes. Today we are visiting three of them.

So our first guide arrives – she is a lovely woman whose name I could not dream of ever repeating. Off we go into the hills to meet members of the Garai tribe. It poured last night and the air is remarkably fresh, and dare I say, cool and breezy. I doubt that it will last long. Before we leave town, we see a long line of soldiers with muzzled dogs walking along the road. We are told that they are going into the hills, to use the dogs to search for American and Vietnamese bodies left during the war. My stomach tightens at this. Long says that every year, a number of bodies are discovered and sent back to the States or reunited with Vietnamese families. Who would believe it.

Along the way, the guide is telling us all sorts of interesting stories about the region. I want to take notes so I will remember everything but I am nervous that she will think I am a spy or something, so I don’t. The people of Vietnam are very locally based and the vast majority never leaves their own small village or town for their entire lives. They marry and stay close to home, and in the Garai tribe, its required of the youngest daughter to stay in her parent’s house to care for them until they die. 

The road up to the small village is bumpy and the vegetation is lush. There are coffee trees, tapioca bushes and long stretches of rice paddies on either side of the road. We stop along the way to buy candy for the children, and have brought with us the toothbrushes and shampoo that we took from the hotel to give to the tribesmen. We arrive at our destination, and I can only tell you that it’s like going back in time – only to a time you could never fathom on your own. The road is plain reddish dirt, and the coffee trees stretch for miles, framing the road.

Little kids who are filthy and wearing tattered clothes come running out to stare at us – to tell you that they are poor is pathetically over simplifying the degree of poverty. They are very quiet and look at us with big sad eyes, and hardly smile when we hand them some candy. The government official is telling us the story of these people and my brain can’t hardly wrap around what she is saying. This small tribe is matriarchal, but the village elders who pass on the oral knowledge from generation to generation are men. When the boys reach the age of 14, they move out of their house and into the community building – which is a tall wooden structure with a towering thatched roof.

There are about 250 people who live in this village, and all of the houses built on stilts. This custom started centuries ago to keep the animals from coming into the house at night. Among the things we learn is that in the not too distant past, women who gave birth were not allowed to bathe for a month, and the infants were kept inside for 3 months. That has now long since changed, but the infant mortality rate, at 50%, is staggering. When a baby is born, the family makes a jar from clay to celebrate the new life, and this jar is kept in the family for the child’s entire life. The baby’s umbilical chord is cut and thrown into a different jar, which holds the umbilical chords of generations of the family.

This tribe practices animism, which means they believe everything around them has a spirit and therefore, there is no one God. Not a Bapstick in sight. There are chickens and pigs and water buffalo roaming around everywhere. The water buffalo is a very important animal for this tribe. A hundred years ago, it was the only currency available, but now, with coffee and fruit trees in abundance, money is easier to come by. But the buffalo is still a very important symbol of wealth, and when someone gets married or dies, one is slaughtered as part of a ritual celebration.

We walk around and it’s an unbelievable sight. We go to one house of Vietnam hill tribal village, which is really a one room shacks with a straw roof, and the kitchen is outside under a separate roof. Of course, I use the work ‘kitchen’ rather euphemistically. It’s really a fire with a pot strung over it. There are dried hooves of water buffalo on the roof, I think as a symbol of welcome. The main houses for living is virtually unadorned except for a small satellite dish, which is so out of place that it seems ludicrous. Our communist guide tells us that the government has provided these satellites and a TV to keep the villagers informed. Long leans over and whispers “and for propaganda”.

We walk into the house uninvited but again, no one seems to think this is unusual. Inside it is very dark and there are no windows. There is one bed, no chairs, the TV and a small smoking fire at the far end. The fire is for roasting corn and rice. On the wall there is a very old and crumbling calendar and a framed certificate. The certificate was awarded to the man who lives in the house because he survived two years of torture by the South Vietnamese and the Americans. I feel sick to my stomach when I hear this.

We walk outside and Long and the man are having a normal conversation about his torture and how he was captured. The soldiers thought he was a spy and grabbed him on his way back from the river one day. You look around and all you see is dirt and trees and a few hovels where people live with virtually nothing, and the notion that this man could have been a spy is ridiculous.

We walk down to the cemetery, which is unbelievable. The Garai custom is to bury the person with the jar that was made at birth, and underneath these low wooden huts with thatched roofs are 40 or 50 jars. The huts are built under the trees so the person’s spirit can live in the trees until it is released to heaven.

A tomb house at that Jarai village

When someone dies in this tribe, they are mourned for up to 7 years. The length of time for mourning is based on the family’s wealth. When mourning is done, there is an Abandonment Ceremony, which can last up to two weeks. A water buffalo is slaughtered and cooked for the celebration, and there is a lot of wild partying with rice wine. During this time period, it is customary for villagers to have sex with whomever they want – regardless of whether or not they are married. This actually is an act of self-preservation. Because the infant mortality rate is so high, the thinking is that an unexpected new life that comes from this celebration will help preserve the tribe. It is hard to imagine all of this.

We leave the Garai tribe, drop off our guest and head for lunch. It is highway robbery at $4 a person. Shameless. We pick up another local guide and go to see the Banha tribe – which has a completely different set of customs.

Before we get to their village, we stop at the local Catholic Church. The Catholics obviously did a very good job at proselytizing, because their churches are everywhere. This Church visit doesn’t really interest me, but I listen up when the guide starts to tell us the story of how his entire family hid underneath the church in the dirt when the war came to town. Sigh. Does it ever end???

Behind the church is an orphanage, where children from all over this region have been sent because their parents died, the family was too poor to feed them, or worse. It is the custom of the Banha to bury alive any infants born as twins because they think these babies are monsters. This is hard to comprehend. What has begun to happen though, is that once the mother buries her babies and walks away, other tribe’s people secretly dig up the babies and take them to the orphanage to be saved. We found out that the last child to be rescued came to the orphanage 4 months ago. Her mother died in childbirth and her father had no way to take care of her, so he buried her with the mother. A hunter passing by heard the baby crying, dug her up, and took her to the orphanage. I know it sounds unimaginable, but this is the custom that has been passed down for generations and you can’t pass judgment.

We walk around the orphanage and the little kids all reach for us and want to be hugged. There are probably about 100 children of all ages in the orphanage, and while well cared for, I am sure the younger ones are starved for attention. Long suggests we make a donation and of course, like the good tourists that we are, we can’t open our wallets soon enough.

From there, we go to see the village of another tribe and it’s more of the same. This time, the old village huts are sitting right next to more modern concrete houses and the juxtaposition of old and new is jarring.  But the overall poverty still hits you in the face. There is a river at the edge of the village and we see people and water buffalo crossing over. The villagers are naked and holding their clothes over their heads so it will stay dry.

By this time, it’s almost dusk and the light from the setting sun is absolutely breathtaking. We can see farmers wearing triangle hats working the rice paddies against the backdrop of the green hills and the blue river. This scene is so authentic that it almost looks surreal.

And so ends another remarkable day.

by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

For the next ones among this Vietnam travel experience, you can jump to the following days.

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