We took a flight from HCMC to Pleiku which took a little over an hour and then hopped into a taxi for another hour or so to the small, more relaxed town of Kon Tum pronounced “Con Tume”. When we sat down the next morning for breakfast, we saw an ad under the glass of the table stating “If you are a native English speaker, we could use your help teaching our English class, and in return, we will show you the sights in Kon Tum and the surrounding villages”. We immediately called Mr. Hien, the English teacher, who met us 10 minutes later at the hotel. For the next week, we assisted many teachers of all ages with their English lessons for a few hours a day. We were officially “kidnapped” for the week and we enjoyed every minute of it!
They took us around Kon Tum and through some of the surrounding hill-tribe villages belonging to the Banah people. The hill tribes are known collectively as Montagnard, meaning “of the mountain” or “mountain dweller”, and individually by their ethnic group. They also tend to be very independent and uninvolved with national politics.
The villagers lived very simply and were very poor. We visited several beautiful Catholic churches in these villages. We learned from visiting the museum that the Catholic church had been very helpful to the hill-tribes and nearly all of them were Catholic. The “rong houses” or the community house of the villages were particularly interesting due to the construction of a tall thatched roof and a very intriguing building design. Many years ago, the rong houses and their dwellings had been built up on stilts in order to protect them from predators (e.g., tigers), to provide shelter for their livestock, and to prevent flooding during the rainy season. The rong house is where people have meetings about important issues, have their celebrations, and carry out their traditions. Very few of these villagers come into town. They rely on working the land and keeping animals for survival.
We were then treated by a fabulous lunch made especially for us by Mr. Hien’s wife, Duc. The next morning, Denise spent a few hours touring the city with teachers. We had tradional tea at one of the many relaxing “coffee houses” in town. Pete had a fever on this day. Luckily, his fever only lasted a day and a half! Mr. Hien delivered a thermometer to our hotel along with rice soup made by is sweet wife. It is great to have friends in town when you need them. After a day Pete made a full recovery.
On our last day of teaching, we spent the evening singing Karaoke with the 8th and 9th graders from Ms. Chung’s class. Words cannot describe how wonderful they were to us! They wanted to know all about our lives and travels. They sang some songs in English and Vietnamese. They gave us a delicious chicken noodle dinner and there were many sweets as well!
On December 16th through the 18th, we took a trip to the central highlands with Mr. Anh of the Eva Cafe. Mr. Anh described the people that live there as “the people that eat the mountain”. We would learn later what this meant. We arrived at the home of Mr. Bosch of the Banah Jolong (mountain Banah) ethnic group near Kon Konoh mountain in Eastern Kon Ray district, which is 40 km east of Kon Tum and 7 km east of Kon Ray.
There were three families that live together in bamboo constructed dwellings built totally by hand. The dwellings appeared to be only about 15 ft by 15 ft in size. There was one older couple age 70 and 80. The man age 70 continues to hunt on the mountain walking straight uphill for up to 10 kilometers on a daily basis. His wife had bad cataracts but continues to get around quite well. She rarely used shoes outside.
We were very surprised to see how simple these families lived. There was no running water except for a hose in the middle of the yard connected only by gravity and a few bamboo pipes to a water source which served all of the people’s water needs including bathing. There was no toilet and only one light bulb in one of the houses powered by a small water turbine generator. The pigs and chickens lived under the house and awakened us frequently during the night, especially one loud rooster at 4 am.
We shared living space with the family in a single room that included a small open hearth fire. Above the fire, there was a small bamboo platform that was used to dry and smoke small animals such as squirrels and rats. We used our mosquito net tent inside the house which was very intriguing to our host. He said he wished that he could build his house this quickly. The family loved to drink rice wine which they offered to us frequently. We had to politely refuse by saying “Please help us by taking this wine” and handing it to another person. Otherwise, we would have gotten quite intoxicated.
The next day, we took a jungle trek with Mr. Bosch which went straight up the mountain and was very challenging. We ate vegetables that we had seen gathered in the jungle (boiled banana stalk and boiled fern) for lunch, otherwise known as “eating the mountain”. While gathering the banana stalk, Mr. Bosch cut his finger very deeply with a large knife. He took this injury in stride while it bled profusely. Luckily, Denise had a bandage and we wrapped the finger to stop the bleeding. Mr. Bosch had to wait for us frequently due to our having to side step down steep terrain. He was very muscular yet small and thin. We made it back to the village without any further injuries.
Not many Vietnamese people know much about the tribes because they tend to stay to themselves. They are hunter-gatherers and subsist mostly on wild vegetables and small animals that they catch in numerous traps set up in the forest. They have very few belongings and move every 5 to 10 years in order to find richer areas and to allow the area that they had lived in to regenerate. According to our hosts, a typical house takes about 2 weeks to build using the labor of about 4 people.
While we gathered around the fire at night, the people told us of stories of the past as interpreted by Mr. Anh. One of the stories consisted of a man accidentally killing one of the last tigers in the area. He had set a trap for a mountain goat but caught a tiger instead. This occurred back in the 1970’s.
We brought gifts of used clothing to the people and wished we would have brought more. Mr. Anh helped us pick out the clothing that we purchased from second hand shops prior to our arrival. Mr. Anh also brought some supplies for them such as vitamins and some additional vegetables. They were very appreciative. It was obvious that Mr. Anh loved these folks and they loved him as well. He had met them years ago when he was a child and learned their special language. The men talked for many hours at night around the fire smoking cigarettes and drinking rice wine.
We concluded after this trip that meeting the mountain folks changed us forever. They renewed our faith in the power of love and the will to survive to sustain the body and mind. We have so many distractions in our life and they have none except to care for each other and live off of the mountain. This was like no other home stay in Vietnam. We truly felt connected to these people by the time we left.