Families of the forest

Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 -- Many of the tribespeople have moved into nearby towns, like Kon Tum or Pleiku. Some still live far outside the confines of
development, but live a more sedentary life than their ancestors. However, there are those who live the same way their people have for thousands of years. The Bahnar Jo Long are still
animists who worship the forest



The sun went down and soon all that could be seen in the small, solitary hut deep in the jungle of Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands were faces glowing orange from the flickering of a small cooking fire set in the bamboo floor. The fire suddenly grew bigger and the hut was momentarily illuminated enough to see a woman preparing a lizard to cook over the open flame and a man swilling from a bamboo straw dipped in a clay jar full of wine. As the jar was passed around the fire, everybody apparently began to feel the effects of the sweet, low-alcohol drink, and the men began to sing a traditional Bahnar Jo Long song.
‘“Today we sit, because tomorrow we can’t,” this is what they are singing. They are very simple people,’ said Mr Nguyen Ngoc An, whom I had hired as a guide and translator. Mr An is an artist who owns a café in Kon Tum, speaks the Bahnar language and is sympathetic to the Bahnar Jo Long way of life.
The Bahnar Jo Long, one of over 40 tribes who make up what the French called the Montagnards, live off what they can find and grow in the forest and on the slopes of mountains. This way of life is rare, even in the remote jungles of Vietnam. Though they share the same lineage as the Bahnar living in Kon Tum, the Bahnar Jo Long speak a different language.
There are only about 300,000 Montagnards left in the Central Highlands, according to the US-based Montagnard Foundation, which aims to preserve the culture of the Montagnards. Many of the tribespeople have moved into nearby towns, like Kon Tum or Pleiku. Some still live far outside the confines of development, but live a more sedentary life than their ancestors. However, there are those who live the same way their people have for thousands of years.
The Bahnar Jo Long, also called the Bahnar ‘on the mountain’ by other tribes living in the area, is one of these groups. They live in the mountains of the Central Highlands, about 70 kilometres northeast of Kon Tum in Kon Ray District. Kon Tum Province saw heavy fighting during the war with America and the mountains and hills still bear the scars of bombs and napalm.
Life in a town or along the road is still difficult for the Montagnards, who are viewed by many Vietnamese as a backward people, said Mr An, whom I relied on for much of my background information.
On our way to the Bahnar village at the base of the mountain range where the Bahnar Jo Long live, Mr An and I pushed, rather than rode, due to a flat tire, his motorbike along the winding road through the mountains. As we walked I could see Bahnar villages along the road where they had planted cassava fields up steep hills. Women climbed the slopes to dig up the roots of the cassava plant, which they mainly sell to Chinese companies that use it for industrial purposes. Though this is still not an easy life, at least it offers access to medicine, schools and readily available food. These things, however, do not concern the Bahnar Jo Long. They know how to live off the forest and to move off the mountain would only put them in a helpless situation.
Mr An had agreed to take me into the mountains of the Bahnar Jo Long in December last year. He had advised me it would be a good idea to make my being there known to the local police before we went into the mountains. I had agreed, filled out some forms and given them to a young woman who delivered them to the police station where paper exchanged hands. I never dealt with the police directly and despite the large police and military presence I had seen in the area, we were never stopped or questioned during the trip.
Before we could trek through the jungle into the mountains, we had to meet with the chief of the tribe. Mr Deng, 60, like most Montagnards, is short, no more than 150 cm, and his dark, leathery skin covers the taut muscles of a much younger man. As he led us through the jungle to the first group of Bahnar we would stay with, he constantly scanned the jungle floor for bamboo shoots to eat later that night.
Like the rest of the Central Highlands, this area is much cooler than the low-lying tropical areas of Vietnam. Despite the cool weather, the sun was still harsh as we walked on a small trail through thick bamboo forest.



We walked along a ridge that overlooked where we had come from. From here it gave a clear view of how the Bahnar Jo Long live.
Scattered through the hills were small huts, at most three or four in one spot. Around the huts were brown patches of dry rice fields. These Bahnar do not usually grow rice in the paddies that are typical of lowland Vietnam. This rice is grown more like corn, except they plant it on steep hills. The Bahnar collect the rice by hand, working all day on the slopes of the mountain under the brutal sun.
The Banhar Jo Long plant other vegetables, like beans and corn, but they rely mainly on what they find in the jungle. They set traps for small game like weasels and rats and search the forest for insects and lizards. If they are lucky, they may find a deer to shoot with a homemade crossbow, but that is rare.
From the ridge, it became apparent how the Bahnar Jo Long have survived in the same mountains for generations. Next to one field of rice, there was an area of jungle that looked newer than the tall, thick jungle in other areas. I was told it was a field that had been abandoned about a year ago. They have always practised a form of shifting cultivation, clearing one area of forest to grow rice and corn for a couple of years, then abandoning it to let the jungle take it back and moving to a new area.
The first area we stayed at consisted of three bamboo huts with a family living in each. When I entered the hut where I would stay for the night, the father of the house was weaving an intricate basket. Four children, two half naked, sat around the cooking fire placed in the bamboo floor. They were shy at first, but when Mr An gave them some candy they warmed to us. The older ones soon started to run around and compete for my attention and the attention of my camera. A couple of times I had to resist the urge to stop the children from throwing the candy wrappers into the cooking fire and inhaling the toxic fumes that would fill the hut. Mr An explained that they ‘feed’ the fire with trash so it doesn’t get hungry and ‘eat’ their house.
Later that night three families converged on my hosts’ hut and we sat around the fire and drank wine. Like the Vietnamese, the Bahnar are quick drinkers and we were all drunk in no time. While we drank, they started to pass around some meat that I had seen cooking over the fire since I had arrived. I had been told that it was wild boar, but after eating a large portion, Mr An corrected himself and said it was a weasel that had been caught in a trap. The meat became more stringy and tough to chew when I was handed the next piece.
After waking soon after sunrise and struggling against the effects of the massive amount of wine we drank the night before, I noticed the son of the man we were staying with running towards the house. He was dressed in a spotless white shirt and black pants. A much different appearance than the previous night when he wore his usual dirty, torn secondhand clothes with no shoes.




Mr An said the boy had walked the four hours down the mountain to the roadside village to go to school, but had arrived late and been too shy to go in. Like most Bahnar Jo Long, the boy’s parents did not force or pressure their children to attend school. What they learnt in school did not help them on the mountain.
Five of the family’s nine children were still young and lived with their parents. The other four were already married and lived on different parts of the mountain. They had been living in the same house for three years, but would soon move to a different part of the mountain.
Mr To, the father of the family, said their house was larger than most, and it would take them two to three weeks to build another. Other families would help and only expect some wine and meat afterward, and for the family to return the favour.
Though the tribe is widely dispersed across the mountains, they are a very tight group. Most nights, they walk hours before sunset to go to the closest house to drink wine and eat. After drinking for a while, they walk back through the dark jungle to their families.
Vietnam is known for its emphasis on family, but the Bahnar Jo Long would not survive without close family ties. The parents teach the children how to survive off the jungle at an early age, and expect the children to take care of them when they are old.
Mr Deng said about 660 Bahnar Jo Long live in the area. About half, including Mr Deng, who acts as an intermediary with the local government, live along the road and the other half live in the nearby mountains they call Kong Jo Lun.
The next day, a Bahnar guide took us up to the top of the biggest mountain in the area and through the densest part of forest. The jungle was too thick for the sun to reach the ground and the walk up the steep mountain was cool. The 40-year-old Bahnar guide, Mr Tum, knows the forest well and led us through the jungle without a trail to follow.
Mr Tum’s primary job is hunting. Big game like deer, tiger and guar have almost completely vanished from the area, so Mr Tum goes after smaller prey. As we walked up the mountain, we stopped several times as his dog scratched at a log barking and whining at its owner. Each time, Mr Tum went to where the dog was digging and used his hook-ended machete to dig up a 30 cm lizard, something we ate that night.
After about a two-hour hike, we reached an even more dense part of the forest near the top of the mountain. Mr Tum called me over and as I walked towards him, he hacked away a clump of vines and pointed to a large clay pot.
Mr An said the pot was left over from a small village surrounded by rice fields that was abandoned in this spot over 100 years ago. Now there is only thick jungle with massive trees. The Bahnar come here to worship their ancestors and the spirits of the forest. Unlike most of the Bahnar in the area, who have converted to Christianity, the Bahnar Jo Long are still animists who worship the forest. This area is especially sacred to them so they do not cut down any trees or plant fields.
However, many other people in the area do not make this distinction. As we climbed further up the mountain, we started to hear screams coming from the forest. As we had neared the shouting, I saw young men hitting buffalo with bamboo lashes and yelling encouragement as the massive animals struggled to pull huge ancient trees across the hill where the men had felled dozens of them. I also saw they had milled some of the timber, with chainsaws, as I was told.
Immediately I recognized the excessively loud bantering of young Vietnamese men. Bahnar tend to be polite to the point of shyness. They are very quiet, even when drunk. As we stopped I noticed that some of the men had packs of cigarettes and one had a cell phone. The Bahnar Jo Long can’t afford cell phones and smoke hand-rolled tobacco they grow in the jungle. These were not Bahnar, but illegal loggers who were taking trees from the ancient forest the Bahnar worship.
When I asked Mr An why the Bahnar allow the loggers to cut down the trees, he said, ‘They don’t like it, but they can’t do anything.’
Those who reported the logging, as sometimes happened, found their homes burned down or their livestock killed in retaliation. Even the authorities have trouble stopping the logging, since the area is not very accessible and is difficult to regulate. So most of the Bahnar, I’m told, just try their best to ignore the loggers.
Kon Tum does not come close to Sapa as a cultural tourist destination, but that may soon change. With restrictions eased, more and more tourists are coming to the area and tour companies are broadening their tours to outlying areas instead of just the immediate Bahnar villages around Kon Tum. Although the Bahnar Jo Long are still virtually untouched by the modern world it may not always be that way. Like many places in Vietnam and Asia they may become just another sideshow on the tourist circuit.n