Our first stop, the sleepy town of Kontum, had little to offer, besides a beautiful wooden church, and the best chicken rice I’ve ever had in the whole country at the very reasonable price of VND50,000 ($2.5). The steamed chicken was firm, flavorful, and juicy, hard to find these days even in restaurants that serve the so-called free-range “walking/running chicken.”

wooden church, Kontum, Vietnam, Central Highlands, nhà thờ gỗ

After the mandatory walk around town, we rented a scooter and hit the road.
Kontum, Vietnam, Central Highlands

I was expecting ethnic minorities hanging out on the porch of stilt houses, and ahem, if lucky, maybe I could catch some local ethnic celebration with joyful dancing, singing, and gong playing. The more I saw, the more ridiculous I felt about myself. I felt like one of those people who go to Hawaii expecting girls wearing grass skirts hula-ing on the beach. The few stilt houses that we saw were all falling apart and looked like they belong to the poorest in the community, who haven’t saved enough money to transition into concrete boxes so common everywhere else in Vietnam. I was even more disheartened seeing rong houses (communal house) with metal roof. The construction was so sloppy; it didn’t reflect any communal pride in this alleged symbol of their culture.

rong house, communal house, Kontum, Central Highlands, ethnic minorities, Vietnam

rubber plantations, Kontum, Central Highlands, VietnamWhat lived up to my expectation was kms of rubber. We’ve entered the plantation land.

Things picked up when we got to Pleiku. I met up with 3 friends from my day in Hale Manoa, Hawai’i, including Hril – a local half Jarai, half Bahnar. Hril took us to visit the village he grew up in, which boasts a beautiful rong house, and a traditional graveyard.

rong house, communal house, Kontum, Central Highlands, ethnic minorities, Vietnam

I learned that many communities receive government aid for their rong houses. Before the government would build these houses itself but the community refused to use them, or even to get inside, because it didn’t follow their protocol. These days, the government gives money, and the people build. Sounds good to me.

Traditionally, for the Jarai, the bigger and taller the the rong house, the wealthier and more powerful the community. It was a symbol of status, and also a deterrence against attack. Bandits roaming around knew to keep themselves away when they spotted a tall imposing roof from the distance.

I was happy to see a true rong house, but the highlight of my visit was the graveyard, which unfortunately is not very common anymore, and has fallen prey to looting.

When a Jarai dies, the person is buried with their most treasured belongings. The family also carves wooden figures to guard the site. The village would attend to the grave for the first few years, but then the dead are left to living in peace in this new abode. In recent years, the demand for the beautiful guardian statues and other accessories has surged. Since these grave houses have little protection, thieving has been rampant. As usual in cultural trafficking, these objects end up as ornaments or talismans in rich people houses in the city. Many villages have resorted to breaking and damaging the adornments to steer tomb raiders away.

traditional graveyard, central highlands, Kontum, Vietnam, statues

traditional graveyard, central highlands, Kontum, Vietnam, statues

traditional graveyard, central highlands, Kontum, Vietnam, pottery

traditional graveyard, central highlands, Kontum, Vietnam, statues

to be continued…

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