Among the Montagnards and elephants of Vietnam’s Central Highlands

The ancient man in the long house high in the mountains above Dalat claimed he was 102 years old. He greeted me with both hands cupped and invited me into his house, shooing away chickens and stepping over indolent dogs. We then settled down to  drink the strong, sour rice wine, sucking through bamboo straws from an old gourd.

His home stood about 10 feet off the ground and was some 70 feet long, made of solid timber. The inside was dark with the only light shining through open shutters. The walls hung with an assortment of gourds, crossbows, flintlock guns and pictures of garish Vietnamese and Japanese landscapes ripped out of magazines.

Outside bare breasted women pounded rice or played with toddlers who stared wide eyed as I ambled into the village. The men toiled bent-backed in the fields nearby, while others hunted game illegally in the forest. It was a silent, peaceful scene. I felt relaxed here after hours of travelling  across the broken highland roads up from Nha Trang on the coast. First by a minibus so packed that passengers had to hang out of the doors, gripping on the side rails, and later by Minsk motorbike.

The Lat tribe

My host had seen a lot in his time and, amazingly, was be able to recount much of it with a few prompts from the translator, who was also sucking on the same wine in the same huge gourd, selected for special occasions.

The old man’s tribe, the Lat, originally lived in the highlands above the thick rain forest, now called Cat Tien National Park. “We seldom saw any foreigners when I was very young,” he said. “I was always kept indoors because of the tigers that roamed the forest. They were always attacking the men when they hunted in the forest.” The “tiger problem” didn’t change even after the French built the colonial hill station of Dalat, directly on top of the old man’s village. French shop keepers regularly found tigers going through their bins at night time or strolling down the newly laid high street in the centre of town.

The old man continued: “Yes we helped them build Dalat. Even I was told to help carry stones so they could build their houses and shops. Then as soon as they built their town, they threw us off our land to where we are now.”

Interestingly, the old Lat man was very matter of fact about this and seemed to bear no malice. Ironically,the French times were regarded as halcyon days before the coming of the “problems”. The next few decades were not so kind on the old man. He recounted how the different warring armies caused chaos as they bombed, fought, sprayed and destroyed the nearby forest and with it much of the tribe’s habitat and way of life. Each side using villages such as his for shelter and recruitment for various armies.

Open graves and leathery bodies

Outside his house in the blisteringly hot, silent afternoon were totem poles with icons atop that illustrated the Lat’s recent history and decades of misfortune. Open graves with dead leathery bodies (“our ancestors liked to be eaten by the forest animals”) still lay in shallow pits with wooden French Gendarmes standing on guard over the corpses. Elsewhere, wooden models of jet aircraft had been hoisted on top of high posts; airborne sentinels helping to protect the tribe from the sky. I asked him about them and he said; “They (the Americans) told us they had come to help us. They stayed in our villages and brought their religion and the young men went with them to fight the Vietnamese. We never saw them again. “

The Lat, Ja Rai and other tribes in the Central Highlands of Vietnam had been off limits to foreigners for decades. The Vietnamese and later Communists had always been suspicious of these Indochina aboriginals even long before colonial times. As lowland rice farmers the Vietnamese had seldom been in the mountains till recently and, contrary to popular myth, hated jungles.

When the American missionaries arrived in the 1950s, many of these people converted to Protestantism, which made the Vietnamese even more suspicious. Along with Buddhism, Vietnam has a sizeable Catholic population, in the north and south. Indeed, it is the second biggest  in Asia after the Philippines.

Fauna and Flora International

I was in the highlands accompanying a team from Fauna and Flora International (FFI) fronted by Mark Shand (the brother in law of Prince Charles who died in a freak accident recently). The idea was to help raise awareness of Vietnam’s endangered animals.

After Dalat I Iinked up with the FFI team at  Buon Ma Thout, a poor, dilapidated, hopelessly dismal town surrounded by loose scrub and covered in litter and dead earth. This was where all the political undesirables were resettled after the war. Within a few years they’d hacked down the forest and used crude farming methods that destroyed the earth causing soil erosion for miles around. They then killed and ate or sold the animals they caught in the dwindling forest.

Outside Buon Ma Thout lorries and trailers transporting huge timber trunks ambled slowly along the roads in convoys accompanied by police motorbike outriders. In the four years I travelled around these parts, these convoys of huge, illegally logged trees were the one constant sight on the main roads. The police stopped anyone taking pictures of them. A Vietnamese friend told me they were being taken to the coastal smugglers town of Vinh and then shipped to various ports in China, the Philippines and Thailand.  As I rode past these endless lines of huge felled trees on their way to markets in the West, I could see the forest disappearing before my eyes.

But it wasn’t the forests I’d come to find. In the vanishing jungle  several miles out of Buon Ma Thout the last herds of wild elephants still roamed the forests in Yok Don.

Historically, elephants lived in the central highlands and the borderlands with Laos and Cambodia, away from any settlements. Ironically, it was the peace that did for them in the 1970s as villages were hacked out of the jungle by settlers. The traditional elephant runs – where the animals had walked for millennia – now housed people eager to make money to survive in the harsh, unfamiliar landscape. The elephant’s tusks were a prize that often meant every villager would join in to track elephant herds before slaughtering them for their ivory. In the early 1970s there were still about 3,000 wild elephants in the area. By the late 1990s this had dropped to a few hundred. Between 1975 and 2005 the elephant population in the Central Highlands had dropped by some 80-90%.

Shand told me he’d become an elephant groupie since riding one across India as a mahout and he was doing everything he could to save the animals from extinction.

Walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail

To find some of these shy beasts we walked for days – Shand in his Indian Longhi – along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the guide proudly pointed out to us. Although much of the scrub had started to cover the roads and tracks, you could see the sheer scale of the achievement as  the North Vietnamese had hacked out a highway in the jungle amid bombs and fire fights with US special forces.

At the enclosure – in the middle of the Yok Don forest – I was taken to see the latest animal brought in after poachers had been at work. It was a small bear that had no paws on any of its legs. All had been hacked off and the paws were now suppurating wounds covered with rags. “Local Vietnamese cut off the paws to sell for bear paw wine, which is fermented in rice,” said the Vietnamese manager of the compound. “The men drink this when they eat dog on special occasions.” Even workers guarding the animals are known to do a spot of poaching. Earning only $30 a month, for them a pangolin, bears paws, a tiger’s penis or ivory can  feed a family for months .

We put up tents for the night and ate a tasteless dish of chicken on a bed of rice and drank rice wine while listening to the jungle as it started to come alive in the dusk. Local Ja Rai tribesmen played odd looking lute-like instruments amid the evening’s celebrations. Theirs was a long, jarring piece of music telling a story about the tribe’s history for the past few thousand years. “The Vietnamese compound manager smiled: “They can only sing because none of them can write and they have no written culture.”

I had asked the old Lat man about this and he’d said animatedly: “That’s rubbish! Most of the younger people read and write. They treat us like children. Everyone treats us like children.  I can’t read though, “ he smiled.

Vietnam’s tribal peoples

The tribal people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands (known collectively by their French name Montagnards) are the aboriginal cultures of Indochina.

Mainly Khmer, Lao and Malay speaking, these tribes straddle the Annamite Cordillera, the mountain spine of Vietnam, a traditionally inhospitable jungle that the lowland Vietnamese, Cham and Khmer (Cambodians) tended to avoid.

For centuries, until the French arrived in the mid-19th Century, these oral, animist cultures lived relatively sheltered lives, away from the mainstream of events that tend to dog southeast Asia. The Khmer empire of Angkor never penetrated their jungle villages, while the Vietnamese were largely unknown by most of them as late as the 1950s.

Only the lowland Cham, a former race of empire builders defeated by the Vietnamese, were in constant contact with these highland people, largely as traders.

Prior to French involvement, most of these tribes were in a state of constant war with each other, collecting slaves and often using them as human sacrifices for funeral ceremonies. They lived as hunter-gatherers and also as basic farmers. They worshipped the earth, wind and sky (among other things) and lived in mainly matriarchal societies in long-houses covering 100 yards, which housed the whole village.

They were (and still are) collectively called the Meo, which means savage in Vietnamese.

As the French penetrated the jungles and set up trading posts, rubber plantations and small stockades further in the highlands, they began what they termed their mission civilastrace among the tribes. While many tribes remained hidden in impenetrable bushland, many were  educated by the French.

For instance, the French banned the internecine warfare and today a carved French legionnaire soldier often stands guard over the grave sites (instead of a sacrificed combatant). While studying these people, the French also press ganged many of the young men into working as indentured slave labour in the newly created rubber plantations. Over time this seriously destabilised the different tribal ways of life, creating labour shortages and forcing many of the villages to move to urban areas in the newly built towns of the highlands. Also at this time the area was designated a rich ground for hunters by the French.

Even in the 1950s, brochures still boasted that areas around Ban Me Thuot (southern Central Highlands) had the richest hunting in the world including tigers, leopards, rhino, elephants, kouprey and bear. Almost all of these animals are now extinct in Indochina or can be counted on two hands.

Also during this time, French and American missionaries were active in spreading the word among the Montagnards. Even today you can still see pockets of Catholic and Protestant villages in the highlands.

The French Indochina War of 1946-54 had, understandably, a huge impact on the lives of the highlanders. For the first time outside events started to directly involve them. Viet Minh (the precursors of the Viet Cong) fighters infiltrated the region, recruiting Montagnard tribesmen, often at gunpoint. The French, of course, did likewise. Many of the smaller colonial stockades throughout the highlands were manned by small groups of Montagnard soldiers who often had no idea what they were fighting for – they also often surrendered without a fight to the Viet Minh.

The Indochina War may have been bad for the Montagnards, but it was not catastrophic. The next forty years were to be far worse.

After the French withdrew from the colony and Vietnam was split into two, most Montagnards found themselves in the southern republic. At this time the arch Catholic pro-American President Diem (later assassinated on Kennedy’s orders) decreed that the Montagnards of the Central Highlands were to be Vietnamised – so breaking the back of any future rebellion by the surly natives.

By the early 1960s the Vietnamese had migrated in huge numbers into the highlands taking over former colonial outposts and creating rapacious trading towns, which would shortly cater to American soldiers posted into the mountains.

Meanwhile, the highlanders either moved further into the jungles of neighbouring Laos and Cambodia or were assimilated by one warring side or other. The North Vietnamese infiltrated into Montagnard territory to the north, while the Americans and South Vietnamese created FULRO, a pro-south fighting outfit which helped American forces and CIA units. The Montagnards were at last brought into a dirty war.

Meanwhile, the Americans, dropped enormous amounts of TNT and defoliants throughout the highlands. They resettled many of the tribes living on the lower lands into safe hamlets. By 1975 much of the old landscape had been decimated, never to recover.

Also, when the war ended, the Montagnards were invariably left to face the communists by themselves – the Americans only taking a priveleged few with them. Even many of the pro north highlanders were treated with contempt. Many were put into re-education camps. Many of the different communities were resettled again. From 1975 much of the old ways disappeared, especially in the south Central Highands around Dalat.

Another post war catastrophe was the resettlment of politically undesirables by Hanoi from the lowlands to the highlands. These former southern army families were left with no money and so killed what was left of the wildlife and cut down many of the remaining forests. To add to this, recently, northern coffee planters have been encouraged to settle in the highlands, to balance out the political environment. Again most of the remaining forests have now been claimed as coffee plantations.

But, surprisingly, Montagnard communities have managed to survive. The Lat, Banar and Ja Rai, around Kontum, for example, still live in exactly the same style long-houses, worship the same gods and are left relatively alone. Most are now farmers as most of the forest is gone. They still live in matriarchal societies, practise the same habits of getting drunk when they meet outside guests and bury their dead communally. Interestingly, these days, along with the traditional legionnaire soldier guarding the graves, they also decorate them with bamboo helicopters and planes with USA written on the side. Their totem poles also show bizarre pornographic rituals of bestiality, incest and orgies. So nothing much has changed there.

For the fortunate few who escaped Vietnam in 1975, many settled in America or France. Today there are sizable pockets in several areas, although the Montagnards of Vietnam  should not be confused with other ethnic refugees of Indochina, namely the Hmong of Laos and the Khmer from Cambodia.