Ron Emmons encounters the unique ethnic communities of the Central Highlands in Vietnam
While the ethnic minority groups of North Vietnam like the Flower Hmong and the Red Dao are renowned for their flamboyant outfits, those that live in the Central Highlands, such as the Bahnar and the Giarai (also spelled Jarai), tend to wear workaday clothes, so they attract little attention from tourists. In fact, the Central Highlands, bordering Laos and Cambodia, is the least visited area of Vietnam, which is good news for adventurous travellers eager to get off the beaten track. What the ethnic groups in this region lack in terms of eye-catching dress, they more than make up for with their stunning architecture. Both the Bahnar and Giarai build rong—towering communal houses that sit at the heart of every village, and the Giarai also build elaborate tombs for their departed relatives in a touching expression of ancestor worship.
Despite rapid economic development and a hunger for wealth in the rest of the country, these groups have clung fiercely to their traditional lifestyle, which is rich in animist rituals, and their villages have a very organic feel to them. The moment you step into a Bahnar village, your eyes are attracted to the rong, which takes centre stage and can reach up to 30 metres in height, though most are around 15-20 metres. These huge structures are built on low stilts, and are generally accessed by two angled logs with steps cut into them—one for men and another for women.The interior consists of a large bamboo platform, which is big enough to accommodate all the village. The thatched roofs are pitched at a seemingly impossible angle, and it’s evident that those who build them must have a good head for heights. The blade-shaped roof is usually decorated with a distinctive pattern that is different for each village.
The rong is the focus of village life, and is used for ceremonies, meetings and for solving judicial disputes. If you’re lucky, you might catch the locals playing gongs and singing at one of their many festivals, for which they tend to wear their tribal dress. The most important of these ceremonies is a buffalo sacrifice, which may be a bit gruesome to Western eyes, but fulfils an important role in community bonding.
Like the Bahnar, the Giarai sacrifice buffalo on important occasions, one of which is to say farewell to their departed relatives. Most Giarai villages have a graveyard located to the west, which is divided into fenced-off family plots,and several family members may be buried in the same tomb. Prized possessions such as a TV or bicycle may be laid to rest with them in the tomb area under a corrugated tin roof, and simple wooden carvings of people in a variety of moods—mourning, laughing or sexually aroused, are placed on posts around the grave. Relatives visit the grave daily for up to seven years before another ceremony is held to ‘abandon the grave’, after which the plot is left for nature to reclaim.