14 - Dispatch from a Long House

Tribal people usually have some ritual or rite unique to them - some things they do to separate themselves from the "others". The Special Forces (Green Berets) of our 1968 Army lived with the tribes here in the highlands - and were a tribe unto themselves. As a young lieutenant, showing up in a tribal village, I was fair game for such rites and was the victim of my desire to fit in - and the Green Beanie-boy's desire to show me how tribal they had become.

These mountain tribes have peppers so hot that tissue damage ensues. Monkey, tiger and dog served charred and shared by hand. Rice whiskey mixed with blood and pulled thru a straw so long you could suck a dent in the top of your skull. Surviving such self-inflicted cruelty was rewarded by a thick brass ring being snapped over your wrist, a tribal token of acceptance.

I awoke one morning in these highlands with such a bracelet and the hangover to have earned it. I had a few more before I left this area - of both. Most Americans had to spent their war "behind the wire" - unable to mix with non-military locals. My youth and the extreme contrast in cultures prevented me from then appreciating the opportunity I was given. Me, from a people who walk on the moon, while my host's people revere that same moon as a goddess. An incomprehensible divide.

The villages and tribes that bet on our side, did not fair well when the North rolled in to rule. Several places I wanted to visit, especially around Pleiku, no longer exist. Others are forbidden to foreigners and others require permits and government minders. Kon Tum is small and out of the spotlight - a better bet.

(click on photos to enlarge)

Our first night, we walk the dusty streets of Kon Tum, find incredibly good food at a simple street stall, and ask around for a guide. I want a tribal man who can translate and knows the ways of the highlands. One name comes up again, and we seek out Nguyen Do Huynh. Though ethnically a Viet, his father was orphaned and raised by tribal people - he lives with them and we take an instant liking to him as we discuss our quest.

I unroll a strip of woven cloth - mostly black with distinctive patterns of red and white trim. I got this in a village outside Pleiku in 1968. It was likely woven by a topless old woman, with black teeth, smoking a long stemmed pipe - who is now long dead. It is a treasured relic of my youth and is in pristine condition.

Huynh (sounds like Who-on) knows at once which people use this pattern and agrees to lead us into an area where such people still live. He speaks their language, his language, my language - and it turns out some French, Mandarin, Russian, and who knows how many others. Arrangements are made. We will leave early, right after breakfast.

We awake in a hotel run by the government. They try, but they are still the government. The breakfast is included but the little street stalls would offer far more inspired cuisine. Some strapping young lads, short hair, walk in - and Jean strikes up a conversation we have rehearsed, "Are you Americans? From Hawaii? Well! MIA search team? How interesting! I know you can't discuss it but … more coffee? Found any interesting crash sites? Some cream? Any of them involve Birddogs?"

There are still many missing-in-action Americans, and more than a few Birddogs were never seen or heard from after departing one of our little airstrips. The US is spending a lot of money sending teams to locate and recover any remains. The Viets from the North lead them around and send us the bills. I think if the bones of my youth were on a hill here, taking them would almost be grave robbing - more of my existence would now be of my hill, than of my mother's arms. More than a 100,000 Vietnamese MIAs are also without gravestones.

We use motor scooters to leave Kon Tum and cross a suspension bridge into tribal lands. We trek and talk as we visit several tribal villages - while Huynh answers our questions, quotes Faulkner, Poe, and Uncle Ho - and generally demonstrates the surprising breadth of his world and mind.

The tribes here have mostly given up their nomadic life, but still slash and burn the jungle to plant the same crops they have for centuries. They fish and hunt and drink rice whiskey - and have pets named Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. But they are doing OK. Not as well as their brothers in the North who benefit from an additional generation of Marxist equality, but not as badly as they would have under the prejudice of the South. National policy from Hanoi seems good, but local administration is suspect.

The Bahnar people still maintain their huge longhouses as the civic center /rec room of each village - and they are quite a sight. I find an old Special Forces scout up building a new longhouse and end up in the rafters, wrapping vines around roof supports, and hearing his story. Stories are everywhere.

Jean is invited into another where a class on basket weaving is taking place. A government sponsored instructor helping the tribe produce a cash product. They don't weave their own cloth much, as clothes are cheap. They don't walk as much, as scooters are cheap too. But now they must do something to get the cash to buy what they once made themselves. Cut extra wood, grow extra crops, catch extra fish - or learn to make tourist baskets. Economics 101.

We travel by dugout canoe for half a day. Our boatmen catch tiny fish and stuff them into a section of big bamboo - some jungle herbs go on top. We stop for lunch, strike a fire and drop the bamboo on the coals until steam pipes out.

A banana leaf for a plate, chopped peppers and some cold rice - lunch is served. We have some toothbrushes pilfered from a hotel to give their kids along for the ride. Big smiles and white, sugar-free teeth.

We pass other kids, just out of school, swimming and fishing in the clear river that snakes past their little village. They play free, safe, naked and happy - while kids in my neighborhood are encapsulated by worried adults, fearful of the society in which we live. Savages? Hmmmm.

When we must, we return to Kon Tum. And over beers we discuss our experiences. Huynh tells of the 1975 panicked evacuation of the highlands as the NVA roared south. ARVN troops tore off their uniforms and fled. Thousands died but he was saved by the sandals shaped tan on his feet, supporting his claim to be just a student. The northern soldier reversed his bayonet and cut-up a ration of rice - a slice each for Huynh, his mother, father and baby niece. They did not eat again for the 4 days it took them to return to Kon Tum. We share many serious thoughts with him into the night.

As we part he pens a poem and hands it to Jean:

It was a windy day
I had nothing to say
Clouds keep moving on a blue sky
The blue in her eyes

The soldier coming back
The former battlefield
After 40 years
From the edge of the bomb crater
The wild flowers blossom up.
Raining down from his wife's eyes

If you want to go on the hike of a lifetime, I have his address.

- Reflecting Rod