Homecoming: Finding My Tribe in Vietnam's Central Highlands


Police documents printed on onionskin crinkle audibly with the rise and fall of my uncle’s breath. His eyes rove over the documents produced on an archaic typewriter with a wild menagerie of Vietnamese punctuation—squiggles, dots, and tiny circles—scrawled in by hand. We are in a one-story, doorless box that serves as the local police station of a hamlet in the lush coffee-plantation region of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

I met my uncle for the first time four days ago, arriving with a government-approved translator/guide named Tien. I had been teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City for a few months; this was my first opportunity to find my mother’s family in her native Vietnam—halfway around the world from where I was born and raised in the northeast United States. Tien, whose name means “money” in Vietnamese, drove me by motorbike from Boun Ma Thout, the gateway city into the mountainous Central Highlands, to a small village close to Bon Don. These highlands are part of the Truong Son range, a chain of hills and peaks that stretches from the Himalayas to the South China Sea. Leaving the city, the motorbike steadily climbed as dust-baked land slowly transformed into sloping verdant hills, with red clay underfoot. With the landscape, the features of the people also changed, from paler, rounder Chinese-like faces with stick-straight hair and epicanthic eye lids to people who looked like my mother, with darker faces, angular jaws, sharp, protruding cheekbones, rounder eyes, and thick, coarse hair.

There is quite a stir about our family reunion: This is the first contact with my mother’s relatives since she fled Saigon in 1975. Because I am a foreigner and my mother’s people belong to the Dega hill tribes—also known by the French name Montagnard—we’ve sparked the attention of the local police. The Dega are an indigenous minority related closely to the tribal peoples of Cambodia and Indonesia. In yet another chapter of the 50-year-old highland struggle for political autonomy, the Dega held demonstrations in Boun Ma Thout in 2001 and 2004, increasing the mutual distrust with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As a result, the government has enforced strict regulations about who is allowed into this tribal region.

In the 2001 demonstration, several thousand highlanders gathered peacefully to protest land confiscation and increased competition for resources. The government had resettled scores of ethnic Vietnamese in the highlands, partly as a means to assimilate the indigenous population. Adding to the tension, the region’s main cash crop, coffee, also plummeted in price, rendering many highlanders destitute. Religious repression was another key grievance at the 2001 demonstration, and it became a central issue in the demonstration of 2004. The government’s response to both protests was brutal: In 2004, government security forces armed with metal bars, nail-covered clubs, and other weapons killed 10 unarmed Dega tribesmen in what is now referred to as the Easter Massacre. Many Dega believe the number of deaths was even higher.

According to the Vietnamese government, the root of the current civilian unrest is “foreign agitators,” such as Dega political exiles and American veterans, who encourage the tribes to demand their religious and ancestral land rights. The American Special Forces, who relied heavily on the hill tribe recruits for guerrilla fighting against the Viet Cong, formed an alliance with the Dega, and as a result, the Hanoi administration is wary of Americans wanting to visit the historically war-ridden highland area.

The daily visits from the police and the mini-avalanche of paperwork that my uncle and I have to complete attests to the government’s sensitivity to my presence. I was aware of the difficulties of entering this volatile region as a foreigner, so before I left Ho Chi Minh City I had the principal of the school where I taught write a letter to vouch for me. I also declared my plans to a government-sponsored agency and hired one of their guides. I thought all the necessary precautions were in place, but apparently a 23-year-old 5-foot-tall Dega-American woman searching for long-lost family is still seen as a threat.

Old-fashioned black reading glasses balance low and awkwardly on the bridge of my uncle’s nose, ill-fitted to his broad features. Traces of his prior life as a schoolteacher remain in his demeanor. Once the war ended in 1975, the socialist republic set up policies to level class distinctions; the educated elite (in the southern region, especially) were forced to give up their professions. For the most part, they became motorbike drivers and laborers. Like the educated Vietnamese of the region, my uncle was stripped of his teaching license when the Communists won the war, but unlike them he had the additional burden of circumventing ethnic and racial discrimination. The only work available in his native highlands was cultivating coffee on land owned by wealthier city-dwelling Vietnamese.

My uncle is around 60 years old, with a face gaunt and leathered from countless hours of tending coffee plants in the tropical sun. His eyes are heavy-lidded with fatigue, yellow and bloodshot. They speak volumes to me about the war, although my uncle never was a soldier. He tried to enlist alongside the American Special Forces, but, he says, the moment a gun was placed in his hands he threw it down, ran away, and hid. Guns terrify him.

He became one of the tens of thousands of people that the Vietnamese government put in re-education camps. Without a trial he was convicted of treason for supporting South Vietnam’s partnership with the Americans. Teachers like him were subjected to the re-education regimen: coerced study of communist propaganda and writing long confessions at night, after eight hours of hard labor during the day. Treated like prisoners, the inductees suffered malnutrition and disease that often resulted in death. My uncle’s original term of one month was extended to three years because his sister—my mother—had escaped to America.

The early morning light shines on the right side of his face, spilling in from a window behind him. An iron grate bars the window, the green paint chipping. At first glance the light is too blinding to look at directly. Slowly my eyes adjust, though, and I see that the grate is shaped like a peace dove.

Taking cues from my uncle, I got a basic lesson in how to deal with bureaucrats in Vietnam: Offer cigarettes. Light cigarettes. Nod quickly and seriously at what they say. Smile at their jokes. Answer all their questions quickly and briefly. Offer more cigarettes to the other cops who straggle in. Light them. Don’t appear too relaxed. Read and sign the paperwork they give you. Answer the same questions multiple times. Fill out more paperwork. Make sure they are happily chain-smoking.

“What does your mother do?” they ask. I wonder if they are envious of her new, glamorous American life. Do they think she is getting her slice of pie in the sky? I explain her job at a hospital, where she’s a janitor. I wonder if they blame her for leaving. What would have been her fate if she had stayed? How would they have punished her, an indigenous minority from the Central Highlands, for serving food in an American canteen—or for falling in love with an American?

They ask about my father. Aware that my mother had married a man who worked for USAID in the highlands during the war, they assume—erroneously—that he is my father. I explain my mother’s divorce and her remarriage to my father. The police want his full name, the names of his parents, his date of birth and occupation. I comply. He was 12 in 1968, when the war intensified—too young to have been a soldier. “What is your mother’s first husband now doing?” they ask. I answer that I don’t know.

I finish filling out all the paperwork and wait for my uncle to read through all of his. I can’t help but feel guilty; I am the reason that he is in a police station being interrogated once more. The day before, he had explained to me that the police continued to harass him after he was released from the re-education camp. They assumed that his rich American sister was sending him money to care for their mother. They had not believed that he had lost contact with his sister. No word ever reached his village that he had two nieces in America, until I showed up on his doorstep. Now, with my sudden appearance, he has to deal with the police again. Am I detecting rage when he looks at them?

Emotions here are complex. Does my uncle see some hope in my visit here? On the first day I arrived he said that this was the moment he had always been waiting for because he had searched for my mother for years. Part of me wonders if seeing me fills him with as much ambivalent emotion as it fills me. Does he say that he has always been looking for my mother just to be sure that the story is straight while Tien the translator—a government representative—is here? Has he been looking for my mother during this entire time because he needed money? Or is it because he wanted to come to the United States? Is he angry with her and am I only a reminder of this anger? How bitter is a man put into re-education camp? And here I am, taller and fatter from an American diet, in a seemingly gratuitous search for my heritage, with a gift of money but not enough to wipe away the years of his life spent in government camp. I worry that my visit makes him more of a target.

I watch him reading, the peace dove captured in iron and letting the only light into this old, dilapidated room. My gaze fixes out the window. Fifty yards away, a young girl stands on a crude ladder reaching up to a small, wooden house erected on stilts—a flood-proof style of housing traditional to the Dega and one which, with the onset of Vietnamese emigrating to the region, is becoming rare in the Central Highlands. The girl is looking towards the police station. Her dark skin blends in naturally with the wooden house, against a backdrop of deep green coffee trees. Indeed, the ubiquitous cash crop has set the Dega on a riskier path of relying on an unstable market, and yet a harmony seems to continue to exist among the highlanders who depend on the land they tend. In a way, little has changed in the past hundred years.

A Vietnamese flag, bright red with a yellow star, is mounted high on a pole next to the wooden house where the girl stands. Since the protests, the government requires that the flags be flown in front of every Dega house. Earlier, when we drove to the police station on motorbikes, I noticed music coming from a tinny-sounding radio. I had tuned it out, but now my ears pick up the familiar sound of Janis Joplin. The music drifts over from the house where the girl stands. Joplin’s voice wails, full of metal from weak speakers.

In this small village, it’s not a surprise that everybody knows that I am here; I imagine that Joplin is a salute to me as an American visitor. But then I begin to sense something else. Could it be that I am also hearing that they have not forgotten the war and its battle cry twisted and reinterpreted into Joplin’s cry? Although I wasn’t even born, Joplin’s throaty voice drops me into the ’60s, a resurfacing of a visceral collective memory of America’s own battle wounds. I hear rebellion, repression. Now, however, Joplin’s scream echoes in the Central Highlands, in the land of my uncle. Am I hearing their cry for self-determination and freedom—what they can only express to me in whispers, as they glance over their shoulders to make sure “Charlie” isn’t still listening?

Foreground, middle distance, and background merge into a single dissonant scene, roaring at me with its power. My uncle and the papers. The light shining into the dank corners, through the iron peace dove. The little Montagnard girl in the shadow of the Vietnamese flag. Joplin’s wail. I reach into my backpack to pull out my camera. But my uncle stops me with a quick shake of his head. Cameras are not allowed here.

The distinction between the Vietnamese majority and the Dega highlanders is encapsulated in a legend about a sea dragon that fell in love with a mountain fairy. According to Vietnamese folklore, the two married, and soon the fairy became pregnant, carrying a golden sac of 100 eggs. Together in the fairy’s home in the lofty jungle, 100 strong and handsome babies hatched from the eggs, but the union was doomed because the dragon missed the sea. They decided to separate, and half of the children followed the father to the sea, while the other half moved farther into the mountains with the mother.

It’s intended as a metaphor for how the peoples of Vietnam came to be there. Indeed, the descendents of the dragon—the ethnic Kinh who compose the Vietnamese majority—have historically inhabited the flatter lands along the coast as fisherman and farmers of wet rice patties. But the metaphor is inaccurate, because the mountain-fairy children—the Dega—originally inhabited all of what is modern-day Vietnam. When the ancestors of the Kinh—early migrants from China—invaded and settled along the delta, the natives were pushed into the mountains, becoming the 55 different hill tribes of the Southern, Central, and Northern Highlands. The four major tribes of the central region are the Bahnar, Jarai, Ede (also called Rhade), and the Koho, whose dialects descend from Malayo-Polynesian and Mon-Kmer.

The legend reflects the peaceful co-existence of the two populations, as the hill tribes lived in isolation for hundreds of years—until the 20th century. In the 1930s, the Vietnamese began to move into the Central Highlands in small numbers. In the 1940s and ’50s, with the prospect of reaping natural resources in the mountain regions, both the French and the then-emerging Vietnamese communist state worked towards winning the highlanders’ loyalties. As part of that effort the French and the Vietnamese emperor Boa Dai suggested the idea of a hill-tribe state in which the people would have “free evolution according to their beliefs and traditions.” Although offered only as a token gesture to gain political support, the notion of an autonomous highland state took hold among many of the Dega, who had felt a deep sense of separateness from the Vietnamese, physically and culturally, for almost two millennia.

Dawn breaks, and for the first time since I came to Vietnam, it is cold. At five o’clock in the morning, the house is already electric with activity. They let me sleep longer; I am grateful because an albino gecko the size of a small dog lives in the rafters, squawking every hour in the middle of the night with a sound that erupts slowly at first, like the creak of an old door. The creak is followed by an explosive Cuckoo! that reverberates against the tin roof.

Our visit to the police station was intended to clear us for a visit to the Jarai hamlet where my uncle and my mother were born. It lies a hundred miles northeast. Ironically, my uncle left his birthplace to escape constant bribe demands and harassment from the police, but matrilineal Dega customs also contributed to my uncle’s reasons for now living here, in his wife’s birth village. As she is Ede, the children inherit her cultural identity, language, and family name.

My uncle has rented an old Daewoo minibus for our trip, and, together with a family friend named Kali, my uncle, cousins, and I all pile into it. Kali sits next to me to translate, as he used to do for Special Forces, the Vietnamese, and the Ede and Jarai tribes. He was part of FULRO (an acronym in French for the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races), an alliance among the tribes of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. For that the Vietnamese government sentenced him to four years of re-education. Like my aunt, Kali is Ede, a tribe whose language is related to the Jarai tribe of my mother and uncle. The traditional woven cotton sarongs are also similar among the Ede and Jarai tribes, sharing the simple and elegant design of colorful stripes laid horizontally against a background dyed in the dark hues of crushed berries and roots.

Along the way, Kali explains that my uncle met my aunt at a university in Manila. My uncle was studying rural construction, which after three years of study, he began to teach. My aunt—a lovely, no-nonsense woman with the complexion the color of a coffee bean and a smile that overtakes her entire face—was studying to be a nurse. In this period, the presence of the French was felt all over Vietnam.

Kali is now talking about the war, recounting a “big contact” between the North Vietnamese and the South in 1973, a major battle in which “one hundred men, Ede and American, died each day.” He tells me that my uncle was in re-education camp from 1979 until 1981. I make a mental note that he was released the year I was born. Thinking about our interrogation yesterday, I wish I had learned Vietnamese, to know better what was being said. Kali says, “Ho Chi Minh attacked Saigon,” a departure from what I had been hearing for the last three months in Ho Chi Minh City: Ho liberated Saigon.

The red flags staked in front of every house blur, as we have finally hit a major paved road. I write down notes, trying to absorb all I can. The sight of my notebook and pen makes Kali nervous, which has been the general response from my family in Vietnam, even though I assure them that I am writing only for myself. They fear exposure, and occasionally I sense that they don’t know whether they can trust me.

We arrive in the thick heat of noon and climb a steep board reaching up to a stilt longhouse, the traditional nha-rong. Sandals dusted with red clay are piled near the doorway, curved like bananas from age. They make me think of my mother and her broad feet and the way they struggle to fit in the confines of narrow American shoes. Her shoes also curve like bananas.

As we enter, smoke from the crackling cooking pit pricks my nostrils with its heat even though the open fire is set at the opposite end of the nha-rong, far from the doorway. A band of small children and a young woman around my age sit inside, and my cousin introduces me. The eyes of the children are large and stay fixed on me without wavering. What thoughts must cross their mind at the sight of this taller, fatter, paler Dega-foreigner?

My uncle and Kali walk to a field behind the house to notify others that we had arrived. As I peek out of the window, I see women around my mother’s age running from the field clutching straw conical hats and sarongs. One after another, people stream into the nha-rong house. Ni nga hiam droi jan mon ha? “How are you?” I practice the Ede phrase my cousins taught me, relieved at the ease with which this language rolls off my tongue, especially after three months of failing to be comprehensible in the tonal language of Vietnamese.

One woman who looks the age of my mother comes to me, wailing and crying. “This is your aunt,” my cousin explains. I can smell the land—the dry rice patch—in the hands that cup my face. She kisses my cheeks, holding my face close to hers, meeting my eyes again and again with an incredulous gaze, looking for my mother behind my pupils, although she does this warmly like she has known me forever. My own tears push to the surface, heating my face, mixing with my sweat and the humidity.

Two more women my mother was close with, also considered to be her sisters, take turns covering my face with kisses, holding my hands close to their cheeks, and stroking my hair. They, too, wail quietly, a sound like pain or elation, or something in between. I feel very vulnerable with so much emotion around me, and I am bewildered by my tears wetting their hands. Such intimacy with people I have never met forces me to put my Western sense of space and composure at bay. My cousin tries to translate my words but our tears and caresses serve as a better, common language. Although they are strangers to me, these women embody the familiarity of my mother, like different versions of her, and I feel like I have found her tribe. I feel closer to them, the land, Vietnam—and my mother—as a result. These women, my entire Dega family, embrace me like I belong, even though I have lived my entire life not knowing them, their names, language, land, or way of life. Do I deserve such a welcoming?

The extended family—three aunts, a few uncles, and many cousins—takes me for a walk to see the land. There’s the great mango tree that features in the very few stories my mother ever told me; I suspect that in addition to having a baby elephant as a pet it’s one of her happier memories. She would climb for mangoes and hide from her switch-wielding grandmother.

A structure of dung and wood, made to mimic a miniature nha-rong, sits at the corner of the yard, before the fields. According to animist beliefs, it houses the spirit of the dead, and we make offerings to the deceased with fruit, bowls of water, incense, and yellow flowers, placing them at the foot of the structure. This custom is similar to the Vietnamese way of honoring the dead; perhaps it is a custom the highlanders adopted from the dominant Kinh culture. Wooden carvings of monkeys stand guard on the four posted corners of the structure. Although many of the Dega identify as Christians, following the influence of French and American missionaries, showing reverence to the spirits and gods continues to be a discreet yet unwavering part of their belief system.

We return to the longhouse for a rice-wine ceremony. My aunts had begun preparing the wine two days earlier, sealing green rice kernels inside large clay jars with banana leaves to set the fermentation process. My eldest cousin chases after the pig that will become the sacrifice for the ceremony. If the idea of an animal sacrifice disturbs me, it soon is an afterthought, as I am confronted with its charred head placed in a basket of banana leaves next to me at the foot of the rice-wine jugs.

One of the village elders, named Tham, a man who knew my mother well, presides over the ceremony, calling forth yang, the gods. Following his instructions, I place my foot on the broad side of an axe head, on top of a copper bracelet that is being blessed. The iron of the axe represents strength. A small tuft of wild cotton is placed behind my ear, signifying beauty and the ability to fly, or rise above difficulty. Tham sucks the wine out of a long bamboo reed bent like a straw and sprinkles droplets of it onto the tops of my bare foot. He recites a few words in Jarai and then translates them to me in English, which he speaks with a barking quality that I can only imagine was picked up from working alongside American soldiers. I drink the wine next, and then pass it around for the other 15 or so adults sitting low on the floor, while the small army of children look on intently and the cooking fires burn more heat into the already sweltering air. The process is repeated with six more bracelets, seven being a lucky number, and various relatives and friends of my mother give other things, like eggs or vegetables, as offerings for blessings from the gods. The rice wine makes my skin sweat. For the sake of the pig, I’m glad that everyone eats all of the offerings afterwards.

They take me down to the river, another constant in my mother’s recounting of her homeland—the place where she became a swimmer, a skill that has followed her to America and even now into her older years. Craving something to cool my skin, I dive in. The river is shallow all the way to the middle, as it is still dry season. When the wet season comes, the river may very well reach the houses, which are high on stilts. My aunts have brought soap, and we wash ourselves in the river. We wrap sarongs around ourselves like towels. They wash my hair, and we splash and laugh. If only my mother could be here. I imagine her smiling and laughing serenely, like my aunts do now, at this relaxed moment of our gathering—with the entirety of her being.

Three years have now passed since my trip to Vietnam, and trying to discern if things are getting better or worse in the Central Highlands is difficult. In November 2006, Vietnam was removed from the U.S. government’s list of Countries of Particular Concern after the socialist republic began to relax its control of religious institutions. As a result of the new religious policies, Christian churches and Buddhist temples are popping up all over the nation. Vietnam’s removal from the list was one of the first steps toward a bilateral free-trade agreement that brought President Bush into this Southeast Asian country that month.

But, despite all the fanfare of Vietnam’s progress, the country still lags behind in the area of human rights. In November 2006, a BBC article reported the emergence of a Vietnamese intergovernmental manual aimed at “resolutely subduing” the Protestant religion in the highlands, a move that once again targets many Dega Christians. Also, with the Bush visit, police presence in the Central Highlands increased, and greater restrictions on who was allowed to leave the highland region were imposed. With foreign journalists and human rights organizations still prohibited from entering Dega territory, the state of the indigenous tribes remains uncertain.

Recently, after several months not hearing from my uncle by phone or e-mail, I was imagining the worst for my family. A Dega advocacy organization reported on their website that a young Ede man caught owning a cell phone was jailed. The description fit my cousin exactly, making every day without news from them tighten my gut with worry. But my mother finally got a phone call with good news. My fears were unfounded: My uncle explained that all is well in Vietnam; that things were changing; and that we should come and visit to see the country’s beauty. I was relieved.

And yet, I’m hesitant to trust that the situation for the Dega has indeed changed for the better. The government’s lingering mistrust of its indigenous peoples, a feeling that has spanned the whole period of Vietnam’s colonization, war, and reunification, is a reminder that equality for the Dega hilltribes will require more than a new bilateral trade agreement.

Xaigon Mai is a recent college graduate and a fledging freelancer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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