Nov 17, 2022
THE RHYTHMIC BEAT OF DRUMS echoes through the valley as our minivan navigates a rambling track that leads to the entrance of Tà Bhing village. At the top of the gentle slope, colorfully dressed villagers line the roadside. They flash nervous smiles as the van pulls to a halt.
These are the Cotu mountain people, an indigenous tribe known as “people of the forest” of which only 62,000 live in Vietnam. Native to the highlands of Central Vietnam, until recently they led an isolated life, living off the land in line with traditions that have been passed down through generations. They didn’t receive many outside visitors.
That was until recently, when the Japanese NGO Foundation for International Development Relief started working with the community to develop indigenous eco-tourism opportunities, a growing global trend that creates more fairness and, and hopefully more authentic experiences, in the travel industry. “They’re relatively cut off from modern life and follow the customs of their ancestors,” says our guide Duc as we approach Tà Bhing. “They have their own language and don’t buy food; they grow it. Their ginseng is famous—they eat that a lot.
“One man has 66 children,” he adds with a laugh.
Almost two hours earlier, we’d set off from Hoi An. In less than an hour, the monotonous patchwork of flat paddies and farmland were left behind as we wound our way up Truong Son mountain range. Sharp cliff faces plunge into fiercely-flowing rivers, tree-hugged mountains cloaked by wisps of cloud roll to the horizon, and dense forest is occasionally punctuated by a lone wooden house.
Home to about 500 residents, Tà Bhing is nestled in Nam Giang district—and it sits far from modern civilization. As hunter gatherers, they live off the land and cultivate crops, fish in rivers that roar through valleys, rear chickens, pigs and buffalo, and hunt for birds and wild pigs with bamboo traps. (Alas, the remote location failed to protect them from susceptibility to covid, and the village went into lockdown during Vietnam’s pandemic measures.)
As we enter, we are met by the village chief, who introduces us to villagers sitting in a small hut. Concentration etched on their faces, men shred bamboo into threads while women weave them into large baskets used to transport crops grown in areas of the mountain inaccessible to motorbikes. The weavers invite us to join them. I sit next to an elderly woman who softly takes my hands and shows me how to weave the strands of fiber over and under each other to create the rim of the basket—it becomes quickly obvious to me why it takes two months to create one of these sturdy carriers.
As we stroll through the village, we pass wooden, tin-roofed houses with broods of chickens clucking outside. Friendly dogs roam the paths or are lazily splayed on the ground, and bursts of color come from drying laundry. The village chief points out clusters of medicinal plants that populate the area—the Cotu cure for most illnesses.
We stop to meet villagers at work. While many spend from dawn until dusk working the fields, the remainder have set tasks. From 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. daily, a group of women uses wooden clubs to pound harvested rice. Once the sun rises, other women sit cross-legged on handwoven mats preparing freshly picked corn and tapioca. They beckon us over to show us a unique hand-technique used to roll out the poisonous toxins I didn’t even know existed in raw tapioca leaves.
Textile weaving is another integral part of Cotu life. At the guol, or central assembly house, rows of women sit on the floor with basic looms positioned between outstretched legs like a wooden harp as they weave the colorful costumes they adorn. Next, we experience the Cotus’ strong affinity with nature as they treat us to a ‘Tung Tung Ya Ya’ performance. To the beat of gongs and drums, men and women resembling ancient warriors dance in a circle wielding shields and spears as they show their gratitude to the spirits for this year’s harvest.
At the end of the performance, they gather around us, keen for a cultural exchange. They show us the decorative weapons they have carved from wood and the colorful costumes intricately woven in the guol. Villagers quiz me on where I’m from—England—and where I live, Cambodia. It transpires the Cotu language is similar to Khmer, and as we tuck into a hearty spread of boiled chicken, hunks of juicy pork, fragrant soups, sticky rice cooked in bamboo and river fish, we compare words, laughing at the stark similarities… and differences.
As we bid farewell, I head back down the mountain full of knowledge about the fascinating, time-capsule lives of the Cotu people — a civilization that has stood the test of time and is astutely in tune with nature and their surroundings, living sustainably off the land with little to no waste. Surely, many a lesson for modern society to learn.
www.facebook.com/cotucbt; full-day tour US$130
Alll photos courtesy of Vietnam Cotu Tour.