There are no words for “hello” in Co Tu

esther

This is an example of some of the outstanding work produced by field school graduates. Shared with permission from Esther Carlin.

Looking up, looking down: socio-cultural perspectives on identity and community in lowland and highland Vietnam

‘There are no words for ‘hello’ in Co Tu. When the people meet the other they just say ‘where you going? How about you?’ – Van, Boo’hoong village

In Geertz’s seminal description of a Balinese cockfight entitled ‘Deep Play,’ he states, ‘the culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong’ (1973, pp.452). This interpretation of the world as a text, is of the utmost relevance to the process of learning that unfolded throughout the duration of the Vietnam Field School. In O’Reilly’s ‘Key concepts in Ethnography’, she defines fieldwork as ‘the phase of data collection when the ethnographer is ‘in the field’ (2012, pp.2). In our first week in the field in Cẩm Thanh commune, Quảng Nam province, we learnt of a back and forth process between the particular and the general, the field and the theory. This is known as an iterative-inductive approach. O’Reilly critiques a simplistic inductive method whereby the researcher aims to begin with as few preconceptions as possible and draw only from the field. We learnt that contemporary ethnographers must engage in a reflective practise that does not seek to erase the impact of their own presence on the collection of data (2012, pp.104).

In the field, I collected some 22,000 words of data, including fieldnotes and interviews. Our first week in the lowlands proved crucial in developing key ethnographic research skills and forming a connection with our key informant Hùng. However, I am most drawn to discussing the central highlands region we subsequently visited. We spent longer there, and I felt more connected to this area by virtue of the greater opportunity to pursue independent research that was offered in this setting. Its isolation and removal from anything I had ever seen or encountered before was a most formative experience. Whilst my team looked at development and people’s orientation towards it, I was most interested in people’s sense of self and community, which influenced the direction of some of my questions. The data collected is too messy to suggest a neat narrative, and the time spent in the field too short to have amassed enough data in one specific area in any great depth. Therefore, I am drawn to the broader themes of peoples’ connections to each other, to community, to their identity, culture and sense of self in an ever-changing world. I am not interested in positing a particular linear argument, but rather in reflecting upon the richness and diversity of this first ethnographic immersion.

In Cẩm Thanh commune, just outside Hội An, we learnt about rural identity and local livelihoods through the work of the NGO ‘Action for the City’. Key informant Hùng was a staff member of the organisation, and whilst originally from Hanoi, he has lived and worked in Hội An/ Cẩm Thanh for the last three years. On belonging in this area, Hùng said he would always be an outsider but due to the localised focus of the organisation and its work, ‘now we are some kind of local people too’. In an interesting insight into the subjective nature of information, Hùng cautioned us, ‘all my information you get is from my experience. Do not trust me, it may be wrong. You can double check’ (Interview with Hùng, Jan 3 2017). We sought to corroborate Hùng’s information with a wide range of informants, whilst acknowledging the limitations placed upon us by the fact that Hùng introduced us to most of these people. Mr Cao is the leader of the Cẩm Thanh People’s Committee. As a local of the commune he has a vision for the area to remain a rural community, incorporating sustainable agriculture, rather than increasing urbanisation like nearby Hội An. Mr Cao explained, ‘We are embracing of new technology and open, but in terms of identity and in order to survive, in our culture, the social fabric, way of life, we wish to remain a rural community. Social structure in Vietnam: for centuries the village has been the way it is run, only recently has it changed’ (Interview with Mr Cao Jan 6 2017).

Early on, Hùng pointed out the emergent pressure in this area from large-scale development, and how this was having an impact on the livelihoods of people in both Cẩm Thanh and neighbouring Hội An (Interview with Hùng Jan 3 2017). We spoke with a member of an old Hội An family, Mr Dang, and his friend Binh, at Mr Dang’s café in the backstreets of central Hội An. Binh wrote down two Chinese characters for fellow student Sisi (an international student from China now studying in Australia), to make an analogy about development. He held the piece of paper up and gesticulated, pointing at it, and she stood looking both perplexed and intrigued. On one side was the old Chinese character for noodle, on the other, the simplified Mandarin one. The second character also meant face – ‘before we sell noodles, ‘now we also sell our face.’ ‘Which one is development?’ he asked. Sisi explained the character simplification, ‘but it [the second] is easier to write’ and he responded, ‘the other character represents 5000 years of culture though’. Through this analogy, Binh seemed to pit what he saw as the traditional identity of Hội An against the communist party’s rule – ‘the most important thing for the community is the way people communicate, the way they treat each other. This culture has changed under the Communist party’ (Interview with Mr Dang and Binh Jan 5 2017).

Binh placed emphasis on maintaining and developing strong communities. For him the meaning of development was broad and included many things, but the most important was ‘the human aspect of how you can help develop people and find balance in life’. Speaking of the Confucian tradition he said: ‘In China and Vietnam we remember our ancestors, we memorialise the day they passed away, we cook and invite people to share, but now it’s getting less and less, changing the connections between people, weakening people’s sense of connection’ (Interview with Mr Dang and Binh Jan 5 2017). When Mr Dang left to pick up his children, he attached a decorated bicycle sled to the back of his bike. It was rare, even old-fashioned, for someone of his status to ride a bicycle instead of a scooter. Yet the sleigh he attached to the back was Christmas-decorated, a clearly contemporary influence from outside Vietnam. This incident seemed to directly encapsulate the contradiction inherent in development that his friend was talking about, the tension between preservation and change.

Back in Cẩm Thanh, the complexity of history in a country fraught with both old and new violence emerged in a visit to Tân’s Taboo Bamboo Workshop. A Cẩm Thanh local, Tân’s father did not regret being on the side of the National Liberation Front during the war, but felt like he had blood on his hands from the bamboo mantraps he designed and built (Interview with Dr Carruthers Jan 4 2017). His son Tân, a gentle man, was using the skills his father gave him in crafting bamboo to make a huge variety of products including speakers, toys and bikes. Dr Ashley Carruthers describes this generational transition as one ‘from swords to ploughshares’. Tân and his family had been affected by the building of the Cua Dai Bridge on the doorstep of their traditional village home. Tân’s father had subsequently moved away, and Tan bemoaned the traffic thoroughfare it had created through his formerly peaceful village. Tân rejected this scale of development in favour of localised and sustainable development. Through his bamboo workshop he was harnessing old traditions and creating new means of living from them, through incorporation into the tourist economy (Interview with Tân Jan 3 2017). It was a hybrid form of economic sustenance and cultural maintenance, which we would see more of in the highlands.

When Gerald Hickey first encountered the Katu on a fieldtrip in August 1957, he noted that ‘the Katu people live in the harshest and least hospitable physical environments of the central highlands’ (2002, pp.71). Our journey into this central mountainous area of Quảng Nam province was made easier by the advent of roads, and the at-times precarious skill of our two minibus drivers. Unlike Hickey we were not forced to trek into the area. However, his observation that ‘the Katu people do not ask ‘where are you going?’ but rather, ‘where are you going up to?’ in relation to the geographical makeup of their homeland (2002, pp.71), still seemed relevant as we climbed higher and higher towards Tây Giang. As we drove, we were greeted by roadside signs that said ‘Tây Giang is determined to build the New Countryside’. ‘The New Countryside’ is a Vietnamese government strategy that has been operating in different parts of the highlands for approximately 5-10 years, and contains numerous policies relating to development outcomes in the area (Interview with Dr Carruthers Jan 10 2017). This was the first explicit sign of Katu contact with the lowlands Vietnamese state, an at-times fraught interaction. The name Katu itself is an external imposition. Katu people traditionally referred to each other according to the specific villages in which they lived. Salemink writes:

[an] arbitrary process of labeling gave rise to the insulting ethnonym ‘Katu’, which was the name that a French colonial officer gave in 1913 to a refractory upland population that caused trouble for the colonial order. According to French officer, Le Pichon, who retraced the footsteps of that officer in the late 1930s, Katu means ‘savage’ in the local dialect, and that label was invariably reserved for ‘others’ living deeper into the forest, up in the mountain (2003, pp.30).

Since then, the word Katu has been vietnamised into the spelling Co Tu, and the Co Tu are formerly recognised as one of the 54 official ethnic groups of Vietnam (Salemink 2003, pp.30). In Hickey’s book, ‘Window on a War’, he describes a world in which traditional ethnographic research was one of the only means of seeing a small-numbering people, and involved an outsider going into their midst (2002, pp.71-74). His book managed to capture some sense of what I felt in visiting Tây Giang, despite the changes of the last fifty years. Arriving in the town of Tây Giang, it was hard not to feel a kind of frontier quality to the place. During the war of 1955-75, the Co Tu were formally on the side of the Communist victors. The first night we were there, the local veterans gathered for a Tết feast at the restaurant where we dined, and everywhere we went in the town, iconography was visible showing adherence to this history and to communist ideals (Observation Jan 10 2017). This visibility of the national Communist project was very different from anything we had observed in our time in the lowlands.

Furthermore, it was clear that people were not used to seeing tourists or Westerners in this place. In our initial exploration of the town on foot, in our group of eight, people everywhere stared at us. ‘People are very surprised’, remarked fellow student Ana (Jan 10 2017). In one particular instance we walked up a street where there was a primary school, and, in front of it, what we would later learn was the ‘squatting’ market. Mostly there were women gathered, with a few men and some smaller children. Walking through the middle it was like the street parted: we, as some sort of curiosity, pulling stares as we went. There was a lot of laughter, and most people did not seem to know what to do. We observed their confusion, the first look, the second look, and the disbelief. Later, we passed a young couple and their daughter. The man stopped us, laughing, and pointed at the corner of footpath. He wanted to take a photo of us (Observation Jan 10 2017). In reversing the gaze in this way we were made critically aware of our position here. Our presence as outsiders, and our theoretical understandings of our own positionality, would continue to shape our interactions with locals.


For Levi-Strauss the necessity of the ethnographic venture is to ‘collect different versions of one myth, when each version is seen as ‘a mirror showing a different part of a room that can be viewed only through the mirrors arranged within it’ (1963 cited in Fedirko 2014 pp. 805). Our primary mode of data collection was the ethnographic interview, and so this idea was relevant throughout our time in the highlands, as different information and different accounts gave us a multi-layered view of people’s sense of identity and connection to place. Our first interview was in a stilt house with a local elder Prêêl, his wife Thuan, the tourist bureau official Thanh Phuoc and a younger local government worker Hoang, in pơ ning village. The younger man translated for the elder and his wife who did not understand Vietnamese. We were given tea (boiled using their electric kettle and constantly refilled) and I looked out at the world around us through the three small openings. Thuan seemed to hold back, tending to the fire behind us. Sometimes she spoke, but mostly the men took up the talking space. Her world was one of subsistence, working only to survive, and she told us that she weaved the baskets made from rattan that were blackening over the fire. I felt held by this wooden house, and our Co Tu informants reflected on the difference between this style of living and ‘modern’ houses. Thanh Phuoc said ‘he prefers the modern house because the house on stilts has to be rebuilt every 10 years. But when they [Co Tu people] live in the house on stilts they feel better, they breathe better’ (Interview with Prêêl & Thuan, Thanh Phuoc, Hoang Jan 11 2017).

This village has been in this form since 2005, prior to which, villagers lived in traditional houses scattered throughout the forest (Interview with Thanh Phuoc Jan 11 2017). This configuration, with its simple wooden houses with tin roofs for each family, arranged around the central guol, or traditional communal hut, was the result of the government policy of sedentarisation. The village is a construct of the Vietnamese state and in it, people are connected to state services and new forms of sedentarised agriculture. Thanh Phuoc explains that, ‘from 2008 the government flattened the land, took the traditional houses away, built new houses and then re-instated some traditional houses’ (Jan 11 2017). Such development prerogatives are not new. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc and Rambo state, ‘As early as 1968, Resolution 38 established the Fixed Cultivation and Permanent Settlement Program to assist upland ethnic minorities believed to be migratory shifting cultivators to build new and better lives’ (1998, pp.6). Prêêl, a village elder, added, ‘When the people move here the government finds it easier to manage’. The move has facilitated access to water, electricity and education. For a traditionally non-sedentary population the confrontation here with the values of the Vietnamese state could have been hard to manage, but Prêêl reflected, ‘living here is better for connection with other people’. For his generation, life still very much evolved around subsistence, swidden agriculture and going into the forest to collect food. In his view the new village had not precipitated a disconnect between land and people that outweighed the benefits of such a change (Interview with Prêêl & Thuan, Thanh Phuoc, Hoang Jan 11 2017).

Perhaps evidence of the success, in part, of the Vietnamese nation-state project, is its realisation of cross-border Co Tu settlement. Pơ ning village and other villages we visited had very close links to Co Tu people in Laos. Five hamlets in this district had been relocated from Laos, and we were informed ‘they are going to build a senior secondary school and hydro power project to help the Co Tu in Laos’ (Interview with Thanh Phuoc Jan 11 2017). It seemed that people were willing to come across the border from Laos because of Vietnamese government support, and that people’s outlook on the state was largely positive. Throughout the process of sedentarisation, and perhaps largely through necessity, people had managed to hold onto a strong identity that connected them with the land. In ta vang village, where we spoke with a family that came from Laos originally (30 years ago), the father told us that he liked it better here – they have electricity and water, and the road is better, compared to in the forest where it was very difficult to walk. This informant was 60 years old and had spent approximately half his life living in the forest. He reminisced, however, that, ‘when we live in the forest we don’t need to get the money to buy food, we just get the food in the forest, hunting and gathering. Also the air is fresher in the forest’ (Interview with Khanh Jan 12 2017). The agency reflected in Khanh’s observations are central to the concept of development as freedom that Sen discusses. For Sen, an economist, ‘it is important to give simultaneous recognition to the centrality of individual freedom and to the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom’ (1999, pp.xxi). People here appeared to remain active agents in the telling of their lives regardless, or perhaps, because of their marginalisation, within the state. They worked within what they had and what they knew. Community, culture and tradition were central to holding onto themselves as Co Tu people.

We first learnt about the Co Tu buffalo sacrifice from Thanh Phuoc on our visit to pơ ning village. He explained that Policy No. 14 now regulated the sacrifice, and that the Co Tu could kill buffalo but only in limited numbers, and not in the traditional way by stabbing them multiple times. The government aimed not only to make the sacrifice more humane, but also to reduce what they saw as monetary waste (Interview with Thanh Phuoc Jan 11 2017). Salemink explains, ‘many rituals – like the iconic buffalo sacrifice – are considered ‘wasteful’ – even though they constitute a redistribution of wealth and foodstuff (protein) by slaughtering and cooking an animal that was not used as a draught animal in most places’ (2003, pp.34). Here in pơ ning village, we observed the clash between capitalist values and traditional Co Tu society, in which the buffalo’s value was greater for the Co Tu in the ritual economy than in the financial one. Thanh Phuoc also lamented that these days the guol is not being used enough because of Policy No. 55, which limited the amount of big parties the village could have. The informants we spoke with confirmed the pressure to reduce or give up some of their traditional Co Tu practices, due to such policies: ‘we feel bad about losing our traditions because of government policy’ (Interview with Prêêl & Thuan, Thanh Phuoc, Hoang Jan 11 2017). Elsewhere, informants revealed resistance in the face of such pressure. In ta vang village, Quỳnh told us ‘the government does not allow us to do it as before but we still do it in traditional way. When we do this we feel happy’. She expressed hurt about the government policy relating to buffalo sacrifice and village festivities, but explained the localised defiance occurring in this context (Interview with Quỳnh Jan 12 2017).

Tourism also emerged as a form of resistance for Co Tu, in so far as they had agency in its development, and associated it with the maintenance of tradition. The younger government worker Hoang, and Prêêl, the village elder, in pơ ning told us they wanted to show tourists their gong and dancing, and to sell some local products to them. For these informants, tourism was seen as a way to facilitate the preservation of culture. The informants were scared they had lost many things in terms of culture, such as the knowledge of how to make local products and music, and that these practices were not being carried on by younger generations. They pointed out, ‘some women now when they have a baby they don’t sing the traditional songs; they sing songs from the city’. Thanh Phuoc explained, ‘if they do tourism in the future they can have more money to make local things for themselves,’ associating this opportunity with a desire for ongoing localised subsistence. Currently the Tây Giang Tourist Bureau brings in all tourists, and about ten groups visit the village a year. The informants in pơ ning told us, they ‘would like to have tourists everyday but not too many,’ and paralleled this with a desire for tourism that resembles that of Hội An. Thanh Phuoc said he liked the style of tourism in Hội An, explaining that ‘the heritage, even with tourists, keeps the culture’. They wanted to ‘keep the special culture in this village’ (Interview with Prêêl & Thuan, Thanh Phuoc, Hoang Jan 11 2017). Thanh Phuoc’s desire as a Co Tu man was for a globally interconnected world, where there is peace and everyone can trade with each other. His outlook showed an embrace of global aspirations, at the same time as a localised fear of loss of culture.

In the Tây Giang traditional village, tradition was promoted, moderated and made palatable to the lowlands Vietnamese tourist audience by the government. The Vietnamese government sanctions actually encourage some forms of cultural maintenance, and these rights are constitutionally enshrined. For example, Article 5 of the Constitution guarantees each ethnic group the right to use its own language and system of writing, to preserve its ethnic identity, and to promote its own positive customs, habits, traditions, and culture’ (Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc, Rambo 1998, pp.6). The Tây Giang traditional village presented an interesting construction of tradition, combining Co Tu culture and Vietnamisation. We looked at a traditional tomb, which had been built as a model to show visitors. Traditionally, elaborate Co Tu tombs such as this one were built for the village leader, or elders, in the forest, where they would be hidden from discovery, and gradually decay with time. We passed many modern interpretations of the Co Tu tomb, which are now built on the sides of roads, and adorned with objects that will not decay, such as people’s backpacks and beer cans. This testifies to an evolution much more aligned with Vietnamese rites of burial. Likewise, there was a wedding occurring in the big pavilion in the traditional village, between a Katu person and another person from an ethnic minority further down the mountain. We were told that the wedding was being carried out in Vietnamese style, showing the transition from a ritual economy where the aims of the seven Co Tu marriage rituals were to raise cultural capital, to a capitalist economy where monetary capital was more sought after (Interview with Thanh Phuoc Jan 14 2017). On our second night we were invited up to the traditional village for a party. Looking down on Tây Giang, the central avenue passing in front of the Communist Hotel with the Post Office and telephone tower opposite, looked like a runway, all lit up, with no traffic, and the blackened mountain behind. The air was still and just a little bit fresh. Where are we? I wondered.

Boo’hoong village, further down the mountains from Tây Giang, was an interesting example of the nexus between tourism, government and tradition. The Boo’hoong community-based tourism village, where we were staying, and where our informant Van worked, was a collaboration between tourism businesses in the lowlands and the local community. Van told us: ‘the objective to open this village is to maintain the traditions of this village’. Van also said that five years ago the government began to help the village organise a festival known as Mung Luá moi, after the harvest, to help maintain Co Tu culture (Interview with Van Jan 16 2017). However, some villagers revealed the challenges faced in maintaining traditional practices. Our interview with a woman named Nhứp exposed the loss of traditional nodes of transferal of culture in the village. The 28-year-old explained that, previously, more than two generations of the family used to live together, but now it was less than two. She told us that ‘when they lived together, twelve in a house, they can do activities together. The elders can teach the younger people’ but that this is no longer the case (Interview with Nhứp Jan 16 2017). Evidently, people did not actively seek to disturb the traditional culture of their past, but as they integrated Vietnamese ways of being and acquiring knowledge, into the parameters of their everyday life, the transferal of this culture was weakened. Van told us that as a Co Tu child going to school in the 1990s he was beaten for being ‘stupid and not understanding Vietnamese’ (Interview with Van Jan 16 2017). Now, when the Co Tu people we spoke with bring their children up they do not necessarily speak in Co Tu with them. Nhứp explained that when she was born her parents choose a Vietnamese name for her because it would be easier. She told us that she spoke in Co Tu with her husband and mother-in-law, but in Vietnamese with her young children (Interview with Nhứp Jan 16 2017).

Education appeared to affect what Co Tu knew of themselves and the world. It represented a simultaneous expansion of their horizons, and a narrowing of worldview towards the dominant Vietnamese or Kinh culture. At the Dhroong Textile Cooperative, Bloong a 34-year-old informant, explained that ‘it’s better now the kids have education. It gives us hope for the future’. She described the breakdown between different forms of knowledge her children were acquiring, saying: ‘the education here teaches about Kinh people’s traditions and culture…It’s fine for me because the kids still live in the village, and the village will teach them the traditions. In schools they learn new things, modern things’ (Interview with Bloong Jan 17 2017). If Co Tu children are lucky, their education incorporates some culturally relative elements, such as at the school back in Tây Giang where Duy is the influential junior secondary school vice-principal. For Duy, ‘the thing that is important… in my school is the culture and the basic knowledge, and the survival’ (Interview with Duy Jan 17 2017). As a Kinh migrant from the lowlands he spoke of the importance of local knowledge, explaining, ‘when you and I live in the same village and I come back to talk to you [after completing further studies or working elsewhere], you believe me more than if I came from another village’ (Interview with Duy Jan 12 2017). Of this migratory trajectory from lowlands to highlands, Carruthers and Dang explain, ‘they [Kinh migrants] have been willing to take “hardship posts” in a region that, from a lowland Kinh perspective, is seen as remote, unhomely and civilizationally inferior. In ascending up the mountains, one goes up geographically, but down symbolically’ (2012, pp.16). It was clear that in the highlands Duy had managed to carve out an important role of community support and engagement that transcended any status of inferiority that he might experience in the lowlands for having migrated. Carruthers explained: ‘this guy is really famous up here for having good connections in the lowlands’ (Interview with Dr Carruthers Jan 12 2017). 

These connections have allowed Duy to give his students opportunities that they would not have otherwise had. However, Duy explained that there was only so much he and the school could do, in terms of preserving Co Tu culture. ‘The school tries to be the role model, the teacher can teach and give the space but the living community needs to give the opportunity’ he said (Interview with Duy Jan 12 2017). Different communities’ capacities ‘to give the opportunity’ manifests in diverse ways and is mediated by external factors such as tourism and government policy. Back in Boo’hoong village, we witnessed and participated in traditional dancing as part of a re-creation for tourists. Later, Hai our young translator and research assistant, a Kinh man from Hue, told us he had cried at the dance. He said he felt so lucky, to see people, in their traditional clothes, dancing like this. He thought about how they were still doing the dance at this time, but that maybe in the future this too would disappear He had felt connected to their culture, but sad that they had to do this for money. (Interview with Hai Jan 17 2017). In one of our subsequent interviews, Hai explained this feeling to our informant Nhược, an older woman in the village who worked preparing the food for visiting tourists. She replied that they didn’t mind, and that they did the dance primarily to share their culture with other people, which they were happy to have the opportunity to do. According to Nhược, the money was just a bonus. She also said that dancing for tourists meant that they had the opportunity to come together and dance more often. Before they danced three times a year at their festivals. Now the festivals have been lost, largely due to government policy, but they get to dance more regularly. Nhược said she would like to make the dance better, to do more complex moves (Interview with Nhược Jan 17 2017). Tradition in this context, like any other, was not inert, but rather reflected and responded to external and internal factors. In participating in this ritual re-performed for the foreign tourist, we were observing how the Co Tu people showed resistance in the face of the dominant cultural norms of the Vietnamese state.

I cannot pretend to know what it means to be a Co Tu person in this world. I can only take note from what we observed, that as it is elsewhere, belonging is a constant negotiation between past, present and future. The Co Tu people we spoke with were selectively engaging in modernisation, resisting some things, and embracing others. Whilst many were afraid of losing their traditions, others were thankful for the increased services, such as education, provided by the state. Resistance was localised in the form of villagers disobeying government policy that governed their traditional practices. Culture and its preservation and re-creation also responded to contact with tourism. Likewise, in the lowlands, people expressed local agency in the face of outside impositions, in this case, large-scale development. Many people we spoke with had a sense of belonging to this area, the commune of Cẩm Thanh, and of the importance of its rural traditions. Whilst the people we interviewed in the lowlands were concerned about the impacts of unsustainable tourism, in the highlands, people were not yet fully able to conceive of the problems this might present. They were willing to share their culture, as this presented an opportunity for a less impoverished, and more comfortable future. Their remoteness from the central hubs of the urban Vietnamese population perhaps enabled this balance of preservation and modernisation.

On our last night, in Tây Giang, fellow student Jess and I walked up to the newly constructed temple high above the settlement. The mountains lay all around us, and lying flat in the middle was the town. The lit up main street looked like a boulevard for 20,000 not 2,000 people, with its communist insignia, the neon lights always flashing, and only the occasional motorbike. The clouds moved slowly across the mountaintops, and I looked across to the Hollywood-like lit up sign for the traditional village. The public radio was playing a radio drama across the whole town, and inside the temple, what looked like carved heads of Uncle Ho and a Co Tu woman, were placed one in front of the other. There was only the sound of the crickets, and a little wind, in our ears. We had spent only a week in this place, and the confluence of Co Tu and Vietnamese cultural and nationalistic factors was still surreal. ‘You can’t really capture the strangeness of this place’ I said, attempting to photograph what lay before me. ‘Yeah you can,’ said Jess. ‘In your head, or if you take the time, in words.’ 

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