It was a 200-mile journey from Saigon to Dak Lak, a highlands province that saw much fighting during the Vietnam War. Just north of Saigon, I passed quite a few grand villas, with two dog statues on gate columns, though some owners outdid their neighbors by having lions instead.
The further north I went, the smaller the houses became, and the more churches I saw, some brand new. The government states that only 8% of Vietnamese are Christians, but the true percentage must be twice that, at least. I saw many graves with crosses.
As I climbed higher, the rubber trees gave way to coffee and pepper plants. Here and there, an avocado orchard or corn field. Noticing people on motorbikes with a windbreaker or hoodie, I suddenly became alarmed at not having brought a coat, but the temperature never dipped below pleasantly cool.
One recent summer evening in Catalan, a man I was chatting with at an outdoor cafe shudderingly said he had to rush home because it was getting too cold, and I thought he had to be joking or a wimp. “You live in the US. This is nothing for you. I’m freezing!” It’s all relative.
Serpentining upward, dragonlike, I skirted the Cambodian border. The Ho Chi Minh trail was once just on the other side. At a dusty intersection, an old bicyclist had on gray pajamas and a black combat helmet. Though with a face like a squashed prune and toothless, he can still aim straight, I’d bet. A propaganda billboard advised, “FIRM WITH THE RIFLE, STEADY WITH THE STEERING WHEEL.”
In Dak Lak Province, most of the place names aren’t Vietnamese, but even in strange-sounding Ea Kly, Ea Kar or M’Drak, all I saw on the streets were Vietnamese, for they have taken over. A century ago, there were 151 Rade villages in the area, so where were the Rades?
A Vietnamese, Quan, informed me, “As we move in, they retreat further into the forest. Plus, they dress just like us now, so if you see them in town, you may not notice. They are darker, though.”
Smiling, Quan added, “And their women are rather disgusting, when you look at them. There’s something not quite right about them!” Like a tolerance for heat or cold, it’s mostly what you’re used to, I suppose, though novelty, for some, can be intriguing.
Born in harsh Binh Dinh, Quan moved to Saigon as a teen. In college, he often couldn’t afford more than a plate of rice with pig liver and bean sprouts for lunch, for it only cost 9 cents. He rode a cheap Chinese bike that often broke down. Now, Quan owns several businesses and was in Dak Lak to buy land for a recycling plant. Looking into exporting organic Vietnamese vegetables to India, he visited that country recently. His wife went to Dubai for fun.
With Quan, I visited a business associate of his, also a Vietnamese. Everything inside Truong’s house was tired looking. The front room was decorated with a large picture of fruits and vegetables, something you’d find in a barrio grocery store. The backroom had two wooden beds and a beat-up glass cabinet, containing faded, threadbare and long-outdated clothing. His parents came out to greet us. The old man wore a white and baby blue golf shirt that featured this stitched on tag, “THTP Buôn Ma Thuột” [“Buon Ma Thuot High School”]. After four decades, maybe he’s still enrolled.
Truong, “Yes, this area is changing very fast. More and more people are coming in, and the trees are being cut down. You hardly see elephants anymore. The elephant is very important to the Rades. It’s their spiritual core. Plus, elephants hauled timber. Now, elephants are only used to give rides to tourists.”
“So they’re being bred just for that?”
“It’s not easy for elephants to breed, big brother! You don’t know. They’re very picky, and can only mate in the forest. Once they’ve paired up, you have to let them wander into the forest. They can only have intercourse there.”
“If you let them go, how can you find them later?”
“They’ll come back by themselves!”
“Oh, the Rades love their elephants! They even stage weddings for them! With less forest every day, it’s harder for the elephants to breed, however, so there are fewer and fewer elephants.”
With corrupt officials looking the other way, illegal logging is rampant in Dak Lak, and the Rades themselves participate, since it’s a great source of cash, and they’re developing a taste for the accoutrements of modern life, such as blue jeans, cable TV, beer and the smart phone. The ones who are raking in the most money are the Vietnamese, of course. Many of them had descended from the North, after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
One evening, I visited a man from Bac Ninh, a province just outside Hanoi. Twenty-four years ago, he moved to Ea Kly, a dusty, miserable village of 10,000. Now up to 20,000, it has little to recommend it. There’s a restaurant selling rice gruel with eel for breakfast, a homely elementary school with a drum to call students to class, and a Buddhist temple with a tin roof and walls of faded, corrugated plexiglass.
Entering Săm’s living room, I was immediately blown away by his huge, sumptuously carved cabinet/altar piece, however. Made from jackfruit wood, it had lacquer inlaids. At the top, two-tiered pagodas flanked a framed portrait of Săm’s deceased father. Inside a lit, glass enclosure was a circular portrait of General Giap, a rather surprising feature since Săm is my age, thus too young to serve in the War. Beneath General Giap were three wooden statues symbolizing prosperity, status and longevity. A gigantic wooden vase stood on each side of the cabinet/altar piece.
As we sat on ornately carved wooden furniture, I blathered to my host, “I’ve never seen such a beautiful altar piece! It belongs in a museum!”
“It’s modeled after the one in Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng’s house! I saw it once.”
“Your house must be the most beautiful in this village!”
“It can’t be! It’s all right. My brother’s is also nice.”
A small, dark man with brown or missing teeth, Săm had clearly been knocked about a bit. He seemed ten years older. His brother, Thắng, had a brighter, smoother complexion, more gleam in his eyes and more cockiness in his voice. When I told him I was simply a writer, and my wife a mere sales clerk, Thắng beamed a thousand watts as if he had just knocked me out in a cage fighting match. Traveling across this turbulent, blighted earth, I had accomplished next to nothing, while he became a veritable king in But Phuc Yu.
“In every society, there are winners and losers,” Thắng actually declared. Very vô duyên, indeed.
The brothers’ first contact in the area was an aunt who had gone South in 1954. During the War, she made a small fortune selling opium to American soldiers. “My aunt was a legendary beauty,” Thắng exuded. “But after 1975, she was broken.”
Aren’t you hungry? Whatever you do, don’t try the pho with fried perch, a Dak Lak specialty. I could barely finish my bowl and, to make matters worse, the restaurant was filthy. On its floor were discarded tissue paper, toothpicks and whatever else.
I said to Quan, “You know, someone should make pho with venison. I bet that would sell. It would certainly beat this crap!”
“But there’s hardly any deer left!” Once, there were even tigers up this way.
So it’s all about lebensraum, my fellow Nazis. One ethnic group encroach upon another, and as cancerous mankind, we merrily wreck this earth, making a mass die off inevitable.
Leaving Ea Kar, I saw a billboard showing a Vietnamese Airforce pilot, a Marine, two Navy sailors and two civilians. The message, “DETERMINED TO DEFEND OUR BELOVED SEA AND ISLANDS.” It’s about China, of course, as it often is with Vietnam.
On the road, I finally ran into some Rades. Apparently too poor to afford a motorbike, a dozen of them sat in the uncovered back of a motorbike truck. Near a village called Đoàn Kết [Unity], I passed a group of Rade children walking back from school. Taught by their invaders, they would learn to venerate Unce Ho and dozens of other Vietnamese heroes, mostly military.
Dak Lak once belonged to Champa, a Hindu then Muslim civilization nearly wiped out by conquering Vietnam. I was born in Saigon, 265 years after it was taken from Cambodia, who called it Prey Nokor. Though there’s almost no trace of Cambodia left in my native city, they occupied it for about six centuries, more than twice longer than the existence of the United States of America.
Grossly misruled, economically crippled, thoroughly brainwashed, drugged, amnesiac and stripped of any unifying credo beyond the increasingly absurd, “We’re number one!” Americans won’t just expire long before the Vietnamese but, it’s a safe bet, the eternally beleaguered yet enduring Rades.
Methodically destroyed by the evil empire, Americans are the only ones too stupid and cowardly to fight back.