The handful of guests I saw at the Thinh Vuong Hotel (with nice clean rooms, friendly staff and filling breakfasts) were volunteers, working with the orphanages of Kontum – of which there are many.
At first blush – maybe in the form of a flashback – people of my vintage wonder if these orphanages (numbered 1 through 6 in increasing distance from the center city) are a residue of war. But today is 2014 and the “American War”, which fought many a bloody battle in these Central Highlands, is 40 year old history and the offspring of US soldiers or children whose parents died are now, themselves, adults.
Although the war is long gone, parts of Vietnam remind me of lines penned by the US author, William Faulkner of his time with phrases like the “past is not dead, it is not even past yet” hovering over scenes and conversations I have had amidst the touristic beauty and go-go entrepreneurship of Vietnam.
The people of the Central Highlands, mostly non-Kinh (Kinh being the dominant ethnic designation for most Vietnamese) were dubbed the “Montagnards” by the French; convenient shorthand for “mountain people”. Although they hailed from many tribes and groups they were united in their desire to be left alone by the central government (Vietnamese of either the North or South) and found alliances with the French (against the Viet Minh) and the US (against the Communists and occasionally the government of the South). Bahnar, Jari, and a host of other ethnic groups constituted the Montagnards.
Veteran friends tell me the “Yards” as they designated them in short hand were “brave, loyal, good fighters, fatalistic”. Most contrasted them favorably to the armies fighting over the territory – both the South and North – and to this day US servicemen and NGO’s flock to Kontum to pay homage to their tenacity.
“Why Americans not come back here” a woman in slick leather jacket and greying hair, masked by a dark dye job, asks me as I wander about Vinh Song I orphanage on the edge of Kontum? “My friend, a Captain, he come here when American fought, come to my house drink beer, you come now too” she asks, with a whisp of nostaglia (although she must have been a teen back then in the hey day of US involvement in Vietnam) and a scent of desperation.
I decline and her face turns briefly sad, and then to stone.
Despite the deprivations of war and post-war reprisals for being on the losing side, the people of Kontum are universally kind. Some have stories (” My father was in the Army of the South and vanished in 1975″ – the year of the Communist victory -one man tells me. “I suffered, my aunt died, I lost my family, could not go to school for a while” he recounts, as I admire his success as an entrepreneur, artist, and naturalist tour guide.) Others are relative newcomers, Kinh, relocated by the government with cheap land, fruits of victory, or just the chance for a new life away from the crowded coastal cities.
There still are two Kontums. The modernistic, with still touches of French architecture, city of conveniences, stores, shops, small hotels and restaurants and the Bahnar Kontum that surrounds it; pigs and cows wandering the dirt pathways, dark faces, poverty, unique architecture like the “Rong” houses designed for community meetings, litter, junk food snacks and despair.
I saw both Kontums and realize that in some ways, despite progress, the past is still present and that while we may be through with the past, the past is not through with us.