The Bahnar Jo Long are one of 40 hill-tribe groups indigenous to Vietnam’s Central Highlands. As animists they live in intimate harmony with the forest, but illegal logging and infrastructure development threaten their way of life. Photographer Jim Johnston was honoured to be their guest for a while.
I’ve never been one for myths and legends, but here in the swirling mist of the Vietnamese mountain rainforest, with the constant hum of insects chirping, I can feel them. This place has an energy, a living spirit and an ancient connection.
We are stood under the gloomy tree canopy listening to Mr. Polng, our gentle Bahnar Jo Long guide, recounting a story. A large pit trap intended for a deer had caught a tiger instead, reputed by the Bahnar Jo Long to be the last one living in the area. A bamboo spear had pierced right through the big cat’s eye and the animal had fallen into a watercourse and died of its injuries.
Mr. Polng tells us that years before this happened, his father was attacked by a tiger on a hunting trip and lost an eye after he was mauled. There is no doubt in his mind that these two incidents are related in some way. That it was almost inevitable.
Mr. Polng is a Bahnar and a member of the Bahnar Jo Long, one of 40 ethnic hill-tribe groups living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. As animists, they believe every natural thing is alive with a spirit. People, animals, plants, trees and even the weather have important feelings that are all connected and must be deeply respected.
The forest and everything within it must be cared for, and acts such hunting or felling a tree can have long-lasting impacts for all surrounding natural energies on the mountain. Destructive actions of this nature are often discussed before they are undertaken, either as a tribe or with a shaman who can communicate with the spirits that might be affected.
'The forest and everything within it must be cared for, and acts such hunting or felling a tree can have long-lasting impacts for all surrounding natural energies on the mountain.'
The journey to Mr. Polng was long. We travelled first from the Central Highland city of Pleiku to the town of Kon Tum, then 70km northeast by motorbike along dusty, pot-holed roads to the remote Kon Ray mountains. Our bikes were continually dwarfed by gargantuan logging trucks heading in the other direction, and enveloped in billowing clouds of hot red dust that covered every inch of our rides and bodies.
The dense, dark-green mountains on the horizon came slowly into reach. The tarmac highway was replaced by rutted off-road tracks leading through wild banana trees and football-pitch-sized rice fields shouldered by steep ravines and thick forest.
A clearing at the end of one dipping track indicated our destination village. A barefoot group of inquisitive-but-shy children helped direct us to the large Bahnar communal house: the most important building in the village, used for meetings and rituals, and built east to west on pillars, reminiscent of an enormous thatched sail.
'The warm alcohol had a memorable kick, and given we hadn’t eaten much that day, probably wasn’t the best preparation for the remaining trek up into the high mountains, where we would be staying for the night.'
Bahnar Jo Long men and women are considered equal, and generally share hunting, foraging and building tasks. We found ourselves among many male and female elders. This included the kindly Chief of the tribe, Mr. Deng, a short man with light-grey hair and leathery, dark-brown skin. He wore a permanent welcoming smile and was quick to erupt into delighted fits of shrieking laughter.
The Central Highlands is a lot cooler than the rest of tropical Vietnam, so we gave Mr. Deng a gift of warm outdoor clothing to share with the tribe. In return we were gleefully encouraged to drink homemade rice wine from a clay pot doing the rounds. The warm alcohol had a memorable kick, and given we hadn’t eaten much that day, probably wasn’t the best preparation for the remaining trek up into the high mountains, where we would be staying for the night. Without much ceremony, just a nod and smile, Mr. Deng gave us permission to continue to meet the community of Bahnar Jo Long families living on the mountain above us.
Our journey to this point was only made possible by our guide Mr. Anh, a local artist and sympathetic intermediary to the Bahnar Jo Long living in these remote hills. As translator, he quickly became our primary source of information. He was on good terms with the local police and government authorities - essential in this area, where historical tensions between indigenous groups and the Vietnamese government have led to travel restrictions. Government paperwork and passport checks were required before we left town, and we left duplicate paperwork with the surly local police as we neared the mountains.
Though there was fierce fighting in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam), people living in the mountains said the war largely passed them by. They could hear shelling and passing planes, but there was no fighting on the mountain. It was harder to find food but, hidden in the forest, their way of life went largely undisturbed.
However, Mr. Anh told us through tears that his experience of war was devastating. His father went missing in action fighting the North Vietnamese Army somewhere in the forest near Kon Tum, and his family had to relocate to Ho Chi Minh. His father was never found.
The Bahnar Jo Long’s low-impact, harmonious way of life is increasingly under threat from illegal logging and rapid infrastructural development like highways. We could sometimes hear the distant buzz of chainsaws from what could only be illegal logging operations deep in the forest. When we asked about this, the Bahnar Jo Long said they felt powerless to resist or approach groups of men logging for fear of conflict and violent retaliation.
Alongside these concerns of habitat destruction, the elders told me they also were worried about the direction their children and teenagers were taking. The temptation of video games and encroaching towns was strong for these younger ones, and the Bahnar Jo Long adults feared they would not want to pursue the hard life of living self sufficiently from the forest.
'We could sometimes hear the distant buzz of chainsaws from what could only be illegal logging operations deep in the forest. When we asked about this, the Bahnar Jo Long said they felt powerless to resist or approach groups of men logging for fear of conflict and violent retaliation.'
As we waved to Mr. Deng and his community in the foothills, we joined a narrow trail that led to a high, open ridge. From this elevation we could see the first of the Bahnar Jo Long huts, built with bamboo on stilts adjacent to a small area of cleared forest. Beyond this appeared neat squares cut into the forest for rice cultivation, like a sheep’s heavy fleece being sheared. We could see further huts in groups of twos or threes dispersed around the hillsides higher up.
Bahnar Jo Long land is occupied, not owned. People usually remain in one place for two or three years before a community of families moves to a new area of the forest, letting the jungle reclaim their patch so as not to deplete the area of its food, firewood or animals. Families help one another build new homes.
Arriving in this small settlement, we were greeted by the elegant Mrs. Soi and her three daughters. She invited us into her home, where she taught us that Bahnar Jo Long women say they “catch their men” rather than “find a husband,” like in many other cultures. Their word for love is their word for fire, as in: “Do you have the fire for her?”
The women of the remote Central Highlands decide where the family will live and when they will move their temporary homes. Like all of the Bahnar Jo Long we would meet in the coming days, Mrs. Soi was gentle and graceful, but wore a definite air of self-confidence and pride. “Because he is a very good hunter of birds, and I like to eat birds,” she replied when we asked why she had married her husband.
The community of several houses was spread widely through the forest. As we walked further into the mountains to reach our spot for the night, the vegetation thickened and the afternoon shadows lengthened, keeping the air cool.
We slept in a hut larger than others we had visited earlier in the day, with a stilted floor for an extended family and a litter of young pigs kept safely below. The hut contained a small assortment of cooking pots and pans, woven baskets and small hunting traps hanging on fire-blackened bamboo walls.
The children were curious about us, but polite, as we ate rice cakes and warmed by the welcome fire. The rice wine began to flow again as the sun quickly faded. I began to feel at home and grew sleepy as we sat swapping stories and questions about home and listening to the men sing ancient Bahnar Jo Long songs.
In the morning, Mr. Polng proudly woke us up and took us for breakfast in a nearby wild-orange orchard, pointing out other crops like tobacco, bamboo shoots and wild bananas along the way. At the cultivated fields he explained that they would cycle any excess produce to the local town to sell at the market in exchange for money to buy pigs, chickens, petrol and tools.
We spent days in this fashion, trekking around the jungle with Mr. Polng. He always walked softly and silently, clearing a way for us through a forest with no pre-existing paths. He pointed out plants used for medicinal purposes and demonstrated small, skilful traps used for hunting birds and rodents. We would respect areas of forest sacred to his ancestral family by not cutting back plants or vegetation.
Sometimes he would forage for a plant he called King Vegetable: a wild vegetable growing in the mountains all year round. It tasted a little like spinach, and although it’s not in demand commercially in Vietnam, mountain people use it as a staple food. King Vegetable served with wild pak choi, pork mince and garlic on a banana leaf made for a fantastic dish - one of the tastiest things I have tried in Asia.
I started to feel more and more comfortable in these remote ancestral forests, and was honoured to be experiencing such a gentle, ancient way of life. The Bahnar Jo Long were so respectful in their approach to natural resources and the welcome they afforded me. They navigated the forest and tenderly sang stories to their children at night with the same graceful care. Both acts contained lessons in living in harmony with your environment and respecting your family, past and present. And without many of the distractions and technologies of the modern world, there was space to absorb their beliefs.
'The Bahnar Jo Long were so respectful in their approach to natural resources and the welcome they afforded me. They navigated the forest and tenderly sang stories to their children at night with the same graceful care. Both acts contained lessons in living in harmony with your environment and respecting your family, past and present.'
I have never been so aware of our own interconnected place in the natural world, and the care we need to place upon it. For the Bahnar Jo Long, even getting enough calories means noticing: being intensely present among the birdsong and insect hum. Whilst I will never have the skills or knowledge of Mr. Polng, he and his people have helped me practise this noticing, whether by observing the smallest details on the forest floor or sitting against a tree and closing my eyes and listening. Now, wherever I am, the forest offers a welcome stillness and a temporary respite from the hectic pace that rules over many of us.
As we descended the mountains, back among the logging trucks and karaoke bars of Vietnam’s relentless pursuit of development, I felt a vivid longing to be back with the gentle company of family, telling stories to the scent of wood smoke.