Geographical situation and agriculture
Vietnam has borders with three other countries : Cambodia, Laos and China. The town of Kontum, which is the capital of the province of the same name, is in the Central Highlands of Vietnam near to the borders with Cambodia and Laos. This province covers 9 934 km² and is inhabited by 330 000 people. Its economy is mainly agrarian.
Kontum is situated at an altitude of 530m on the banks of the Dak Bla river. It is surrounded by the annamite mountain range called Dãy Trường Sơn in Vietnamese (the highest summit of this range is at 2598m). Ancient forests with precious trees cover half the surface of the province (ironwood, sandalwood, teak and ebony). There are few wild animals because of subsistence hunting.
Without access to the more profitable high-value large-scale crops (rubber, tea, coffee, pepper), the Mountain-Dwellers must make do with growing cassava, because it grows quickly with little financial investment. Some of them do however grow a little tea, coffee and pepper. The climate is favourable for growing vegetables and exotic fruit. They also raise some animals : small buffaloes, small black pigs and poultry.
Map of Vietnam with its three borders
The Vietnamese currency is the dong or VND. The average exchange rate is 25 000 dongs for 1 €.
It is easy to become a multi-millionaire in dongs : when you withdraw the equivalent of 100 € from a cash machine, you receive 2 500 000 dongs in exchange.
There are some coins but they are rare. The Vietnamese prefer bank notes the value of which go from 1 000 to 500 000 dongs (i.e. from 0,04 to 20 €).
On top of being a multi-millionaire, you also have impressively thick wads of notes. The smaller notes are often made from old and damaged cotton paper, the larger notes are made from polymer and are in good condition.
The population is predominantly made up of Viêts, officially called Viêt Kinh (the Vietnamese diaspora being called Viêt Kieu). The Viêt Kinh represent 85.7 % of the Vietnamese population (85 846 997 people in the 2009 census). The remaining 14.3 % are made up of 53 ethnic minorities.
The ethnic minorities
In the Central Highlands, more than half of the population belong to ethnic minorities. They are collectively known as “Mountain-Dwellers” or “Brown populations” because of their darker skin. In Kontum the main ethnic group which we help is the Bahnar group (Ba Na in Vietnamese). But there are also Rongaos, Sedangs and Jaraïs. 72 % of our sponsor children are Bahnars, 24.5 are Rongaos and 3.5 % are Viêt Kinhs.
In number of people, the Bahnars are 11th out of 53 ethnic groups. They represent 0.27 % of the total Vietnamese population.
Linguistically, the Bahnar are the largest ethnic group among the Mon-Khmer language family in the Central Highlands. The different Mon-Khmer languages are spoken in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Manacca peninsula in Malaysia, Laos, and Burma amongst other countries. Along with the Munda language spoken in India, they form the austro-asian language family.
Life in Kontum
Traditionally the Mountain-Dwellers live in houses on stilts grouped together around a communal house or Rong.
The houses are very basic as you can see in this slide-show.
The Central Highland economy is essentially agrarian. The Mountain-Dwellers make their living from farming, hunting and gathering. Their main crop is cassava which grows quickly with little financial investment, but a big effort clearing stones from the land. They walk many kilometres to sell their surplus at the market. Their living conditions are constantly worsening because they are always pushed further back into the mountains. There are several explanations for this : defoliation by the evil agent orange during the war, the arrival of Vietnamese refugees from the North and of settlers from the over-populated coastal plains. On the good land settlers grow intensively coffee, tea and rubber.
En 2016, le salaire moyen mensuel vietnamien était de 124 €. Les salaires que nous versions In 2016, the average monthly Vietnamese wage was 124 €. Before the temporary closure of our nursery school, the wages paid to the staff were as follows :
– Teacher (wage imposed by the government) : 70 €,
– Cook : 21.20 €,
– Caretaker : 17.20 €,
– Cooking assistant : 13,20 €.
Originally, the Mountain-Dwellers were Animists believing that living beings, objects and natural elements are all imbued with the vital force of a spirit. As early as 1890, and even more after 1941, French catholic missionaries took interest in these populations. They started to address the subject of eduction, and opened an orphanage called “reception centre for abandoned children”.
Nowadays, the numerous small orphanages in and around Kontum are called “Vinh Son” in reference to Saint Vincent de Paul. Because of the missionaries’ interest many Mountain-Dwellers converted to catholicism. As of the 1960s with the arrival of the Americans, protestantism also spread.
During our different visits to Kontum, we have attended Masses where folklore blends with religious ritual giving a most exotic effect : girls in local costume, gong players, etc…
Graffiti on the wall of a café in Kontum