CoTu people

Hidden in the Heartland

31 March 2015

Hidden in the greenery of central Vietnam’s hilly Quang Nam province, Vietnam’s smallest ethnic minority, the Co Tu, find a way to preserve a tradition and culture that dates back nearly 3,000 years.

High and deep within the rolling river valleys of central Vietnam’s Truong Son Mountains live the Co Tu, one of the smallest ethnic minorities in the country. Numbering roughly 60,000, the Co Tu have lived in small villages in these mountains which lie not far from Da Nang and Hoi An, for nearly 3,000 years and have historically been revered as fierce warriors and devoted spiritualists.

A young Co Tu girl eats a snack on one of the few developed village roads in Boh Hoong Village, Quang Nam Province

A young Co Tu girl eats a snack on one of the few developed village roads in Boh Hoong village, Quang Nam Province

As you walk through their villages, you will find the amenities to be simple. Wooden, rattan and bamboo homes built to accommodate more than one family are flanked by leafy gardens of cassava, taro, chilli and sweet potato. Roads are little more than dirt and stone pathways that weave among the basic houses. And the Co Tu themselves, when not occupied with work, are busy gossiping or relaxing in the cool mountain shade.

Wooden, rattan and bamboo homes built to accommodate more than one family are flanked by leafy gardens of cassava, taro, chilli and sweet potato.

A society of subsistence, the Co Tu still rely on their men’s hunting ability to supply the lion’s share of protein. “Traditionally we used crossbows and spears to hunt,” says Pi, a resident of the Co Tu village of Boh Hoong, “but when guns came, well it became a lot easier. Then when the government in Vietnam banned guns we had to change again, so we started to trap, and occasionally use an air gun.” Though they’ve been forced to adapt, the Co Tu still cling to their traditional way of living, hunting anything that shares the mountains with them, from wild boar to wild dog, buffalo and chicken.

Animals, however, weren’t always the villagers’ sole quarry. Prior to the 1950s, the Co Tu were revered as some of the fiercest warriors in Vietnam. Often engaged in inter-village warfare, the Co Tu went so far as to have included cannibalism in their brutal methodologies during times of war to ingest the spiritual strength of enemies. Their feared reputation, however, was embraced by both the Southern Vietnamese Army and the Northern Vietnamese Army as they anxiously courted the tribe to fight for their respective sides during what the Vietnamese call the American War. Why? Because putting fear into the enemy’s eyes was the ultimate goal, and at that time nobody in Vietnam was more feared than the Co Tu.

A Lăng Bãy, 85, wears his medal-adorned Vietnamese People’s Army uniform and hat in front of his home in Boh Hoong Village

A Lăng Bãy, 85, wears his medal-adorned Vietnamese People’s Army uniform and hat in front of his home in Boh Hoong village

Yet for the Co Tu, the war served merely as a platform from which to protect one’s village, and to display the fierce loyalty that lies within the Co Tu villagers. A Lăng Bãy, a Co Tu veteran, says the reason he fought was simply to protect his village, “When I was 20, the elders asked me to protect my village from another village—from a man who killed our friend with a spear. And when I joined the military, it was for the same reason: to protect my village, my friends, my family and the elders.”

“…. And when I joined the military, it was for the same reason: to protect my village, my friends, my family and the elders.”

The loyalty extends not just to the living in Co Tu society, but to the spiritual world as well. Spiritual offerings and ceremonies are an integral part of life – the Co Tu society firmly believes that a spirit resides in each and every living being on earth; by maintaining the connection with this spiritual world, the Co Tu people are assured of their safety and survival. And while this is a patriarchal society, the central responsibility for spiritual guidance falls on the village’s women. The Co Tu women, being sensitised to spiritual promptings and influences, are not only tasked with child-raising, planting and harvesting but also hold the authority for maintaining and organising the connections between a Co Tu village and the spiritual world.

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The heads of sacrificed cows are often presented as offerings to the spirits in Co Tu spiritual ceremonies, before they are offered, however, they must first be boiled and cleaned

Spirituality here manifests itself as a series of modest offerings and vibrant festivals. Men seek to appease Comor Bar—the goddess of the hunt and all animals—by offering cuts of meat and horns from previous hunts while women organise some of the larger spiritual festivals that are so often witnessed in the mountain villages. While the grandest such celebration is marked by the slaughter of animals for Comor Bar in the waning summer months, song and dance add colour to, and are also important components of, the culture’s festive spirit.

Men connect to the spirit world with the Tung Tung dance – they beat and thrash drums as their comrades, entranced in spiritual ecstasy, glide and spring and convulse with blades and bows chanting to their spirit guides. And for the women, the spiritual gatekeepers of Co Tu life, it is in their Ya Ya dance that they soothe and swoon as their silhouettes glide elegantly to and fro in front of the communal bonfire.

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Traditional dances of the Co Tu people are oftentimes held around bonfires at dusk: here villagers participate in the Za Za and Gong dances in Boh Hoong village

Perhaps it is this spirituality and connectedness that has allowed the Co Tu to continue living as they have, as remnants of the past; or maybe it is their adaptability to change, their dedication and their warrior mindset. Whatever the reasoning is, the fact remains that over the course of nearly 3,000 years the Co Tu have maintained both their culture and tradition.

… they beat and thrash drums as their comrades, entranced in spiritual ecstasy, glide and spring and convulse with blades and bows chanting to their spirit guides.

Despite this, the Co Tu have not remained totally isolated from change. Having begun working as labourers and commercialising their local handicrafts, those within the Co Tu society are now increasingly participating in a local economy that they had for so long stayed out of. Furthermore, in pursuing methods of the modern hunt such as the use of firearms and modern trapping techniques, they have also adjusted to certain technological changes. And perhaps the largest influence that is altering traditional Co Tu society is the growth of Vietnamese Buddhism. While traditional spiritual beliefs still make up the core of Co Tu life, some Co Tu villages are becoming more open to the growing Buddhist contingency. “We never used to celebrate Tết in old Co Tu society,” says Pi about the Vietnamese lunar New Year, “But then we saw so many people having fun, playing games and having a nice time that we decided to join in the celebrations.”

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A young Co Tu warrior wearing a traditional Co Tu outfit carries a handwoven rattan men’s basket in Boh Hoong village

It becomes clear that it’s not that the Co Tu minority is immune from the change that is so rapidly happening around the world, it’s simply a matter of whether or not they want to embrace it. And in these hidden mountain villages, you’ll often find that while the Co Tu are willing to change, it only happens when they want it to.

So while the rest of the world continues to alter, the Co Tu have held tight to what has allowed them to flourish for nearly 3,000 years – tradition and culture. In the face of global change and growth, the Co Tu have reminded us that there is still a home for ancient culture and tradition, and that home – not far from Hoi An in the bosky villages tucked away in central Vietnam’s heartland – is Co Tu country.

Co Tu villagers rely heavily on mountain streams and rivers, like this one in Boh Hoong Village, for bathing, cleaning, fishing and drinking purposes

For more information regarding transportation to, tours of and accommodation at the traditional Co Tu villages, please contact the Concierge Team at The Nam Hai Hoi An via email at concierge@thenamhai.com or by telephone at (84) 510 394 0000.

(Featured image: A Lăng Bãy, a Co Tu elder, discusses Co Tu tradition in his home in Boh Hoong village. Sporting traditional clothing and jewellery, Bãy speaks only the local Co Tu language and doesn’t understand nor speak what is considered modern Vietnamese.
Co Tu images number 3, 4 and 5 are courtesy of Active Adventures Travel Vietnam)

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Hidden in the Heartland | Vietnam | GHM Journeys
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Hidden in the greenery of central Vietnam’s hilly Quang Nam province, Vietnam’s smallest ethnic minority, the Co Tu, find a way to preserve its traditions and culture.
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