Simple existence

Like many minorities, the Ca Dong people in the mountains of Quang Ngai live fairly basic lives.

By Thuy Duong on October 19,2017 10:15 AM

Simple existence

photos: Duong Thuy

On the day we began our charity trip to villages of the Ca Dong ethnic minority group in Son Tay district in central Quang Ngai province, the sunny summer weather blanketed the entire central region with sweltering heat. The sky was blue, with bundles of white clouds floating in the air like islands of snow. We first went to Quang Ngai city to spend a night at a hotel overlooking the Tra River, which is dotted by some sand dunes. After a relaxing night, upon waking we prepared food and drinks for the trip out to Son Tay. On the bus, our guide Tuan told us it’s about 100 km from Quang Ngai city to Son Tay district, but the road is narrow and rough and has sharp twists and turns. For this reason, we set out early.

At first, we didn’t pay too much attention to his words, but about half way through the journey the air was full of mist and the road did indeed begin to twist and turn, making a few of us anxious. We then heard that a large group of people in Son Tay had been waiting for us since early morning. It made us excited and we shrugged off our tiredness and anxiety, calling on the driver to get us there as quickly as possible.

THE PEOPLE CHOOSE TO SOLEMNISE MARRIAGES WHEN THE MOON IS FULL. IF THE MOON DOESN’T SHINE BRIGHTLY ON THE CHOSEN EVENING, THE GROOM’S FAMILY CAN POSTPONE THE WEDDING, WHICH THE BRIDE’S FAMILY MUST ACCEPT.

At an altitude of more than 1,000 metres above sea level, Son Tay district is home to the Ca Dong ethnic minority people. Tuan told us that the Ca Dong were originally part of the Xo Dang people in Kon Tum province in the central highlands. After conflict of some sort about two centuries ago, the Ca Dong decided to move further to the east of the Truong Son (Annamite) Mountain Range and eventually settled in Son Tay.

Today, the Ca Dong don’t acknowledge that they were once part of the Xo Dang people, because their customs and accents have changed a great deal. However, their cultural hallmarks, like their custom of worshipping the gods of the river, mountain, and forest, have remained the same. It appears the Ca Dong have been strongly impacted by the customs of the Kinh people, who make up the majority of Vietnam’s population.

Healthy habits

The hard life and cold nights in the mountains mean that what the Ca Dong eat and drink are designed to keep them warm. They don’t drink coffee, but chew a type of leaf medicine. To prepare the leaves, the Ca Dong cut them from certain plants, crush them and mix the powder with a substance made from snails. ‘The Ca Dong believe that chewing this helps them stay healthy, have strong teeth and healthy hair, and cures skin diseases and internal complaints,’ Tuan told us.

As for spiritual beliefs, the Ca Dong people worship Co da (a type of plant), which they pick from the forest to decorate their home during the Buffalo Stabbing Ceremony, which is held to celebrate a new rice crop. Tuan showed me the plant and it resembled a type of fern that was easily found along the banks of the nearby spring.

The chief of the Ca Dong village showed his respect for our charity group coming from HCMC by inviting us to share a meal normally consumed to thank their god. We were a little surprised to see that the main dish was made from manioc and some rice. The manioc leaves were also used in other dishes. The snail dish, cooked with ranh vegetable, is considered a luxurious soup.

Simple existence

The Ca Dong also use a lot of salt to preserve fish for later use. They may smoke the salted fish or pound them into small pieces and mix them with lemongrass. Their farm animals include buffalo, cows, goats and pigs, but they rarely kill them for meat because they don’t have enough animal feed to fatten them properly. It may take a pig two or so years to reach a weight of 25 kg.

Love in the hills

‘Ca Dong people are pretty open-minded about love,’ Tuan told me as we strolled around the village. ‘Ca Dong girls like to get married at 16 or 17. This is why some women have three or four children before they reach their mid-20s. In general, their lives depend heavily on the forest, and they consider everything to be simple.’

When a wedding is being organised, the bride’s family asks the groom’s family to engage a go-between, known as a Bla in their language. The Bla is respected by all in the village, because in addition to a wide knowledge of their customs and traditions, the Bla is given the right to sing a song wishing good luck. The Bla is said to represent the spirits and the gods at festivals celebrated by the Ca Dong people.

The people choose to solemnise marriages when the moon is full. If the moon doesn’t shine brightly on the chosen evening, the groom’s family can postpone the wedding, which the bride’s family must accept.

While girls from the Tay and Thai ethnic minority peoples present two floral blankets as dowry, Ca Dong girls present a bundle of firewood to her husband’s household. This shows that the girl has been recognised as a spirit of the groom’s family. She is then responsible for keeping the house’s stoves warm, which means the family will always have sufficient food to eat during the day and feel warm during the colder months.

Lovely gifts

We presented our gifts to the Ca Dong and then walked around the quiet local area for a time. White clouds floated around nearby mountains that stretched as far as the eye can see.

Some timid local kids looked out through windows to sneak a peek at us as we wandered along the village paths. When we tried to take some photos of them, they all covered their faces with their hands, making it difficult to get some nice shots.

Saying goodbye to the peaceful green area and its plain country people, we returned to Quang Ngai city with a few bundles of roots known locally as ‘pined-for wife’, as a souvenir of the mountainous district of Son Tay.

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