Interview: Dr. Ashley Carruthers on Central Vietnam

Dr. Ashley Carruthers en route to somewhere exciting photo courtesy of Velo Vietnam

Anthropologist Dr. Ashley Carruthers has been coming to Vietnam regularly for research, teaching and travelling since the early 1990s. He divides his time between Vietnam, where he is co-founder of Velo Vietnam, and Canberra where he lectures in anthropology.

When did you first come to Vietnam and what brought you here?

I grew up in Sydney, which is home to a large community of Vietnamese Australians. Having spent time living in the Cabramatta area, Sydney’s Little Saigon, I was struck by how generous and charismatic Vietnamese people can be. I was very keen to visit Vietnam when I had the chance. This came in the early 1990s, when I spent almost a year in Hanoi. It wasn’t always easy, but it was an amazing experience, and my fascination with Vietnam has stuck with me for over 20 years.

Once you got first-hand experience of the country, what about the culture here appealed to you?

The warmth and intensity of social ties in Vietnam is really amazing. Coming from Australia, I had never seen anything like it! I was also pretty charmed by how you come face to face with the whole rich literary and cultural tradition of Vietnam the moment you try to learn the language. It still amazes me when cyclo drivers and farmers spout poetry. That pretty much never happens where I come from. I also loved the way every single person was a culinary expert, and even the humblest street seller had an opinion about where to find the best phở.

How different was central Vietnam when you first visited?

It was and still is another country. The first time I went to Danang I recall finding it quite a miserable place, unhappy and turned in on itself despite the beautiful scenery. It was as though the city was still recovering from the wounds of the past, while Saigon and Hanoi had already moved on. The next time I visited, in the early 2000s, I found a more contented and philosophical place.

Every time I returned after that I saw Danang becoming more and more of a big, cosmopolitan city. It seems now everyone else has realised it is a great environment to live in!

Most visitors to Vietnam think of Sapa and around in terms of minority cultures, but central Vietnam also has a wealth of different hill peoples. What cultures can people discover in central Vietnam and what interests you about them?

The Central Highlands is home to a great variety of hill peoples, the most numerous being the Jarai, Rade, Bahnar, Koho, Mnong and Stieng. This region is actually more recently settled by Vietnamese people than the Northwest, and still has a very different kind of feel. In my favourite district, Tay Giang, the ethnic Vietnamese population numbers only 1%. I don’t believe there’s anywhere in the Northwest you can say that for. The great thing about many of these peoples is that they have a wonderfully rich material culture that visitors can start to engage with despite language barriers. There is nothing quite like a Bahnar longhouse. You see visitors just relax and start to sort of dwell in the house the moment they enter. And of course everyone likes to drink Montagnard jar liquor, or rượu can, which has to be consumed the proper ritual way, through long communal straws. It’s a bonding experience.

ashley carruthres

Where are some of the best places to discover and learn about minority cultures in central Vietnam?

Any of the big towns in the Central Highlands is a good place to start your acquaintance. The Katu areas of Quang Nam province are not so well known, but they are my favourite parts of the Central Highlands. Katu communal houses or Guols are at once places for social and ritual activity and living art galleries full of amazing wooden sculpture that speaks so strongly of the people’s bond with the jungle and its creatures. Probably the most accessible Katu experience is Bhohoong village, about 80km from Hoi An and 60km from Danang. This is a very special village homestay that, for me, manages to bring small scale cultural tourism into a living community in a way that is beneficial for villagers and visitors alike.

Why do you roll your eyes when you are told that Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups?

It’s just that this is such an arbitrary formula, and yet you hear it repeated as an article of absolute faith by all and sundry. Vietnam’s uplands—as is the case for all of Southeast Asia above a few hundred metres—are an overwhelmingly complex patchwork of different cultural, linguistic and religious communities. Renowned anthropologist James C. Scott has referred to the uplands of Southeast Asia as a “shatterzone,” and remarks that the ethnolinguistic diversity of the region is “bewildering.” Jean Michaud is reluctant even to refer to hill peoples as “tribes,” preferring the term “lineage groups.” So we are talking about some very loose and ever-changing configurations.

Thank you Dr. Ashley for your time!

To learn about Velo Vietnam, which Ashley runs with guidebook author and photographer, David Lloyd, visit www.velovietnam.cc

 

by David Lloyd

Based in Hanoi, David Lloyd works as Director of Sport at Topas Travel (topastravel.vn,) organising the Vietnam Mountain Marathon and other sports events. He is also Co-founder of bike tour and training camp company, Velo Vietnam (velovietnam.cc.) His writing and photography have been featured in publications including The New York Times.