The Katu

A cluster of faces are crammed-jammed into the low overhang of a rounded doorway. Every time I look up the children giggle, blush, and scatter. A few seconds later they’re back, grinning self-conscious smiles and staring at one of the few Westerners they have ever seen. There is something simple and endearing in their curiosity. Still, none of them have the gumption to actually enter the hut. Not until the village elder, Mr. Tren, crouches beside me, claps me on the shoulder, and begins trying to teach me words in his language. That proves to be the ice-breaker. The children gather closer and listen as I butcher the words. I apologize for this in Vietnamese. Then Mr. Tren teaches me to apologize in Katu, which sends everyone into further laughter. Soon the tiny dwelling is crowded with people of all ages. The room comes alive. Around me I see white teeth flashing in sun-darkened faces and the golden glimmer of brass jewelry caught in the firelight. I hear rapid-fire Katu interspersed with laughing. One voice dominates: that of Mr. Tren. He is perched at my side on a wooden bench and his voice seems too big for the tiny dwelling. Although well into his seventies or eighties, he is one of the liveliest characters I have ever met: he keeps a dynamic conversation flowing. He is eager to share all aspects of Katu culture with me and learn about my own culture. Within half an hour I have the feeling that I am meeting old friends for the first time.

Katu dwelling
Katu dwelling

I have come to this remote mountain village on my way to survey an area in the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve. After four hours of brutal hiking we reach a group of huts serried around an earthen courtyard. We had arrived at a traditional Katu villages in central Vietnam. The Katu are an ethnic minority group who have lived for centuries in the highlands of central Vietnam and Laos. They have traditionally subsisted on hunting and gathering, live in small villages surrounded by a communal house, and have spiritual beliefs tied to forest deities. Few people have knowledge of the forest on par with the Katu. Their livelihoods are intricately intertwined with the forest and this gives them unprecedented insight into its secrets. As a biologist it was a treat for me to sit down and talk with former hunters about the animals that live in the jungles that I so love. Mr. Tren, as the most experienced hunter in the village, led the discussion and eagerly answered my questions. We talked about the seldom-seen dark muntjac that lives in the thickest jungle hideaways. We talked about the tigers that once roamed these forests and now exist only as ghostly memories in the minds of the oldest villagers. And of course we talked about Saola. However, before we could delve deep into the subject, Mr. Tren noted with a wave of his hand that it was getting late and that we should continue our discussion in the morning. I agreed. It was approaching midnight, we were all exhausted from the hike, and the rice wine was beginning to take it’s toll. But before he could leave I notice a serow skull displayed on the wall. “Do you have Saola trophies here?” I ask. Mr. Tren rose to his feet and nodded. “Tomorrow I will show you. And we will talk about Saola.”

Serow skull
Serow skull
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