Press reports on the Olympics gymnast Sunisa Lee, a member of the Hmong tribe from the Vietnam highlands, reminded me of my time in her part of the world. Reading about her brought back memories of the Montagnards, of which the Hmong were a part.
During the thirteen years from 1962 to 1975 when I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S., I frequently worked in the mountainous area known as the Central Highlands or Western Highlands. This area, located along the Cambodian and Laotian border, was mountainous and sparsely populated, a rough and rocky terrain with little vegetation. The Hồ Chí Minh trail, used by the North Vietnamese to infiltrate troops into South Vietnam, wound through mountains on both sides of the border. The highlands were the home of non-Vietnamese tribes known as the Montagnards, a French term meaning “mountain people.” The Vietnamese called them người Thượng, which means “highlanders.”
There were thirty or so distinct Montagnard tribes living in the highlands, the Hmong being one of them. They numbered two and a quarter million people in at least six different ethnic groups, each with their own language. They had originally lived in the lowlands, but before the ninth century they were driven into the mountains by the Chams and Cambodians before the people we now call the Vietnamese came down from southern China to inhabit what we now call Vietnam.
During my time in the highlands, I regularly ran into tribal members who didn’t look anything like the Vietnamese. I couldn’t speak their language, and they knew no English, so we did the best we could to communicate in Vietnamese. But their accents were so pronounced that I had a hard time understanding them, and, more often than not, we ended up using sign language.
The Montagnards, historically persecuted by the Vietnamese, were fiercely anti-Communist and fought along side U.S. troops against the North Vietnamese. I’m sure that after the North Vietnamese conquered South Vietnam, they persecuted the Montagnards mercilessly. I know that many of the mountain people fled to the U.S. and are still living here.
So it is with a heavy heart that I recall the Montagnards, reminded by Sunisa Lee. Her success in the Olympics bears witness to the fact that even the downtrodden can excel.