Vietnam Heritage, June-July 2011 — Recently, I made the acquaintance of Ms Pham Thi Trang, a native of the Xo Teng minority, a branch of the Xo Dang people in Dakto District, Kontum Province, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, who has written in her master-of-arts thesis about the behaviour of her people toward fire.
Ms Trang says that while it does not have the might of the gods, fire is among the objects of cult and veneration. In a rite of purification in the third lunar month, the fire of the past year is extinguished, in all hearths, from the communal house to every household, and it is seen out with respect. It must be extinguished with pure water naturally occurring within bamboo sections and then covered with a layer of clean sand or broken stone.
The new fire is created in the communal house and a woman selected by the village takes it to her kitchen. Sections of banana stalks are stacked into a square in the kitchen, where the paterfamilias sacrifices a cock and offers its blood and liver to the soul of fire, including the following words in prayer: ‘Let the fire remain quiet in the kitchen . . . Please accept and eat all that you like here . . . Please don’t eat any other thing in the house or in the store outside.’
The fire is made by the powerful striking together of two pieces of stone or the rubbing of a very fine thread on a section of bamboo until so much heat is generated that sparks fly into a wad of cotton and fire is kindled.
It seems that the need to go back periodically to the origin still remains somewhere in the psyche of the people of the Central Highlands. I suspect that this annual custom of creating fire according to ‘the ancient way of tradition’ is related to another custom of the Xo Dang, only lost about fifty to seventy years ago, the custom of ‘ninh nong’, as it is rendered in Vietnamese.
Ninh nong means a respite, a rest from farming. The months of ‘ninh nong’ are a time of leisure in the highlands, after the closure of the harvest, after the mother of the rice paddy has been ceremonially and gloriously brought to the store and while the next crop has not arrived. The next sowing only begins when on the horizon the first warm thunderclaps announce spring.
The period of rest usually lasts from two to three months, and those months are continuously and excitedly celebrated. In the region of Ngok Linh Mountain, on a specific day, the village patriarch leads the whole population under his authority deep into the mountains, abandoning all that is created by humans, such as the tools of production and means of living, including clothing.
The people walk silently into the deepest forests, and live together there wholly as in a primitive life of hunting and collecting, searching for caves and shelters, digging roots for food and striking stones to kindle fire. Usually after half-a-month, after a complete bath of purification of body and soul in the absolutely pure, original spring, they walk together to their village to restore the entire secular, modern mode of living.
*Nguyen Ngoc is a well-known writer and expert on Central Highland culture.