Penniless plenty

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Peaceful A Tu Village, some 300 kilometers from Tam Ky, the capital of Quang Nam Province. Currency notes pass almost unnoticed here not because the villagers don't like them but because they have no need of them, or indeed opportunity to use them owing to A Tu's geographical isolation.

Cash is not the medium of exchange among the Co Tu people of far-flung A Tu Village in the central province of Quang Nam.

"What's the use of money?" exclaims 55-year-old Tơngôl Yêng, patriarch of the village in Tay Giang District like his father before him.

"Without money, I was born and grew up as strong as the Po Mu tree (Fujian cypress) here. I can plant rice, corn, cassava, as well as can keep chooks, dogs and pigs. That's enough to eat!"

Yêng grew up in the longest stilt house in Tay Giang, shared by 150 members of 30 families. The whole village lived under the same roof, and ate and worked together.

Thanks to their self-sufficiency, they did not need money to obtain the things they needed but relied on barter instead, and it's still the same today.

"Outside the village, money can buy many things, but here it is useless. If we need a new knife, a bush-hook or salt, we have corn and cassava to exchange," Yêng says while sipping Ta Dinh, an alcoholic beverage extracted from doac trees in the forest.

In the middle of the village, which is less than one hour's walk from the border with Laos, stands the sole grocery store. It is owned by Pơ Loong Thị Nhất.

"My neighbors often come to barter corn and cassava for salt. Many of them bring cincau leaves, Ngoc Linh ginseng, and honey to get candy, saltwater fish, wine," says Nhất.

She exchanges these goods, for other goods in demand, at a bigger store in the commercial center of Ch'Ơm Commune.

One of her customers, 30-year-old Tơngôl Hương, tells us, "When we're out of rice or salt, I go to the forest to fetch honey or ginseng, and if there is nothing to exchange, I can swap my dog."

Yêng says the villagers barter even across the border along the road called mã não (agate) from his village to Ka Don, a village in Laos' Se Kong province. When he was a boy, Yêng would often cross the forest to Laos to exchange semi-precious stones for a type of brocade called tút.

As a result, the Co Tu leader has made friends with many Laotian people who are willing to give him food and cattle in years when the harvest is poor. "Whatever I need, I just go there (Ka Don) and barter for it," he says.

Geographical obstacles

The first currency notes introduced to the people of A Tu came from Tay Giang District's Bank for Social Policy some years ago as financial support for budding business entrepreneurs among them.

Since then, the money has remained in the village of 200 people, but the total amount is less than the cash held at any small grocery shop in Vietnam.

If asked whether they have money, the villagers always respond "No money."

Currency notes pass almost unnoticed not because the villagers don't like them but because they have no need of them, or indeed opportunity to use them owing to A Tu's geographical isolation.

It's a full 300 kilometers from A Tu to Tam Ky, the capital of Quang Nam, and while it's only 40 kilometers to Axan Commune, the journey can take three hours in the wet season as the paths are treacherous and almost impassable.

The 40-kilometer-long route through dense forest is a quagmire, and mudslides are common, as are accidents. Indeed, people who venture forth from Axan bound for A Tu are warned of the dangerous journey ahead by soldiers at Border Post 649.

Because of the isolation, the village has retained its rustic beauty. Several of the Co Tu's traditional wooden houses on stilts still stand on the slopes of the Truong Son Range, and the people still cling to their traditional ways and are little affected by the world beyond theirs.

The village children might marvel at the currency notes given to them by visitors, and gleefully stuff them into their pockets, but they have no idea which notes are worth more and which are worth less.

Briu Liếc, party committee secretary of Tay Giang District, says money has no sway over the steadfast relationships and sense of community among the villagers.

"It (their self-sufficiency) is part of the village's culture, even nowadays. It also reinforces the closed, traditional relation between Vietnamese and Laotian people through goods barter," says Liếc.

The Co Tu (or Ca Tu, Ca Tang) are one of 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. Most of them live in the central provinces of Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Nam. Their population in Vietnam was 61,588 according to the 2009 census. They speak a language of the Mon-Khmer family.

The Co Tu typically eat rice cooked in bamboo stems such as zăr, aví hor, koo dep, koo gdhoong, and cha chắc, and drink a beverage called tavak. Their famous dances are the tung tung (performed by males) and ya yá (performed by females). They play h'roa in ordinary life. Traditional Co Tu homes are on stilts.

The tribal members who live on the Laotianborder are known for growing jute and weaving.

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