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date: 21 March 2018

The Regional Centrality of Vietnam’s Central Highlands

Summary and Keywords

Vietnam’s Central Highlands—or Tây Nguyên—area is usually described as remote, backward, and primitive, but this region has played a central role in the history of the surrounding states and the wider East and Southeast Asia region. Far from isolated, the Central Highlands engaged in trade in precious forest products with lowland states and beyond since at least the emergence of the Hinduized Cham states from the first centuries ce onward. Lowland and coastal states needed the support of local leaders and traders in order to boost their trade and tax revenues. In addition, as a buffer between various rivalrous polities now known as Vietnam, Champa, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the area occupied a strategic position in the wider mainland Southeast Asia region. With the emergence of a unified, neo-Confucianist Vietnamese state the region lost its centrality until the late colonial era, when its strategic value turned it into a battleground among various Vietnamese parties, France, and the United States. It was here that the outcome of the Indochina wars was determined, but at a terrible price for the local population. After the adoption of economic reforms in reunified Vietnam the Central highlands regained its economic centrality, predicated on the global prominence of its valuable cash crops such as coffee, tea, rubber, pepper, and cashew. This coffee boom was based on the labor of lowlander in-migrants, who displaced and dispossessed the highlanders in the process, turning the national and international integration of the Central Highlands and its renewed centrality into a tragic experience for the Central Highlanders. By taking the centrality of the Central Highlands seriously, I arrive at an alternative historical periodization.

Keywords: Central Highlands, Vietnam, Champa, trade, warfare, colonization


Why are Vietnam’s Central Highlands called central—central with reference to what? This rugged mountainous terrain crossed by deep river valleys and a number of fertile high plateaus made up of fertile red basaltic soil has conventionally been regarded a “remote area”—in Vietnamese: vùng xâu vùng xa; in French a hinterland. Presenting travelers with the friction of the terrain that James Scott (2009) attributed to the entire “Zomia” highland region bordering East and South Asia and the various mainland Southeast Asian states, the area was assumed to be at the margins of lowland states until modern states and technologies overcame the friction.1 In other words, rather than central, the Central Highlands have conventionally been regarded as peripheral to the surrounding lowland states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and to a lesser extent Laos. They were also different from the “Dong World” of chieftainships based on wet rice agriculture located in the highland valleys in the mountainous border regions connecting southern China with Southeast Asia.2 Yet the Central Highlands have a more central place in the history of the wider region than usually given credit for. This argument proceeds through the history of the Central Highlands, necessarily in connection with the surrounding highlands, lowland states, and the wider Southeast Asia region, revisiting some analyses made previously.

The Regional Centrality of Vietnam’s Central HighlandsClick to view larger

Map 1. The Central Highlands.

Source: Hickey, 1982.

But in order to be able to connect and compare, we need to delineate the Central Highlands, which is currently part of Vietnam. This upland region is located between the Annam cordillera (Chaîne Annamitique, Trường Sơn) running along the South China Sea to the east, the Mekong Delta to the south, and the Mekong river valley to the west and—rather arbitrarily—the 15th Parallel to the north. It includes the plateau of Kontum and Pleiku, the plateau of Darlac/Dak Lak, and the plateau of Djiring and Blao [Di Linh and Bảo Lộc]. The Annam cordillera rises up steeply from the coastal strip of Central Vietnam [Trung Bộ, Annam], with the highest peak Ngọc Linh, rising up to 2598 meters. To the west the geography becomes more undulating, gradually sloping down to the Mekong Valley. Most of the area flows into the Mekong River, major exceptions being the Ba and the Đồng Nai rivers and tributaries which empty east and south respectively into the South China Sea. To the north, the border separating Vietnam from the Laos “panhandle” follows the watershed of the Annam cordillera until the Ngọc Linh peak near the 15th Parallel, which marks the southernmost point where the Laos-Vietnamese border follows the Annam cordillera watershed. Further south the border—first between Vietnam and Laos and then between Vietnam and Cambodia—runs to the west of the Annam cordillera, incorporating the basaltic plateaus and the watershed of the Sesan and Srepok tributaries of the Mekong. In contrast with the watershed border separating Vietnam from Laos, there is no “natural” border separating Vietnam and Cambodia, and many of the local ethnic groups are cross-border, meaning that there is no historical cultural divide between the Cambodia-Laos and Vietnamese sides of the border, which was drawn and marked by the French during the colonial era. In order words, the Central Highlands as part of Vietnam are a historically recent construction. For argument’s sake I will commit the anachronistic sin of projecting the present borders into the past.

The Age of Commerce in the Central Highlands (10th–18th Century CE)

The Central Highlands in what is now Vietnam is commonly placed within a wider upland region encompassing the uplands stretching from Northeast India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar (Burma) to the west; Yunnan to the north; and Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia to the south and east. This wider upland region is oftentimes assumed to constitute one “culture area” in between the three subcontinents of South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, with their attendant regional specialisms. Willem van Schendel (2002) famously baptized this region Zomia, roughly after the word zo-mi (hill person) in several languages in the Myanmar-India-Bangladesh borderlands, in order to move the focus away from area studies specialisms that follow present-day subcontinental boundaries and disregard the commonalities in these uplands. Borrowing the neologism Zomia, James Scott (2009) emphasized the cultural antagonism of this upland region from the surrounding “Hinduized” and “Sinicized” lowland states. While convincingly debunking nationalist narratives that lock ethnic groups up within national states by pointing at cross-border connections and commonalities, the emphasis on a common cross-border geographic and culture area has the unintended effect of emphasizing difference and distance from lowland states and civilizations. According to this well-known colonial trope, highlanders are exoticized as ethnic “others” vis-à-vis lowlanders who developed states and civilizations in river valleys, deltas, and along the coast, influenced by the great Indian and Chinese civilizations from which the civilizational geographic name of Indochina was derived.3

The Regional Centrality of Vietnam’s Central HighlandsClick to view larger

Map 2. Indochina around 1400 ce.

Recent scholarship has convincingly debunked the idea that the Central Highlands were isolated from political, economic, and cultural developments in the surrounding lowlands. Before the Đại Việt polity in the northern Red River delta expanded southward in the second millennium CE, the coast of present-day central Vietnam was occupied by a series of small coastal principalities known generically as Champa. These small states were located in the many river deltas formed by the rivers coming down from the Annam cordillera and Central Highlands, and while culturally integrated they could be politically autonomous from one another. The Cham were lowland agriculturalists and traders, speaking an Austronesian language akin to Malay, and like other Malay groups developed a refined civilization predicated on Hindu religious, scriptural, and cultural influences from present-day India. The Cham left behind numerous archaeological and artistic relics in the form of temples, towers, statues, and stelae.4

Between around 500 and 1500 CE these small Cham states wielded an outsize regional influence, politically and militarily rivaling the much larger polities of Đại Việt in the north and Angkor in the west. This influence was primarily based on trade, as the Cham ports were frequented by Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Indian, Persian, and Arabic ships, while the Cham—like other Malay—were themselves excellent seafarers and developed advanced maritime technologies, not only in shipbuilding and navigation, but also in constructing sweet water wells close to the shoreline in dry coastal areas and on the islands in the South China Sea. Their maritime exports consisted of silk, gold and silver, precious stones, spices (especially cassia), precious woods like eaglewood (used for incense), resins, beeswax, elephant tusks, rhino horns, and tiger parts, as well as slaves. Their imports consisted primarily of bronze items like gongs and water vessels and Chinese ceramics jars. In fact, most of the exports consisted of forest products from the Highlands, while the imports—supplemented with sea salt and fish sauce—were destined for the Highlands as well. Much of this trade consisted of barter, but especially the more official trade on behalf of princes and kings could take on the form of mutual tribute. In addition, commodities could be captured through raiding, as exemplified in the trade of slaves, who would have to be appropriated either through violent capture or, alternatively, through indebtment.5

The Cham principalities had strong connections with the upland groups in the Annam cordillera and Central Highlands, especially with fellow Austronesian speaking groups like the Jarai, Êđê [Rhadé], Churu, and Raglai, but also with Austroasiatic speaking groups such as the Hrê, Bahnar, Koho, and Ma. Notably, there are Cham archaeological remains in the Central Highlands—especially the Yang Prong tower north of Buôn Đôn in Đắk Lắk close to the present-day border with Cambodia, Kon Klor, and Kodo/Bomong Yang (near Kontum), and Yang Mum near the Ayun Pa confluence in the Jarai heartland territory in present-day Gialai province—as well as recorded legends among Highlanders about the Cham and their overlordship. Another indication of strong cultural and political ties between Cham and Highlanders is the historical fact that the last Cham princes left their regal treasures and archives among Churu and Roglai groups in present-day Lâm Đồng when their realm was incorporated into modern Vietnam in the 1830s. In 1970, anthropologists Jacques Dournes and Mervyn Jaspan deduced from this that the Cham must have been the overlords in the highlands of what he called Haut Champa. While that assertion has subsequently been disputed by other scholars who found that, in spite of cultural affinities and political ties between Cham and Highlanders, the Central Highlands never formed an integral part of the Cham polity, recent research suggests the existence of a Cham principality near Ayun Pa with political and ritual links to lowland Cham states.6

Located in small river deltas, the Cham political economies largely followed the “functional model” of coastal Malay states as developed by Bennet Bronson. The economic centers of these polities were the ports located at the river mouths, connecting riverine trade with overseas maritime trade. In Bronson’s model, the riverine system allowed for upstream and downstream transport between the harbor and the farthest point upstream where the river was still navigable. From this and other upstream markets trails went farther inland and up the mountains, connecting the riverine trade system with the various highland groups and—further afoot—the Lao and Cambodian polities. A Cham modification of the Bronson’s Malay model was that the political centers of the states were located on higher grounds inland and the ritual centers on coastal hills—like the Po Nagar tower in present-day Nha Trang—or in the foothills of the mountains—as in Mỹ Sơn in present-day Quảng Nam province. In addition, islands endowed with harbors and wells—like Cù Lao Chàm, Cù Lao Ré [present-day Lý Sơn], Phú Quý, and Poulo Condore7—functioned as offshore transshipment and provision places, enabling trade to take place off the mainland. In this expansive complex connecting overland, riverine, and maritime trade, the lowland principalities derived their prosperity from their spatial location as nodes connecting mainland and maritime trade, allowing traders and princes to capture a proportion of the commodities as profit, tax or tribute. On one hand this centered these lowland states within these trade networks, without giving them political or military dominance over the Highlands. On the other hand, it established the Central Highland as an important node in a regional trade network connecting mainland Southeast Asia with East Asia, insular Southeast Asia, South Asia, and further west—in particular in providing forest commodities that were much in demand in the wider region.8

The Regional Centrality of Vietnam’s Central HighlandsClick to view larger

Map 3. Bronson’s “functional model.”

Credit: Map redrawn by Martin McLellan after the original by Bennet Bronson, in Charles Wheeler (2003).9

The prominent role of Champa ended in 1471, when its army was decisively defeated by the much larger Đại Việt army, its main capital Vijaya (in present-day Bình Định) was conquered and razed, and its population massacred. Đại Việt occupied and colonized the former Cham territories of present-day Quảng Nam, Quảng Ngãi, and Bình Định, and reduced the remaining principalities to vassalage. In subsequent centuries the remaining principalities were gradually conquered, colonized, and transformed into Vietnamese provinces—the last state Panduranga was integrated into Vietnam in 1832. But Champa had a Việt successor state in Đàng Trong [the inner realm] or Cochinchina from 1600 until it was toppled by the Tây Sơn Rebellion (1773–1802). Although Đại Việt considered itself to be one state under one Lê dynasty emperor, in 1600 it practically split in two parts under two rival warlords: Đàng Ngoài [Tonkin] under the Trịnh in the north, and Đàng Trong under the Nguyễn in the south, with the dividing line being Quảng Bình, north of Huế. Being newly conquered, barely colonized, and lightly populated, Đàng Trong was demographically no match for its northern neighbor. Yet, as successor state on the territory occupied by the erstwhile Cham principalities, it was able to repel repeated attacks from the north, largely for economic reasons.10

As Li Tana, Andrew Hardy, and Salemink have shown clearly, Đàng Trong under the Nguyễn lords followed in the footsteps of the highlands-coastal-maritime trade practiced for centuries in Champa by capitalizing on the trade in highland forest products during the longer era dubbed the “Age of Commerce” by Anthony Reid. The ports of Hội An (near the erstwhile Cham city of Trà Kiệu) and—to a lesser extent—Quy Nhơn (near erstwhile Vijaya) and Đà Nẵng (also known as Tourane, near erstwhile Indrapura) were frequented by Chinese, Japanese, European, and a diverse array of Malay ships. Hội An hosted Chinese and Japanese commercial diasporas who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, considered it to be the most desirable port in Southeast Asia, because it was a gateway to Laos, Cambodia, and Siam but primarily because of a similar list of highland products as in Champa: the downstream trade included precious woods, rattan, was, honey, oxen, cinnamon, hemp, and cloth, while the upstream trade included salt, fish sauce, dried fish, Chinese ceramic jars, bronze pots and gongs, and ironware. The tax imposed on goods traded with the highlands as well as overseas constituted by far the largest revenue for the southern state, enabling the Nguyễn lords to keep a large standing army, maintain the defensive border wall with the north, acquire modern military technology from overseas, and sometimes enlist European allies or mercenaries against northern Đàng Ngoài. They simultaneously expanded their territory southward by incorporating more Cham polities as well as by prising parts of the Mekong Delta from Cambodia.11

When the Việt replaced the Cham as overlords in the lowlands between 1471 and 1832, they quickly became the dominant population through a process of systematic colonization by the establishment of military colonies [đồn điền]. However, they usually did not venture as deep into the Central Highlands as did the Cham, did not leave any monuments, and hardly attempted to settle there. When the first Europeans arrived in Asia, they were not very much interested in the peoples living in the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia. Commerce and conversion being the main motivations for their ventures, the Europeans frequented the lowland but did not venture much beyond those. If the populations living in the mountainous areas bordering Laos, Cambodia, Cochinchina, and, still, Champa, were mentioned at all, it was in passing only. When, for instance, the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Christoforo Borri in his Account of Cochin-China spoke in 1631 of “a ridge of mountains inhabited by the Kemois,” it was only in order to describe the borders of Cochinchina. Borri described the highlanders as a “savage people, for though they are Cochin-Chinese, yet they no way acknowledge or submit to the King, keeping in the fastnesses of the uncouth mountains, bordering on the kingdom of Lais [Laos].”12 Similarly, when the Dutch East-Indies Company (VOC) merchant Gerard van Wuysthoff related his voyage in 1641–1642 to the kingdom of Lauwen (Laos), he mentioned a place called Phonongh, to the east of Sambor and Sambok on the Mekong river in Cambodia, where Chinese merchants would venture in order to acquire gold, elephant tusks, and rhinoceros horns. In contrast with Borri’s account of Cochinchina’s relations with highlander, Van Wuysthoff maintained that the Phonongh were dominated by the Cambodians and the Cham, a claim which was probably exaggerated.13

There were, however, relations between the kings of Cambodia and the pötao of the Jarai ethnic group which could be mistaken for tributary relations. For the Jarai and other ethnic groups in the Central Highlands the three pötao were ritual masters of crucial elements—fire [apui], water [ia], and wind [angghin]. The surrounding lowland states and European travelers considered them to be masters of territories (i.e., political leaders, as brought out in the vernacular terms samdech [Khmer for supreme leader]). Every three years the pötao would send a delegation bringing gifts of forest products to the Cambodian king to the Buddhist monastery of Sambok on the Mekong, while the Cambodian king would send expensive luxury items to Sambok, where a ritual exchange would take place. The objects gifted by the pötao played an important role in Cambodian court rituals, some of which had an agricultural function. In his study of these relations based on a 17th-century charter text for the Sambok monastery, Grégory Mikaelian writes that from a royal Khmer perspective these relations were conceived in kinship terms—the pötao being the nephews of the Khmer king. Not only do they provide the court with ritually crucial forest products, but they also were entrusted with the protection of the mountain routes between Cochinchina and Cambodia, thereby foreshadowing the central strategic position of the Central Highlands in the 20th century Indochina Wars. Regularly interrupted by political upheavals in Cambodia, these politico-ritual exchanges continued until the 1840s, when the Cambodian state became increasingly threatened by its neighbors Vietnam and Siam.14

There were similar tributary relations between the 19th-century Nguyễn imperial court in Huế and the so-called hỏa xá and thủy xá [Sino-Vietnamese for king of fire and king of water], and according to Jacques Dournes, the Jarai-Vietnamese tributary relations era may date back to the 16th century and last through the Đàng Trong era. Although the Jesuit missionary Cristofori Borri asserted that the Cochinchinese mandarins held no authority over the hinterland, there were extensive trade connections along the old riverine networks and the inland trails. In contrast with the Cham, however, the Việt traded at upstream markets and did not venture further inland. Yet, the importance of these trade connections were brought out through the famous Tây Sơn rebellion (1773–1802), which brought down the two rival realms Đàng Trong and Đàng Ngoài and unified Vietnam under the rebel dynasty of the three Nguyễn brothers (unrelated to the Nguyễn lords who ruled Đàng Trong). The rebellion started in the upstream market town Tây Sơn [literally West Mountain] located at the extreme end of the navigable Côn river in Bình Định, a site connecting the coastal town of Quy Nhơn with the trails over the An Khê and Mang Yang passes leading to the highlands and further to Laos and Cambodia. According to Li Tana, a decline in overseas trade in the late 18th century and the rise of corruption among mandarins resulted in an unsustainably high taxation of the highland trade. The Nguyễn brothers took up arms against tax officials and mandarins, supported by highlanders and remnants of the Cham population who suffered the most from the mounting exactions during the economic downturn. With their support Nguyễn Nhạc managed to capture the Quy Nhơn citadel in 1773, and subsequently in 1786 the capital of Đàng Trong, Phú Xuân (Huế) and of Đàng Ngoài, Thăng Long (Hà Nội) in 1787. The brothers repelled a Chinese incursion but their regime collapsed under the sustained attacks of a descendant of the Nguyễn lords, Nguyễn Ánh, who conquered Thăng Long in 1802 and crowned himself emperor Gia Long, establishing the Nguyễn dynasty.15

The reason for relating this history of the Tây Sơn rebellion at some length is that it demonstrates the importance of the Central Highlands in the history of Vietnam and other mainland Southeast Asian states, in spite of the absence of formal state structures in the area, which Borri and many other observers assumed indicated the remoteness of the region and backwardness of its inhabitants. In fact, where the ritual exchange with the pötao afforded the Cambodian monarchs ritual potency and the politico-military protection of its eastern border, the trade in forest products hailing from the highlands made the ports of Cochinchina temporarily premier destinations for international maritime trade, both with East Asian powers and with European powers. It was this trade in highland products and a complex of defensive walls along their mutual border that proved very effective during their 17th-century wars which allowed Đàng Trong to withstand Đàng Ngoài’s much more numerous population. Conversely, the collapse of this trade and the consequent economic woes and grievances of Highlanders caused the success of the Tây Sơn rebellion that conquered and unified both realms. In the 19th century this centrality of the Central Highlands would diminish under the Nguyễn dynasty.

Marginalization at the Hands of Lowland States (1802–1940)

Politically and culturally inspired by neo-Confucian ideology, emperor Gia Long (1802–1820) and his successors set out to consolidate and unify the state through infrastructural works like the construction of the Mandarin Road connecting north and south; the establishment of a uniform administrative system based on classic Chinese education; and the organization of a police and military defense system buttressed by citadels, fortifications, and the north-south “Mandarin Road.” Under the Nguyễn dynasty (1802–1945) Vietnam reached much of its current shape through the incorporation of the Mekong Delta and the delimitation of the border with Cambodia along the 87 km long Vĩnh Tế canal from Châu Đốc on the Mekong river to Hà Tiên on the Gulf of Siam, constructed between 1819 and 1824. This territorial shape earned Vietnam the colonial epithet of two rice baskets (the Red River and Mekong deltas) connected by a bamboo pole (the narrow coastal strip of Central Vietnam bordered by the steep Annam cordillera), thus excluding the Central Highlands lying west of the Annam cordillera. Given the relative clear demarcation of the northern border with China and the southern border with Cambodia, this meant that the Delta regions of Vietnam were (relatively) clearly separated from neighboring countries—even though the Mekong Delta itself was not yet fully colonized by Việt settlers and still largely populated by Khmer farmers. The mountainous hinterland of central Vietnam—the part of Trung Bộ [Annam] to the west of the geographic barrier of the Annam cordillera—remained, however, largely outside of the purview of the lowland state, practically making it a frontier region without demarcated borders.16

Under emperor Minh Mạng (1820–1841) Vietnam competed with the other emerging power in mainland Southeast Asia, Siam, for control over the smaller polities along the Mekong river: Cambodia and Champassak and other parts of southern and eastern Laos. Vietnamese armies and mandarins temporarily ruled or imposed suzerainty over parts of what is now Laos and Cambodia, but these endeavors were not lasting. The annexation, incorporation, and effacement in 1832 of the last Cham principality Panduranga, however, was complete and lasting, producing streams of Cham refugees into the highlands, Cambodia, Laos, Siam, Malaysia, and Hainan, where one can still find Cham diasporas today. The last Cham king deposited his regalia and archives among the Churu who, as an Austronesian ethnolinguistic group with great cultural affinity with the Cham were—like the Raglai and Hroy ethnic groups—often regarded as “Highland Cham” but who are now officially classified as a separate ethnic group. With the suppression of Champa the former Cham trade networks were also suppressed, and trade was centralized in a state-mandated system of ambulant traders doubling as tax collectors in the highland. In general, trade was not encouraged in a neo-Confucian ideology that privileged literati []—scholar-mandarins educated in Chinese classics—before farmers [nông] and artisans [công]. Traders [thương] found themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy and their imports and exports were heavily taxed by the court. The once thriving port of Hội An became a sleepy town because of the silting of the Thu Bồn river and because the Nguyễn emperors privileged the port of Đà Nẵng [Tourane] closer to their capital Huế, until it was bombarded and occupied by the French navy in 1858.17

One telling example of the marginalization of the Highlands under the Nguyễn dynasty is the Long Wall [Trường Lũy] of Quảng Ngãi and Bình Định, studied by Andrew Hardy and Nguyễn Tiến Đông. Construction of the wall was started in 1819 under the auspices of general Lê Văn Duyệt, the same person who oversaw the digging of the Vĩnh Tế canal in the Mekong Delta built by Khmer and Việt labor. The Long Wall was a 127 km rampart dotted with watchtowers, forts and gates, following the foothills along the Annam cordillera in a north-south direction, separating the lowlands—populated by the ethnic Việt (or Kinh)—from the highlands—mostly populated by the Hrê and Cor ethnic groups, renowned in past and present for their lush rice fields, husbandry, cinnamon, and trade in forest products. The conditions that produced the Tây Sơn rebellion in the late 18th century persisted in the highlands of central Vietnam in the early 19th century, resulting in a persistent series of revolts in the area referred to as the Đá Vách revolts in the historical record. An understandable interpretation of the wall was that it functioned as a defense mechanism and hence as a border, but Hardy’s recent research suggests that—much like the Vĩnh Tế canal—the wall was co-constructed by Hrê and Việt people, using the technologies used by these two groups. In addition, the location of forts and towers does not make sense for purely defensive purposes, but it does make sense in combination with the location of the gates, which simultaneously functioned as supervised market places. In other words, Hardy convincingly argues that the Long Wall separated two populations but facilitated their trade connections as well as the lucrative taxation. This is in line with the historical record about the late 19th century Sơn Phòng [mountain defense] program produced by general Nguyễn Tấn, namely that it was not simply a defense system but rather a supervised trade and taxation system, captured by the term “pacification,” albeit without exercising a dominating control over the highland region or populations.18

More to the south the court in Huế also reestablished what it conceived of as tributary relations with the Hỏa Xá [king of fire] and Thủy Xá [king of water]—the pötao of the Jarai ethnic group residing near the Ba/Ayun Pa river upstream from Tuy Hòa port, who also entertained ritual exchanges with the Cambodian kings in Phnom Penh via the monastery in Sambok. At the Vietnamese court in Huế these relations were classified as tributary relations with foreign states, turning the pötao into princes—or heads of state—on a par with the Lao, Cambodian, and Cham monarchs with which Vietnam maintained tributary relations as a suzerain power. At the same time, the Hỏa Xá and Thủy Xá were each granted the title of mandarin of the Vietnamese state, and the gifts that they received included ritual insignia exclusively worn by Vietnamese mandarins.19 The early history of the French missionaries of Kontum also shows that in other parts of the highlands Việt traders [lại] were intermittently present and sometimes acted for the Vietnamese state. When emperor Minh Mạng proscribed Christianity in 1825, French missionaries were eager to establish a mission out of reach of the court in the Central Highlands. When Cuénot heard about the Jarai roi du feu [king of fire] and roi de l’eau [king of water] he assumed that these were independent kingdoms, suitable for the establishment of a mission post. During the first attempts French missionaries and Việt catechists were arrested in the area of An Khê, upstream from Tây Sơn, but in 1850 the priests Combes and Fontaine, led by the Việt priest father Do, finally found the Bahnar chief Kiêm who controlled the trade with the lowlands but turned out to be sympathetic to their plight and led them to Kontum, out of reach of the mandarins [quan] and subalterns [lại].20

In other words, the Central Highlands had become more detached from the lowland states in terms of commercial, political, and ritual relations, and ceased to have a decisive influence on the status of the lowland states located downstream from its rivers. In this sense, the 19th-century European perception of the Central Highlands—recently restated by James Scott—as a blank spot on the map of Indochina culturally, politically, and economically separated from the lowland states was understandable, as it coincided with a historical tendency to that effect.21 The perception of these relations, however, was projected onto the region and its population as timeless essences which not only were out of sync with our historical knowledge but which would determine the view of the highlands as remote, backward, primitive, and unhealthy for decades and centuries to come. Yet, the establishment of a Catholic mission out of reach of the court’s mandarins signaled a new development, namely the perception of the Central Highlands as a strategic area from a military point of view. We will highlight this episode in the next section, but first we need to discuss the further marginalization of the Central Highlands during French colonial rule.

When the French established their domination over Indochina in the 19th Century they translated the Vietnamese term Rừng Mọi [Forest of the savages] as Hinterland Moï, implying that it was not just a blank spot on the map of Indochina surrounded by the lowland states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but that it was terra incognita as well as terra nullius. But that latter legal fiction was quickly swept aside when, on one hand, Siamese troops acting as suzerain of Laos claimed most of the Central Highlands, and on the other hand, the Belgian adventurer David de Mayréna proclaimed an independent Sedang kingdom in alliance with the Bahnar ethnic group led by Catholic missionaries. This provoked the French to make a claim on behalf of their protectorate, Annam, to the highlands all the way to the Mekong river in present-day Cambodia and Laos. In the wake of the Mayréna Affair, Captain Luce was commissioned to find evidence in the Imperial Archives of Huế regarding such Vietnamese claims over the left bank of the Mekong. In May 1889, Luce produced his “evidence”: the mention made in the annals of the Ministry of Rites of tributes sent by Thủy Xá and Hỏa Xá, the “kingdoms” of the Jarai pötao apui (Master of Fire) and patao ia (Master of Water). This conflict between Siamese claims over parts of Laos and Cambodia on one hand, and French protectorates over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia on the other came to a head when Siamese troops massed around Buôn Đôn in Đắk Lắk in the Central Highlands in order to claim the area, but peace was imposed in 1893 when French gunboats sailed up the Chao Phraya river and threatened to bombard Bangkok. By recognizing the Mekong as a European-style border rather than the central axis of a Dong World upland valley civilization, Siam ceded the eastern part of Laos to France as well as the northwestern part of what is now Indochina, including the towns of Battambang and Siem Reap and the site of Angkor.22

Initially the French sought to rule the regions around Kontum, Pleiku, and Đắk Lắk from southern Laos, but in 1904 they officially integrated these territories into the protectorate of Annam—now Trung Bộ. In practice, however, much of the Highlands remained autonomous, and practical French efforts at “penetration” and “pacification” often provoked rebellions led by such millennialist leaders as N’Trang Lưng, Sam Bram, and Kommadam. Only around 1938 the last indigenous revolts—which were conveniently blamed on Việt interference and provocations—were suppressed, with the result that the entire Central Highlands region was incorporated into Vietnam.23 In order to prevent further revolts from happening and to deny Vietnamese nationalists and revolutionaries a support base in the hinterland, the French colonial administration sought to keep the Việt out through a zoning and separation policy. Thus French colonial policy enhanced the tendency toward isolation of the Central Highlands that was already evident during the precolonial Nguyễn dynasty.24

Strategic Centrality During the Indochina Wars (1940–1986)

This attempt at isolation would not be successful because of the strategic value of the Central Highlands in military terms—something that the missionaries of Kontum had already realized in the mid-19th century. When the French colonial regime felt the threat of nationalism, fascism, and communism—both from within Indochina and internationally from Japan and Thailand—it sought a secure base within the colony, untainted by nationalist aspirations. The strategic importance of the mountainous regions of colonial French Indochina had been recognized early on by French military officers like Galliéni and Ardant du Picq.25

The French military command thought that it found such a base in the Central Highlands by turning the ethnic minorities against Việt nationalists in a divide-and-rule policy that required a double move of French intervention while keeping the Việt out. The 1930s economic crisis and the emergence of political threats to colonial rule induced the French colonial regime to coopt Indochina’s ethnic minorities against these perceived threats through a politique d’égards [politics of respect] which began with a change of ethnonym from the offensive term mọi [savage] to montagnard [highlander]. During World War Two the French colonial army increased its efforts at recruiting Highlanders for their bataillons montagnards, holding out the promise that the Highlands territory would become an “autonomous zone” under direct French rule by taking steps to detach it from the Protectorate of Annam.26 Cut off from France, the pro-Vichy colonial regime of admiral Decoux celebrated the Highlands as the heartland of French Indochina, epitomized by the status of Dalat as summer capital and by plans to turn it into a federal capital.27 These plans all came to naught when in March 1945 Japanese forces staged a coup against the French regime, detaining the French forces while seeking to enlist Vietnamese nationalists barring the communists in their war against the Allies. The sudden Japanese surrender in August 1945 plunged the colony into chaos, with many groups vying for power.

The Regional Centrality of Vietnam’s Central HighlandsClick to view larger

Map 4. Vietnam and Tây Nguyên around 2000.

After World War Two the French Army sought to return to a Vietnam in the grip of nationalist fervor, where the leader of the communist Việt Minh movement, Hồ Chí Minh, had declared independence in September 1945. This set the stage for the First Indochina War (1946–1954) between France and the Việt Minh, turning the Tây Nguyên region into a highly contested arena of war. Seeking allies against the Việt Minh, the French Army between 1946 and 1954 recruited soldiers and militias from some of the around twenty ethnic groups in the Central Highlands, who were culturally and linguistically very different from the surrounding Việt, Lao, and Khmer, and who were seduced to fight for the French with promises of some measure of cultural autonomy and territorial control. During the negotiations of Đà Lạt and Fontainebleau in 1946 the French sought to carve out the Central Highlands from Vietnam as the Pays Montagnard du Sud-Indochinois, but this move was fiercely protested by Hồ Chí Minh. Instead, France turned it into Emperor Bảo Đại’s personal Crown Domain in 1950. The French divide-and-rule tactics were never completely successful and split the Highlander population, whose allegiance was divided. In 1953 the Việt Minh became ever stronger and just after the French defeat at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in the northern highlands the French elite Groupe mobile 100 of the Groupement de commandos mixtes aéroportés (GCMA) also suffered a major defeat at the Mang Yang pass near An Khê in the Central Highlands in June 1954. Taking place during the Geneva Conference, these defeats forced the French to acquiesce to Vietnamese independence and abandon Indochina. The Battle of An Khê would be the last major battle before the Geneva Agreements took effect on 1 August 1954, killing some 500 French soldiers and 150 Việt Minh soldiers.28

The French officers Galliéni and Ardant du Picq had proven to be prescient, and the truth of their assessments was shown in the outcome of the battles of Điện Biên Phủ and An Khê.29 During the First Indochina War the Việt Minh was able to thwart French divide-and-rule policies by rallying sufficient numbers of Highlanders to its cause to sway the course of history, which was decided in the highlands of Vietnam—both the northern highlands and the Central Highlands. This came at a great cost, however, of thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of people uprooted, producing streams of refugees and resettlement camps. During the 1954 division of Vietnam in a northern and southern half along the 17th parallel—in fact intended as a temporary troop separation in anticipation of general elections which were sabotaged by both sides—many ethnic minority followers of the Việt Minh moved north while around one million Việt Catholics moved south. Many of these Vietnamese Catholics were resettled in the Central Highlands where they were expected to play a role as a militant anticommunist vanguard, in anticipation of the still greater tragedy of the Second Indochina War (1960–1975)—also known as the Vietnam War or American War, depending on the vantage point. In this war the Central Highlands would be the main arena, buttressing the important strategic significance of the area. Or, as General Văn Tiến Dũng put it in Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam in 1975, by quoting his South-Vietnamese counterpart General Phạm Văn Phú, “He who controls the Tây Nguyên will control all of the South.”30

Just as the perceived “remoteness” and impenetrability of the Central Highlands was a function of its location—barred from easy coastal access by the steep Annam cordillera—and of the resistance of its terrain, the strategic centrality of the Central Highlands was related to these very same qualities, making it like an impenetrable fort in the middle of Indochina, dominating the surrounding lowlands and river valleys. This strategic centrality did not end with the breakup of French Indochina and the independence of its member states; rather, the breakup in different warring polities (North and South Vietnam) and different—but interconnected—war theaters during the Second Indochina War enhanced the centrality of the Central Highlands which connected all countries and war zones via the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail [đường Trường Sơn].31 This is not the place to dwell at length on the Vietnam War, which has already been covered extensively in hundreds of academic books and autobiographical accounts, and in fiction and popular culture—including Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now. But this is the place to point out the centrality of the Central Highlands in that war, simply by highlighting some key moments.32

When the war was rekindled in the south through a combination of local insurrections, infiltration from the north from the late 1950s, and the founding of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in December 1960, the first region to feel the deep impact of war was the Central Highlands where the Ho Chi Minh trail cut into the south from Laos and Cambodia.33 In 1961 many discontented minority groups were choosing sides with NLF guerrillas in their midst, resulting in a loss of security and control from the perspective of the Saigon government. In order to curb that development, the reconstituted US Army Special Forces were deployed in the Central Highlands under CIA direction to work directly with the Highland ethnic groups, even before the official American entry into the war. This Village Defense Program was initially successful, but the Highlander militia, who had been armed to defend their own villages lifestyles, became militarized and integrated into the regular Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, thereby largely undermining its rationale of self-defense and its efficacy.34 When the US Army officially entered the war by landing on the beach of Đà Nẵng in March 1965, their first real battle was the siege of the Special Forces camp near the Jarai village of Plei Mê (19–25 October 1965), while the second test took place in the Ia Drang valley, also in Jarai territory, near the Cambodian border (14–15 November, 1965). Subsequent major battles took place at the Special Forces camp among the Bru ethnic group in the A Shau valley; in the mountains of Thừa Thiên Huế province near the Lao border (1966); near Khê Sanh—also among the Bru—by Route 9 to Laos, close to the 17th Parallel dividing North and South Vietnam; and during the North’s 1972 Easter Offensive near Kontum, the site where French missionaries had settled among the Bahnar.

The final battle to mention here was the decisive “shock” capture by northern forces of Buôn Ma Thuột, the unofficial capital of the Central Highlands in Êđê territory, in March 1975, partly facilitated by Highlander militia who harbored grievances against the Saigon regime. This led to the South Vietnamese abandonment of the Central Highlands and consequently the collapse of the southern army and state, epitomized by the fall or liberation (depending on perspective, again) of the southern capital Saigon. What this brief summing up of main military events from 1960 to 1975 accomplishes is to indicate the strategic centrality of the Central Highlands for the conduct and outcome of the war. As the war was at least partially a guerrilla war, “winning the hearts and minds” of the Highlanders was crucial, as was realized early on by some Americans—mostly associated with the CIA, USAID, and the US Special Forces—as well as by the communist leaders from south and north. The South Vietnamese military and the regular US Army and Air Force were much less adept at waging a guerrilla war predicated on winning the support of local populations. The price that Highlanders paid for the crucial strategic position of their abode was gruesome, with tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the conflict running through ethnic groups, communities, and families.

The war would also have long-lasting consequences because of the widespread perception that the popularity of the US-backed Highlander militia indicated a generic pro-American and anticommunist and anti-Việt attitude among the Central Highlanders. The Highlander autonomy movement Bajaraka—set up by Bahnar, Jarai, Rhadé, and Koho leaders in the 1950s—was violently suppressed by the southern regime, and morphed in the 1960s into the FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimées) movement that emerged in the militias trained and commanded by US Special Forces. Until 1975 FULRO would switch alliances and sides repeatedly, and practically facilitated the North-Vietnamese surprise attack on Buôn Ma Thuột in March 1975, which triggered the collapse of the southern regime. But after the northern takeover and reunification of the country, the Communist regime regarded FULRO—and by extension most Highlanders—with suspicion as a potential pro-American fifth column. Incarceration and revolt resulted in a continuing violent and unstable situation in the Central Highlands until the early 1980s, with massive protest demonstrations in the 2000s again triggering suppression on the part of the regime.35

This perception of Highlanders as political traitors was compounded by a continuous perception among most relevant outsiders—lowlander Vietnamese from North and South, and French and Americans alike—of Highlanders as backward [lạc hậu], primitive [nguyên thủy], superstitious [mê tín dị đoan], lazy [lười], and unhygienic [mất vệ sinh], labels that converge in the generic, offensive ethnonym mọi [savage]. This perception lay at the basis of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam after the reunification in 1976, when the new regime sought to proscribe swidden cultivation and to sedentarize Central Highlanders into new settlements in the Định canh định cư [Fixed Cultivation and Settlement (FCS)] Program. This program was predicated on the notion that highlanders were nomadic slash-and-burn agriculturalists [du canh du cư], which was at least partly erroneous as most highlanders shifted swidden fields but usually did not move around their residence, except in a calamitous event. From the new regime’s vantage point this policy offered two more advantages, namely the possibility of surveillance of a politically suspect population while secondarily making space for the resettlement of southern urbanites and organized peasant migrants from the crowded northern delta into New Economic Zones (NEZ) in the highlands. Initially neither the FCS nor the NEZ program was successful, as urbanites abandoned the NEZ’s while Highlanders resisted resettlement by moving up the mountains or by supporting a Central Highlands autonomy movement. In other words, while the discursive political and economic marginalization of the Highlanders was successful, the colonization of the Central Highlands was not successful—but the migrants who remained served as a bridgehead for the spontaneous migration movement of the 1990s.36

Economic Centrality During Doi Moi (1986–Present)

In general, Vietnam’s postwar economic policy of collectivization was not a success, resulting in stagnation, widespread poverty, and even famine. In order to curb this downward trend, the Communist Party adopted in 1986 a cautious economic reform program predicated on market principles, which would gradually ease the Vietnamese economy into a capitalist direction. During this Đổi Mới [Renovation] period, many lowland people—mostly Kinh people from poor northern and central provinces—moved to join their relatives and former neighbors on the NEZ program in what was now known as Tây Nguyên in order to set up coffee gardens, which became highly profitable in the new market conditions. This so-called “spontaneous” migration was spurred on by further agricultural successes in rubber, tea, cashew, pepper, cassava, and other cash crops. In the process, forests were converted to plantations and gardens, mostly owned and worked by millions of relative newcomers from the lowlands. Simultaneously, rivers were panned for gold deposits and large tracts of land were strip-mined for bauxite (aluminum ore). Highlanders such as Jarai and Êđê had to give up their traditional land claims, their agricultural techniques, their strong village-based sociality, and their lifestyles as the combined results of the FCS program, which afforded the space for lowlanders to claim land as their own. This resulted in a demographic sea change, as the population grew rapidly as a result of the massive in-migration of lowlanders after the reforms began to take effect in 1990. From a situation in 1975 where the total population of Tây Nguyên counted around one million and ethnic minority people were the vast majority in virtual all rural areas, the last census of 2000 set the total population at 5,115,135, of whom 3,309,836 (65 percent) were Việt people. Between the census of 1999 and 2009 the Tây Nguyên provinces experienced the highest demographic growth rates in the country.37

In other words, with Đổi Mới the region became rapidly and indelibly integrated—economically, demographically, and culturally—into Vietnam’s sovereign territory, while the Central Highlanders were further marginalized as a numerical minority in their erstwhile tribal lands. Their interests and the environment were sacrificed for the economic and demographic growth of the region to the extent that Tây Nguyên became a veritable hotspot of globalization. This once remote region of Indochina became in the very short period of twenty years the world’s number two coffee-producing region, after Brazil but before all other Latin American and African countries. During the Đổi Mới period, Tây Nguyên became the foremost cashew-producing region in the world, responsible for 29 percent of global production, and the world’s number one pepper-producing region, with around 40 percent of global production. Vietnam became the fifth rubber-producing country in the world and the fifth tea-exporting country in the world, mostly produced in the Tây Nguyên region. For the historical cash crop of cinnamon Vietnam is still the world’s number three producer.38 These are staggering figures in both spatial and temporal terms (i.e., if one takes the limited size of the territory and the short period of agricultural expansion into account). Almost overnight Tây Nguyên became of central importance again because of its cash crops. This agricultural success was predicated on the massive conversion of rainforest and former swiddens to plantations and gardens, and on the labor of in-migrant settlers from the lowlands. This process of enclosure and appropriation came at the expense of the traditional land rights and land management practices of the Central Highlanders, but more recently Vietnamese investors have been looking for land and opportunities in the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, thereby centering the Central Highlands in yet another sense, with respect to the neighboring regions.39


By taking the centrality of the Central Highlands seriously and by taking the highlander population and their relations with surrounding lowland states as point of departure, I arrive at a historical periodization that differs widely from previous historical periodizations which are mostly predicated on the perspective of outside states and interventions. In the history of the wider region the Central Highlands have arguably played a central role, but in different ways, and in different domains. During the Cham and Đàng Trong eras until around 1800, the Central Highlands emerged as a central region as a source of precious forest products that allowed these coastal states to thrive—economically, politically, and militarily. Moreover, since the Central Highlands occupied a central place among the rivalrous lowland states Đại Việt, Champa, Cambodia, Laos and Siam, its ritual leaders like the pötao apui and pötao ia were considered as leaders of buffer states and treated as such through ritual and tributary exchanges. But during Việt Nam’s expansive period under the Nguyễn dynasty the economic, military, political, and ritual significance of the region diminished, as it was marginalized and isolated and its population considered the barbarian flipside of the neo-Confucian civilizational ideal. The French colonizers initially adopted the relative Vietnamese disregard of the Central Highlands by adopting the pejorative ethnonym of mọi and many of the implied cultural prejudices; it was only in the 1930s that the region became fully “pacified”—that is, integrated in the colonial state.

In that same period the highlands gained again in importance because of its strategic location and of the fact that its diverse population was culturally different from the surrounding lowlanders. During the consecutive wars in Indochina involving communist and anticommunist Vietnamese, French, Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, and diverse highlander groups, the Central Highlands became a central military arena. In the end, the highlands and the highlanders determined the outcome of the final battles, at Mang Yang/An Khê (1954) and Buôn Ma Thuột (1975), but this came at a terrible price for the Highlander population who were the main victims of the wars and their aftermath. After the war, in a market economic context, the Central Highlands regained a similar position as during the Age of Commerce, namely of exporter of precious commodities. With the exception of cinnamon/cassia these are no longer forest products (as forests have largely disappeared) but cash crops grown in what once was forest, with labor attracted from the lowlands.

This regained centrality of the region has been predicated on the political, economic, and demographic integration into reunified Vietnam but it has come at the expense of the marginalization of its autochthonous population, which was largely displaced and dispossessed through the capitalist logic enacted under Vietnam’s communist government. The response of a majority of Highlanders to this marginalization has been the embrace of a new, modern, and international religion, namely evangelical Christianity [Tin lành]. While rejecting their former religious practices as superstitious and their former cultural lifestyles as unmodern and immoral, they now seek to re-center themselves as modern, cosmopolitan subjects in the face of active opposition from the authorities.40


This article is the fruit of over three decades of intermittent research in and on Vietnam’s Central Highlands. My doctoral dissertation research there was made possible by grant no. W52-456 of the Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Tropical Science (WOTRO) of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. Given the broad historical sweep offered in this article, there is some inevitable overlap with my doctoral dissertation and the monograph based on it: The Ethnography of Vietnam's Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850–1990. London (2003): Routledge. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive critique and useful comments and suggestions.

Further Reading

Condominas, Georges. Nous avons mangé la forêt de la Pierre-Génie Gôo: Chronique de Sar Luk, village mnong gar (tribu proto-indochinoise, des Hauts-Plateaux du Vietnam central). Paris: Gallimard, 1957.42Find this resource:

Đặng Nghiêm Vạn, Chu Thái Son, and Lưu Hùng. Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam (new edition). Hanoi, Vietnam: The Gioi, 2000.Find this resource:

Dournes, Jacques. Pötao: Une théorie du pouvoir chez les Indochinois Jörai. Paris: Flammarion, 1977.43Find this resource:

Guérin, Mathieu, Andrew Hardy, Nguyễn Văn Chính, et al. Des Montagnards aux minorités ethniques: Quelle intégration nationale pour les habitants des hautes terres du Viêt Nam et du Cambodge? Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003.Find this resource:

Harris, J. P. Vietnam's High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954–1965. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Hickey, Gerald C. Sons of the Mountains: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands to 1954. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Hickey, Gerald C. Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954–1976. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Maitre, Henri. Les Jungles Moï: Mission Henri Maitre (1909–1911), Indochine Sud-Centrale. Paris: Larose, 1912.44Find this resource:

Ngô Đức Thịnh. Những mảng màu văn hóa Tây Nguyên (Some images of Tây Nguyên culture). Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Trẻ, 2007.Find this resource:

Salemink, Oscar. The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850–1990. London: Routledge, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

(2.) James A. Anderson and John K. Whitmore, “The Dong World: A Proposal for Analyzing the Highlands between the Yangzhi Valley and the Southeast Asian Lowlands.” Asian Highlands Perspectives 44 (2017): 8–71.

(3.) George Coedès, Les États Hindouisés d’Indochine et d’Indonésie (Paris: DeBoccard, 1948); Hjorleifur Jonsson, Mien Relations: Mountain People and State Control in Thailand (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); A. Thomas Kirsch, Feasting and Social Oscillation: Religion and Society in Upland Southeast Asia. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973); Jean Michaud, ed., Turbulent Times and Enduring Peoples: Mountain Minorities in the South-East Asian Massif (Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000); Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed; Willem van Schendel, “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20 (2002): 647–668; and Gehan Wijeyewardene, ed., Ethnic Groups across National Boundaries in Mainland Southeast Asia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, 1990.)

(4.) Andrew Hardy, “The Archaeological Territory of Quảng Ngãi and the Geopolitics of Champa,” in Perspectives on the Archaeology of Vietnam, ed. Andreas Reinecke (Bonn, Germany: German Archaeological Institue, 2015), 259–290; Andrew Hardy, “Champa, Integrating Kingdom: Mechanisms of Political Integration in a Southeast Asian Segmentary State (15th century),” in Champa: Territories and Networks of a Southeast Asian Kingdom, eds. Arlo Griffiths, Andrew Hardy, Geoff Wade (forthcoming, EFEO Paris); Andrew Hardy and Nguyễn Tiến Đông, “The Peoples of Champa: Evidence for a New Hypothesis Form the Landscape History of Quảng Ngãi,” in Territories and Networks of a Southeast Asian Kingdom, eds. Arlo Griffiths, Andrew Hardy, Geoff Wade (forthcoming); and William A. Southwort, “The Coastal States of Champa,” in Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History, eds. Ian Glover and Peter Bellwood (London: Routledge, 2004), 209–233.

(5.) Andrew Hardy, “Eaglewood and the Economic History of Champa and Central Vietnam,” in Champa and the Archaeology of My Son (Vietnam), eds. Andrew Hardy, Mauro Cucarzi, and Patrizia Zolese (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 107–126; Thérèse Guyot-Becker, La servitude pour dette au Campa du sud au XVIIIe siècle: Étude des archives légales du "Panduranga-Campa" de la Société Asiatique de Paris [Serfdom for debt in 18th Century southern Champa: A study of the legal archives of Panduranga-Champa at the Société Asiatique de Paris], Unpublished dissertation, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne, Paris, 7 February 2014.

(6.) For literature proposing the idea that the Central Highlands were—culturally and politically—essentially independent from surrounding lowland states, see Jean Boulbet, Pays des Maa’, domaine des génies (Nggar Maa’, nggar yaang). Essai d’ethno-histoire d’une population proto-indochinoise du Viêt Nam central (Paris: Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1967); Bernard Bourotte, “Essai d’histoire des populations montagnardes du Sud Indochinois jusqu’à 1945,” Bulletin de la société des études indochinoises 30 (1955): 17–116; Dam Bo [pseud. Jacques Dournes], “Les Populations Montagnardes du Sud-Indochinois,” France-Asie 49–50 (1950) (numéro spécial); Jacques Dournes, “Les marches sauvages: Chez les minorités ethniques du Sud-Indochinois,” Les Temps Modernes 30, no. 346 (1975): 1552–1582; Jacques Dournes, Pötao: Une théorie du pouvoir chez les Indochinois Jörai (Paris: Flammarion, 1977); Gerald C. Hickey, Sons of the Mountains: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands to 1954 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982); Henri Maitre, Les jungles moï: Mission Henri Maitre (1909–1911), Indochine Sud-Centrale (Paris: Larose, 1912); and Oscar Salemink, The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850–1990 (London: Routledge, 2003). For literature proposing that the Highlands were a more or less integral part of the Cham sphere, see Mervyn A. Jaspan, Recent Developments among the Cham of Indochina: The Revival of Champa. (Hull, UK: Publications of the Centre for South-East Asian Studies, University of Hul, 1969); Jacques Dournes, “Recherches sur le Haut-Champa,” France-Asie 24, no. 2 (1970), 143–162 (Jacques Dournes made several u-turns in his career); and Adhémar Leclère, “Légende djaray sur l’origine du sabre sacré par le roi du feu,” Revue indochinoise 2 (1904): 366–369. Recent research showing a considerable Cham presence in the Central Highlands is forthcoming, as will be seen in Andrew Hardy and Nguyễn Tiến Đông, “The Peoples of Champa: Evidence for a New Hypothesis from the Landscape History of Quảng Ngãi,” and Amandine Lepoutre, “The Place of ‘Upper Campā’ in Southeast Asia, through Jaya Harivarman’s Inscriptions (Mid 12th Century),” both in Champa: Territories and Networks of a Southeast Asian Kingdom, eds. Arlo Griffiths, Andrew Hardy, Geoff Wade (forthcoming at EFEO Paris).

(7.) The toponyms Cù Lao and Poulo derive from the Cham-Malay word for island: pulau.

(8.) Barbara Andaya, “Cash Cropping and Upstream-Downstream Tensions: The case of Jambi in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era, ed. Anthony Reid (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 91–122; Bennet Bronson, “Exchange at the Upstream and Downstream Ends: Notes towards a Functional Model of the Coastal State in Southeast Asia,” in Economic Exchange and Social Interaction in Southeast Asia: Perspectives from Prehistory, History, and Ethnography, ed. Karl L. Hutterer (Ann Arbor, MI: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 1977), 39–52; Hardy, “Eaglewood,” 107–126; Hardy, “The Archaeological Territory,” 259–290; Pierre-Yves Manguin, “The Vanishing Jong: Insular Southeast Asian fleets in Trade and War (Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries)”, in 50 Years of Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Essays in Honour of Ian Glover, eds. Bérénice Bellina et al. (Bangkok: River, 2010), 197–213; Pierre-Yves Manguin, “The Amorphous Nature of Coastal Polities in Insular Southeast Asia: Restricted Centres, Extended Peripheries,” Moussons 5 (2002): 73–99; Pierre-Yves Manguin, “The Archaeology of Early Maritime Polities of Southeast Asia,” in 50 Years of Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Essays in honour of Ian Glover, eds. Bérénice Bellina et al. (Bangkok: River, 2010), 282–313; Anthony Reid, Charting the Shape of Early Modern Southeast Asia (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm, 1999); Oscar Salemink, “A View from the Mountains: A Critical History of Lowlander-Highlander Relations in Vietnam,” in Upland Transformations in Vietnam, eds. Thomas Sikor, Nghiem Phuong Tuyen, Jennifer Sowerwine and Jeff Romm (Singapore, 2011), 27–50. Retrieved from; Kenneth Sillander, “Local Integration and Coastal Connections in Interior Kalimantan: The Case of the Nalin Taun Ritual among the Bentian,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 2 (2006): 315–334; Trần Ký Phương, “Interactions between Uplands and Lowlands through the ‘Riverine Exchange Network’ of Central Vietnam: A Case Study in the Thu Bồn River Valley,” in 50 Years of Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Essays in Honour of Ian Glover, eds. Bérénice Bellina et al. (Bangkok: River, 2010), 207–215.

(9.) Charles Wheeler, A Maritime Logic to Vietnamese History? Littoral Society in Hoi An's Trading World c. 1550–1830. Presented at the conference on “Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges,” Library of Congress, Washington, DC, February 12 through 15, 2003, and

(10.) Lê Thành Khôi, Histoire du Viet Nam des origines à 1858 (Paris: Sudestasie, 1981).

(11.) See Andrew Hardy, “L’économie hybride du post-Champa: Le commerce plaine-montagne et les marches des sources (nguồn) à l’époque des seigneurs Nguyễn (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles),” in Le Vietnam: Une histoire de transferts culturels, eds. Hoai Huong Aubert-Nguyen and Michel Espagne (Paris: Demopolis, 2015), 97–114; Hoang Anh Tuan, Silk for Silver: Dutch-Vietnamese Relations, 1637–1700 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007); Lê Quý Đôn, Phủ Biên Tạp Lục [Frontier Chronicles] (Hanoi, Vietnam, 2007 [or. 1776]); Li Tana, Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); Li Tana, 2006, “A View from the Sea: Perspectives on the Northern and Central Vietnamese Coast,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 1 (2006): 83–102; Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680 (2 vols.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988); Oscar Salemink, “A View from the Mountains: A Critical History of Lowlander - Highlander Relations in Vietnam,” in Upland Transformations in Vietnam, eds. Thomas Sikor, Nghiem Phuong Tuyen, Jennifer Sowerwine and Jeff Romm (Singapore, 2011), 27–50; Vu Tuyen Hoang et al., Ancient Town of Hoi An (Hanoi, Vietnam: Gioi, 2006); Vũ Tuyên Hoàng et al. (eds.) Đô thị cổ Hội An—Hội thảo Quốc tế tại Đà Nẵng (Hanoi, Vietnam: Gioi, 1991); Charles Wheeler, “Rethinking the Sea in Vietnamese History: Littoral Society in the Integration of Thuận-Quảng, Seventeenth-Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 11 (2006): 23–153; Alexander Woodside, “Central Vietnam’s Trading World in the Eighteenth Century as Seen in Lê Quý Đôn’s ‘Frontier Chronicles,’” in Essays into Vietnamese Pasts, eds. K.W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 157–172.

(12.) Christoforo Borri, “Cochin-China in Two Parts,” in A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World, Vol. 9, ed. John Pinkerton (London, 1811 [or. 1631]), 773.

(13.) Van Wuysthoff probably refers here to the Phnong, as the Highlanders were generically known by the Khmer, bearing connotations of ‘slave’ and ‘savage.’ Possibly, but not necessarily, the M’nông ethnic groups are meant. See Gerard van Wuysthoff. Le journal de voyage de G. van Wuysthoff et de ses assistants au Laos (1641–1642), Présentation, traduction, commentaire notes et index par Jean-Claude Lejosne (Paris, Metz, 1987); Hendrik Muller, De Oost-Indische Compagnie in Cambodja en Laos: Verzameling van bescheiden van 1636 tot 1670. (The Hague, [n.p.], 1917), 157.

(14.) Grégory Mikaelian, “Le souverain des Kambujā, ses neveux Jörai, ses dépendants Kuoy et Pear. Un aperçu de la double légitimation du pouvoir dans le royaume khmer du XVII siècle,” Péninsule 71, no. 2 (2015): 35–76; See also Charles Meyer, “Les mystérieuses relations entre le Roi du Cambodge et les Pötao des Jarai, ” Études Cambodgiennes 4 (1965): 14–26; Charles Meyer, "Kambuja et Kirata," Études cambodgiennes 5 (1966): 17–33; Dournes, Pötao; Hickey, Sons of the Mountains, 121–189; Salemink, The Ethnography, 35–37, 44, 58–65.

(15.) Christoforo Borri, “Cochin-China in Two Parts,” in A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World, Vol. 9, ed. John Pinkerton (Philadelphia: Kimberley Conrad, 1811 [or. 1631]); George Dutton, The Tây Sơn Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth Century Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006); Hardy, “L’économie hybride”; Li Tana, Nguyễn Cochinchina; Li Tana and Anthony Reid eds., Southern Vietnam under the Nguyễn: Documents on the Economic History of Cochinchina (Đàng Trong), 1602–1777 (Singapore: ISEAS, 1993).

(16.) Lê Thành Khôi, Histoire du Viet Nam.

(17.) Lê Thành Khôi, Histoire du Viet Nam; Po Dharma, Le Panduranga (Campa) 1802–1835: Ses rapports avec le Vietnam (Paris: École Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1987); Nicolas Weber, Histoire de la diaspora Cam (Paris: Indes Savantes 2014); and Danny Wong Tze Ken, The Nguyen and Champa during 17th and 18th Century: A Study of Nguyen Foreign Relations (Garges Les Gonesse, France: IOC Champa, 2012).

(18.) Andrew Hardy, “La muraille de Quảng Ngãi et l’expansion territoriale du Vietnam: Projet pluridisciplinaire de recherche historique,” presented at Académie des Inscriptions & Belles-Lettres: Comptes rendus, Juillet–Octobre 2015; Lê Thành Khôi, Histoire du Viet Nam; Tiễu-Phủ-Sứ, le [The officer in charge of pacification of minorities], “Phủ man tạp lục, la pacification de la région des Moï,” Revue indochinoise 2 1905 (or. 1871): 455–796.

(19.) Hickey, Sons of the Mountains; Lê Quý Đôn, Phủ Biên Tạp Lục; Maitre, Les Jungles Moï; Salemink, The Ethnography; and Woodside, “Central Vietnam’s Trading World.”

(20.) P. Combes, ”Missions du Laos,” Annales de la Propagation de la Foi 27 (1855): 405–437; Mgr. Cuénot, ”Lettre,” Annales de la Propagation de la Foi 13 (1841): 139–145; Abbé P. Dourisboure, Les sauvages Ba-Hnars (Cochinchine Orientale): Souvenirs d’un missionnaire (Paris, [n.p.] 1929, [or. 1857]); Gouvernement de la Cochinchine (1935), Variétés sur les Pays Moïs (Saigon: Gouvernement de la Cochinchine, 1935); Adrien Launay, Histoire Générale de la Société des Missions-Etrangères (Paris: Téqui, 1894); Raymond le Jariel, “Comment la mission catholique a servi la France à pays Moï,” Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Hue 29 (1942): 37–53; and L. de Reinach. Le Laos (Paris: [N.p.], 1901); and Salemink, The Ethnography.

(21.) Scott, The Art of not being governed.

(22.) Anderson and Whitmore, “The Dong World”; Capitaine P. Cupet, “Chez les populations sauvages du Sud de l’Annam,” Tour du monde 12–16 (1893): 177–256; Gerald C. Hickey, Kingdom in the Morning Mist: Mayréna in the Highlands of Vietnam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988); Jean Marquet, “Un aventurier du XIXe siècle: Marie Ier, Roi des Sédangs (1888–1890),” Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Hue 14, 1–2 (1927): 9–130; Auguste Pavie, Mission Pavie, géographie et voyages. T. 3: Voyages au Laos et chez les sauvages du Sud-Est de l’Indochine par le Cap. Cupet. (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1900), Availabel online; Auguste Pavie, Mission Pavie, géographie et voyages, t. 4: Voyages au centre de l’Annam et du Laos et dans les régions sauvages de l’Est de l’Indochine par le Cap. De Malglaive et par le Cap. Rivière (Paris: Ernest Leroux 1902); Reinach. Le Laos, 30–32; Salemink, The Ethnography; M. Soulié, Marie I, Roi des Sedangs (1888–1890). (Paris, 1927); and Shane Strate, The Lost Territories: Thailand's History of National Humiliation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015).

(23.) Salemink, The Ethnography.

(24.) Gouvernement, Variétés; Salemink, The Ethnography.

(25.) Joseph-Simon Galliéni, Galliéni au Tonkin (1892–1896), par lui-même (Paris, 1941 [or. 1913]); Ardant du Picq, “Etude du pays Moy au point de vue militaire, 1923,” Revue des Troupes Coloniales, 1925–1926 (Aix-en Provence, France: Archives d’Outre-Mer, Gougal 49.506]; see also Ardant du Picq, “Monographie des pays Moï (Indochine, provinces de Kontum et de Ban Mê Thuot),” Revue des Troupes Coloniales 19–20 (1925/6).

(26.) Hickey, Sons of the Mountains; Salemink, The Ethnography.

(27.) Eric T. Jennings, Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 228.

(28.) Bernard Fall, Street without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946–1954 (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1961), 195–196; Salemink, The Ethnography, 167–171.

(29.) Fall, Street without Joy.

(30.) Văn Tiến Dũng, Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam (Hanoi, Vietnam: NXB The Gioi, 2000), 48–49. Different periodizations of the Second Indochina War are possible. From a conventional American point of view, the “Vietnam War” started in 1965 with the landing of regular US troops near Đà Nẵng, but in terms of guerrilla war and northern intervention had begun already in the late 1950s. I choose 1960, as that year was marked by the establishment of the National Liberation Front in the South and by the eruption of large-scale violence in the Central Highlands.

(31.) The official Vietnamese name for the ‘Vietnam War’ is Chiến tranh Cứu nước chống Mỹ [War of national salvation against America]. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is an American name for the series of roads constituting the ‘Long Mountain Road’ [đường Trường Sơn].

(32.) These paragraphs are loosely based on Salemink, The Ethnography.

(33.) The official name of the NLF was Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt Nam [the National Liberation Front for the South of Vietnam] indicating that the South—Republic of Viet Nam or Cộng hòa Việt Nam—was not recognized as a separate, independent entity.

(34.) Gerald C. Hickey, Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954–1976. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982); Col. Francis Kelly, U.S. Army Special Forces, 1961–1971 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army, 1973); Salemink, The Ethnography; Oscar Salemink, “The CIA, the U.S. Army, and the Ethnic Unraveling of the RVN in 1963,” in Vietnam 1963, eds. Ed Miller, Pierre Asselin, Lien-Hang Nguyen (Cambridge, forthcoming); Ronald Spector, Advice and Support: The Early Years 1941–1960. The U.S. Army in Vietnam 1 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1983).

(35.) Hickey, Free in the Forest; Po Dharma, Du FLM au FULRO: Une lutte des minorités du sud Indochinois (1955–1975) (Paris, 2006). Retrieved from; Salemink, The Ethnography; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands,” Writenet Report 5/2001 (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, Centre for Documentation and Research, January 2002). Retrieved from

(36.) Andrew Hardy, Red Hills: Migrants and the State in the Highlands of Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003); and Nguyễn Đức Nhuận et al., Le Viet Nam post-révolutionnaire: Population. Économie. Société, 1975–1985 (Paris: L’Harmattan 1987); Salemink, The Ethnography.

(37.) Central Population and Housing Census Steering Committee. The 2009 Vietnam Population and Housing Census: Major Findings. Hanoi 6, 2010, 34, Retrieved from; Ban Chỉ Đạo Tổng Điều Tra Dân Số Và Nhà ở Trung Ương/Central Population And Housing Census Steering Committee/Tổng Điều Tra Dân Số Và Nhà Ở Việt Nam Năm 2009: Kết Quả Toàn Bộ/The 2009 Vietnam Population and Housing Census: Completed Results. Hanoi, 2010; Mathieu Guérin, Andrew Hardy, Nguyễn Văn Chính, Stan Tan and Boon Hwee, Des Montagnards aux minorités ethniques: Quelle intégration nationale pour les habitants des hautes terres du Viêt Nam et du Cambodge? Available online (Paris: l’Harmattan, 2003); and Hardy, Red Hills; Hickey, Free in the Forest; Salemink, The Ethnography.

(38.) For world coffee production, see Statista, Available online; for world pepper production and especially Vietnam, see International Pepper Community, and worldatlas, The World's Top Black Pepper Producing Countries. For world cashew production, see Top 5 of Anything and; for rubber see Top 5 of Anything. For tea, see WorldteaNews; for cinnamon see Maps of World.

(39.) Ian G. Baird, “Resistance and Contingent Contestations to Large-Scale Land Concessions in Southern Laos and Northeastern Cambodia,” Land 6, no. 1 (2017): 16; Miles Kenney-Lazar, “Plantation Rubber, Land Grabbing and Social Property Transformation in Southern Laos,” Journal of Peasant Studies 39, nos. 3–4 (2012): 1017–1037; Pinkaew Laungaramsri, “Frontier Capitalism and the Expansion of Rubber Plantations in Southern Laos,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 43, no. 3 (2012): 463–477; Oscar Salemink, “Revolutionary and Christian Ecumenes and Desire for Modernity in the Vietnamese Highlands,” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 16, no. 4 (2015): 388–409; To Xuan Phuc, Sango Mahanty, and Wolfram Dressler, “Social Networks of Corruption in the Vietnamese and Lao Cross-Border Timber Trade,” Anthropological Forum 24, no. 2 (2014): 154–174.

(40.) According to official estimates (which are likely very conservative) the number of Protestants in the Central Highlands would be 558, 965 at the time of the 2009 Census, cf. Lê Hồng Phong, “Ảnh hưởng của Đạo Tin lành đối với đời sống tinh thần của đồng bào dân tộc thiểu số ở Tây Nguyên hiện nay” [The influence of Protestantism on the spiritual life of ethnic minorities in Tây Nguyên at present], (PhD diss., Hồ Chí Minh National Political Academy, Hanoi, 2014); Nguyễn Cao Thanh, “Đạo Tin lành ở Việt Nam từ 1975 đến nay, tư liệu và một số đánh giá ban đầu” [Protestantism in Vietnam from 1975 until now, data and some initial assessments], The Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Available online; and Salemink, “Revolutionary and Christian Ecumenes.”

(42.) An English translation was published as We Have Eaten to the Forest: The Story of a Montagnard Village in the Highlands of Vietnam (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).

(43.) A Vietnamese translation was published in as Pötao: một lý thuyết về quyền lực ở người Jörai Đông Dương (Hanoi: Tri Thuc publishing house, 2013)., see

(44.) This book is digitally accessible through the site of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris—see;2. A Vietnamese translation was published as Rừng người Thượng: Vùng rừng núi cao nguyên miền Trung Việt Nam (Hanoi: Tri thuc, 2008).See