We’re on our way to meet Y Kong, an 88-year-old woodcarver and (former) king of the Co Tu nation. It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to have tea with a (former) king. I’m excited. Dressed as I am in camo pants stained with oil from my Minsk and a black cotton shirt that entirely fails to hide the sweat and the dust, I am hoping that this particular king is not too much of a stickler for protocol.
We pull up at a modest concrete dwelling with a miniature bamboo stilt house in the front garden. As we enter we are greeted by a smiling man in a bright orange singlet, his jovial face adorned by a wispy grey beard. This is the king. I feel instantly more at ease. He ushers us first into his workshop, housed in the concrete building. Memorabilia line the walls along with good luck charms and amulets. His coffin, carved by his own hand, dominates one room with its swirling protective totems.
Moving to the bamboo “receiving room” we settle down for a cup of tea and the obligatory dose of rice wine, sipped from a very ceremonial communal pink plastic cup. His wife joins us. They make a fine looking couple and must have been a force to be reckoned with in younger days. They have been married for 47 years. Y Kong recently stepped down from his formal duties as king, leaving something of a power vacuum — exacerbated by the recent death of the chief of Ba Hom.
These days Y Kong spends his days woodcarving. A master carver, he has provided many examples representing the various ethnic groups found in central Vietnam for the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. Numerous examples of his work line the stilt house in which we sit. Despite my appalling lack of Vietnamese, we manage communication of a sort, aided and abetted by their gracious hospitality, and the enthusiastically proffered rice wine. I am hoping this will not be my last audience with this royal couple.