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The Everyday Sword

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

After something of a long hiatus this website will start to be somewhat active again. After a break in actively acquiring new pieces and much work on a hopefully soon to be available small book summing up my work with the takouba form, I have decided to indulge collecting interests long dormant as I pursued only pieces relevant to my African research. Most of those pieces have found new (and I daresay good!) homes, leaving space for a part of the world I have always found fascinating - South East Asia.

I plan a series of small articles surrounding some new acquisitions and this piece is a good place to start. This is a sword that illustrates an interesting function that such weapons have often filled in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), not only as a weapon proper but also an essential tool in day to day life. 

This style of dha/darb/daab, depending what region you are in and what language is being spoken, is found among the so called Montagnard peoples primarily inhabiting the central Vietnamese highlands, Laos and parts of Cambodia. These are hilly areas with small village hamlets and a variety of minority ethnic groups. Slash and urn agriculture combined with hunting and harvesting wild fruits and plants formed the basis of their daily life. These swords were used then not only for fighting, but also for clearing brush while moving through the forest and general harvesting tasks while foraging. This likely explains the fact that many examples have quite long handles.

This example has a blade of 46cm and a handle measuring 63cm. This is a much greater ratio of hilt to blade than seen on the majority of dha from other regions. While perhaps requiring a different technique to wield in combat than many dha, these long hilts of course mean a greater reach when for example cutting down a wild fruit from a tree. They certainly were used for combat, in which the sword was combined with a shield as seen in this 1967 photograph of mock combat among the Jarai, one of the major ethnic groups of the Vietnamese highlands and the Kon Tum province.

Photographed by Jacques Dournes (retreived from

I mention the Kon Tum province because the Quai Branly collections also included numerous dha from this region several of which correspond rather precisely to the example under consideration. In particular this piece exhibits very similar dimensions, a similar brass guard and cuff and the use of rattan.

 Retreived from (musée du quai Branly collections)

The Qui Branly piece was collected as part of the Paul Rivet mission to the area in 1931-32 and associated with the Bahnar people. My own example shows a longer brass collar and once again the online museum collections give us a reference to perhaps place the dating a little earlier on my own piece as this next example was collected during the Jean-Marc Bel mission in Laos and Annam (a French protectorate encompassing central Vietnam) during 1897. Again the dimensions are quite similar with a slightly shorter hilt. 

Retrieved from (musée du quai Branly collections)

It is certainly safe to say that my piece is from the same general region, perhaps Laos, perhaps Vietnam, people moved freely across modern borders. As is the case with many dha and their blades, it is likely that most of these blades came from a particular village or group of villages who specialized in their production and were then mounted according to the preferences of the buyer. There are references to the Bahnar being skilled smiths and producing swords. (see  p. 150 Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries By Tana Li) and they were said to be fierce warriors when required even in the times of the Vietnam war (see p.54 Montagnard tribal groups of the Republic of Viet-Nam by Army Special Warfare School).

Not unsurprisingly the blade form and overall feel of these weapons seems to be something of a local adaptation of dha from their neighbors, principally from Laos with the characteristic 'hachet' tip to the blades. There is perhaps something of a Chinese or Vietnamese (themselves heavily influenced by Chinese arms) flair to the small brass guards. 

The spine is quite thick, the edge sharp and the quality of the steel rather good. If etched a pattern would likely show, formed during the water quench when the blade carefully has the cutting edge, but not the backside of the blade, hardened.

 Overall the piece is quite sturdy and the thick spine gives a real heft to the weapon.

This is in no way a fancy weapon or a particularly notable example, but rather a good representation of the type of sword carried on a daily basis in this part of the world for centuries, a tool for the lifestyle of the mountain people of the central highlands.