Bo Bay ("Father 7"), 81, an ethnic Pako man, smokes his pipe at home in Ta Rut, a hill tribe village along the Ho Chi Minh Highway in a remote part of Quang Tri Province near the Lao border. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
After Tet (for reasons I can’t quite explain) I quit a good job in Saigon, turned in my key at the Guest House California and headed north through the dusty outposts along the Cambodian border.
After dropping my iPhone onto a dirt road somewhere in Dak Nong Province, I found myself without a little blue dot to anchor me and nothing to keep me company but the sound of wind whistling through my helmet.
In the mountains of Quang Nam, the cities dissolved into wooden villages where tribal women smoked pipes and carried their weight in firewood. The men beckoned me in for drinks and wild meat. The forests grew more robust and dramatic. As I climbed and climbed, a cold fog swallowed the peaks and obscured the road.
In this way, the landscape itself took on the feeling of mystery. Here is where the war was truly fought and won—the old Ho Chi Minh Trail (now the Ho Chi Minh Highway), the vena cava of a nation.
This allure hit its acme in the village of Ta Rut, near the border of Quang Tri, Thien Thua-Hue Province and Laos when a dark, bearded man calling himself Bo Bay stepped out of the mountain carrying two long metal hooks—the purpose of which I was never able to divine.
There's a lot about Bo Bay (literally, "Father Seven" or, as I like to think of him, Big Poppa Seven) that I presume I'll never know.
But here are a few facts:
He grew up in the Western mountains of Quang Tri Province as a member of the Pako ethnic minority. His own father was a fierce anti-colonialist who battled the French with makeshift weapons.
At sixteen, he left his house without a word to enlist in the fight for Vietnam’s liberation. He learned Vietnamese from his comrades .While the Americans rained an unimaginable torrent of poison and bombs down on his idyllic little hamlet, Bo Bay led a series of spy missions in Saigon.
How he functioned as an underground operative, I can't really tell you.
For one thing, he looks like a Smurf version of Fidel Castro. For another, he is never more than six inches away from a conspicuous Pako pipe stuffed with dark Lao tobacco leaves.
Also, he engages in loud ritual prayers that last for about thirty minutes before big meals.
Somehow, though, he and his comrades managed to sneak the family of an ARVN Major to the North in exchange for his cooperation.
What was Saigon like back in the late sixties for a covert operative?
"Fun!" he said with a laugh.
Bo Bay looks like he’d be a fierce man in a fight. I never asked him how many people he'd killed, but Bo Bay blames his poor hearing in his left ear on lots and lots of gun, bazooka and artillery fire.
But don't get him wrong. Bo Bay is also a lover.
In our talks, he frequently returned to his fond memories of the subways of Lenningrad, where he carried on a brief affair with a Vietnamese language student whose letters he snuck past customs officials wrapped around his toes.
It would seem that his love for living has preserved him like so much formaldehyde.
With the exception of a few missing teeth, a few bullet wounds and the aforementioned hearing loss, Bo Bay is the very picture of a virile 81-year-old man.
Too virile, perhaps.
Bo Bay has survived four wives and has fathered nine children—the youngest of whom is a spunky six year old who terrorizes the village with a slingshot and endless volleys of noogies.
For all his machismo, Bo Bay carries himself with the air of a late night talk show host.
When I encountered him on the roadside, shuffling down a hill and making his way home, he happily assented to having his picture taken, then he laid a hand on my backpack.
"What have you got in here?" he asked.
"Oh, just pants and shirts," I said.
"Care to sell any?"
I produced a fistful of under-laundered socks and underwear, which found no purchase. In the end, I gave him a half-eaten tin of Altoids and a ride home.
He giggled the whole way.
His home was simple but neat. Buffalo skins dried over a detached hearth. Goats ambled in the backyard and a litter of puppies bumbled in and out of the house.
After hanging his coat on one of several sets of animal horns, Bo Bay set about making perfect cups of tea.
He also kept screening a four minute cell phone video he'd taken of three British youths smiling and waving to him from under his many official commendations.
"I met them on the road like you and they sat here for more than three hours drinking tea," he said. "We couldn't understand a word from each other."
I spent only two. And so Bo Bay insisted I return to Ta Rut some time to eat with him.
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