Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown...
Take my picture in a hill tribe village
Driving through the mountains from Hanoi to Ha Giang, I kept having visions of my own death: blowing down a twisty road like air through a French horn, I’d catch a glimpse of something moving on the side of the road. The buttocks of a peasant girl plump through pajamas, stretching as she bends down in the field, or moving up and down as she walks down the road. My eyes fix in the hope that she might turn and smile, watching for outlines and shapes difficult to spot in her figure (is she the prettiest girl or just a prettiest girl?) until a whisk of dust splatters me like liquid across the front of a careening bus and my eyeballs and insides are now clinging to the grill, blood flying in the wind.....in the cities, it’s the same vision, except she’s in jeans on a motorbike with shit in her hair and earbuds in her ears…
“Take my picture,” said Olof as he took off his clothes at the waterfall.
We’d driven to this remote hamlet in the mountains of Tuyen Quang province in order to slip off the grid and now we were instagraming photos of ourselves naked and skinny dipping to Olof’s 200 million followers. They all liked the shot of his ass and balls sliding into the water. None liked the Malcolm X quote he’d posted earlier.
Hoa, who’d taken us to the waterfall, turned away as we frolicked in the pond like gay swans. When we got out, we looked at each other’s dicks and so did Hoa. We were both tiny and shriveled. Nothing like the cold waters of Mother Nature to make all men equal.
Olof going for a dip at Dream Falls (Thac Mo) outside Na Hang in Tuyen Quang Province. Photo: Jon Dillingham
The night before, we’d stayed in Hoa’s grandmother’s stilt house in a Tay village outside Na Hang. Hoa’s family is both Tay and Nung, but I still don’t really know what either of those terms really means.
We’d met Hoa – the friend of a friend – at the Na Hang market. Before he led us to the village, he pointed to the meat stalls.
“We can buy a chicken there, but we’re not going to buy a chicken there,” he said. “We’re going to eat natural chicken from the village.”
Down some dusty roads the scenery opened up as it always does once you leave the town for the village. There were small red valleys, green hills and dark blue rivers at every curve. Down one particularly sunny stretch, Hoa drove slow enough to take in the scenery and chat a little as we drove our motorbikes side by side.
“Do you have a Vietnamese wife yet?” he asked.
“Divorced,” I said.
“Your wife was beautiful, wasn’t she?”
“No, I just liked looking at my neighbor’s wife.” He jolted with laughter and his bike swerved.
“Why don’t you take another wife?” he asked.
“Uncle Ho said nothing is more important than independence and freedom.”
Neither of those Vietnamese jokes works every time but they both worked on Hoa this time and he sped up as he laughed. The wind was blowing through our hair like in the movies.
The stilt house overlooked the village road, a small river and cornfields. Hoa introduced us to his grandmother and left us drinking beer with her while he got the wood fires burning and began cooking in the adjoining stilt house, where a man snoozed on the floor. The houses were connected by a rattly and incomplete wood plank bridge 3 meters up.
Grandmother (we came to know her, and every other old lady we met on the trip, only as “Ba”) was dressed in shiny VC-commander baggy black pants and a blue button-up shirt with a black cloth wrapped around her head into a turban. She spoke Vietnamese with a slow accent like me (but better) and answered our questions about whose houses these were and which branches of the families tended to which fields and which generations had built and inherited what and who was Tay and who was Nung and why and how and a history of all the marriages and non-marriages and births, deaths and conceptions -- immaculate and not -- and though Hoa had told us everything once already we still couldn’t keep all the grandmothers and grandfathers and mothers and daughters and fathers and sons straight.
Hoa came back with a divine ginger chicken soup, it’s spicy fattiness tended to brilliantly by the shot of homemade honey-corn whiskey added to each ladle of broth he poured over small bowls of soft Vietnamese rice. To say the meat fell off the bone would be to accuse it of being tough. It was the kind of heavenly stuff I’ve only ever gotten at home. The kind of stuff I seem to always get at home everywhere in Vietnam.
With the food came company: the dozing man and an unidentified woman – maybe 40 or 50 – whose clothes had been splashed with mud in the fields. The man, like Hoa, wore a tee shirt and shorts, but the woman had on the Viet Cong black pajama bottoms and a purple buttoned shirt with her long black hair tied back.
Olof and I drank the sweet whiskey and beer but Hoa abstained, smoking and fingering his phone as we ate. The woman began pouring shots. She was not tall, but her long hair and slender build made her look tall. She was both slender and stout at the same time because the stout was strong bone and dense muscle, not fat. She was tiny but big? Her hands looked twice the size of mine (her sexy and terrifying hands: skin like hard wax caked over years and years of work in the mud and clay, veins and muscles even in the thick long fingers, hands that made me jealous because I thought if I had them all the girls I was always trying to seduce would be easier to seduce – my soft, smooth hands show that I’ve never put in a day of work in my life) and she gripped everything – including our hands in shakes after each shot -- in a sturdy but tender vice.
“Drink the whiskey,” she said. “It makes you strong!” She was laughing at us, and with us. As we got more and more coy about drinking so much, she started punching us in the arms to egg us on. The mood became jollier and our souls merrier with each passing cup of the organic spirit. Ba eventually had a few as well.
“Drink the whiskey to sleep well,” became the woman’s refrain as the meal went on and we got pretty blasted, maybe as much on the chicken and ginger as on the booze.
That night ended with Hoa and Ba sitting with Olof and I on the floor around the last of the whiskey in the next-door stilt house. The grandmother and grandson joked with each other in Tay, taking turns making each other laugh as the gringos played guitar and sang sad love songs.