Visions of Vietnam -- Part 11

By Jon Dillingham, Thanh Nien News

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Approaching Quản Bạ. Photo: Olof Approaching Quản Bạ. Photo: Olof

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Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown…
Three meals a day…
We romped on and arrived cold to the bone in Đồng Văn, nothing a half-pint of rice wine and deep fried pork fat with fish sauce and fresh chilies couldn’t cure. 
We slept like massacred Indians and cowboys, like the gods a German philologist had accused of being dead, and wandered out the door the next morning to bánh cuốn from a lady at a steam shack in the old quarter who wrapped her soft rice paper pork wraps in steamed eggs. 
We drenched them in sweet fish sauce that soaked our beards and dripped onto our shirts as we ate.
The morning drive to our next stop, Quản Bạ, was sunny and divine. Around one corner we drove into a ravine with a tall mountain high up above us on one side. 
We’d just passed a pleasant but empty little village and could now see why it was empty. The villagers were all on the rice-paddy steps of the giant mountain and were busy working the fields, the ones highest up almost too tiny to see. 
The bright colors of their clothes covered the mountain. I stopped my bike to watch the small slow movements and listen to the faint sounds. There were little fires here and there, farmers chatting while working, chatting while taking breaks in the shade, chatting while tending the fires. 
Some were hauling things, some were just standing or around. Two guys driving overloaded motorbikes up and down dangerously steep mud paths nearly collided and then had to negotiate a passing where the tiny arduous footpaths they were driving on met. 
It was beautiful and graceful the way it always is in Vietnam when a person or people have to fit too large a vehicle or vehicles through too small a space. They never think for even an instant that they can’t fit. “I’m too BIG,” doesn’t enter their minds.
The sight of the whole village working the mountain put us in high spirits and we stopped with smiles at the next village for mía.
It was so delicious that we then decided to jump in the river in back of the mía house for the trip’s penultimate skinny-dip. 
We asked the mía girls if they wanted to join us. They said no. We dipped – good and skinny – as a few dudes watched us. 
We got on the bikes soaking wet and dried off in the wind and sun of the ride. Most of the drive was through the bottoms of valleys and at one stretch that was particularly easy on the eyes I slowed it down real slow and saw two girls on a bicycle (both peddling) about 200 meters across a river. 
They waved and I waved back and we drove across from each other that way for a while, smiles spanning the water, losing sight of each other every now and then due to trees or houses, delighted each time we were reunited again. Then I turned a corner and vanished

…Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream…
     Before we knew it we were pulling up to Ol’ Duyên’s Dao family homestay in Quản Bạ. Duyên had a clan of four sons who may have been the four handsomest men there were aside from Ol’ Duyên himself. 
His name means fate, or destiny. His boys all came out from their surrounding houses – where they lived with their own families – to greet us. 
They mixed us sugar milk coffees, gathered round and poured themselves tea as they started smoking the tobacco bong. 
Soon enough one of their wives and Duyên’s wife – who looked exactly like my dead Texas grandmother whose will had put me on a plane to Vietnam in the first place 9 years ago – laid out some food. 
The women walked barefoot in the house and were beautiful, but the exquisite brotherhood harbored most of the room’s energy, in their black garb, like the H’Mong men, but their hats and berets were bigger and softer. 
They had again the powerful but restrained and slow-moving hands of farmers. I can’t describe those hands as anything less than sexy. 
These men were calm and they were quiet. Then there was Ol’ Duyên’s old-man smile, like he’d been transported from ancient Egypt or some other place and time (or planet/galaxy/universe/dimension) where people had real knowledge and wisdom but still complained about back pains. 
He said the rice wine was medicine for his back pains and so he poured some as the women brought out more food: tofu with pork and tomatoes, boiled pork, fried pork, roast pork, long green beans, sprouts, sautéed bitter melon, salty crab soup, rau muống xào tỏi, roast peanuts, fantastic rice, fantastic everything. 
We ate until past full and it was satisfying to see that the family didn’t mind us too much. They made a lot of loud jokes amongst themselves and were happy and laughing enjoying the dinner. 
A little wine after a long drive goes a long way. Duyên’s wife – my grandmother – saw I was digging the roast-fire-fried garlic and so she gave me more, pilling a heaping portion into my bowl. 
She asked why I wasn’t married and I said I wanted to be free and she said I should want more out of life.
 I remembered how Bashô had always suffered starvation during his travels and I thought of Issa again:

three meals a day
this trip, too much!
winter storm clouds

 

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