Visions of Vietnam -- Part 7

By Jon Dillingham, Thanh Nien News

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A rocky cornfield on the way from Mau Vac to Khau Vai, atop the Dong Van Karst Plateau. Photo: Olof A rocky cornfield on the way from Mau Vac to Khau Vai, atop the Dong Van Karst Plateau. Photo: Olof

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Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown…
A stilt house floods…
On the way from Cao Bang to Ha Giang we got the idea to go to the Love Market in Khau Vai. We circumvented Meo Vac and drove straight up into the rock forests of the Dong Van Karst Plateau.
Roads like this are found few places in the world. Five-hundred-million-year-old rocks jut out of the ground like scales on a giant dinosaur and hill tribes have turned the surrounding land into cornfields.
Where they can’t make the corn grow on tiny dirt plots between rocks, they’ve just flattened whole godamn hills and made rice terraces.
It’s jet-black limestone karsts peppered with rice paddies and cornfields and these incredible primal rocks that are jagged and kind of terrifying when you see how far some of the distant huts are from anything.
The road was immediately remote and tiny and at points evaporated into nothing but dirt and rocks for hundreds of meters at a time. We stopped every once in a while to witness the near-silence: anywhere can be heard the faint sounds of children in the distance, but nowhere can they be seen!
It was an hour before the quiet was broken by the first outpost. It was just an outpost, but it was on Love Market Day.
The tiny shop at a bend in the road was surrounded by a hundred hill tribe kids. They were all snacking and flirting the fuck out of each other.
The girls in all that incredible garb: neon pink and green flower-pattern headwraps, non-neon pink and green headwraps and blue and black striped vests over pink and blue thick blouses, some patterned and some not, and long hemp skirts usually black over colored stockings with a pink scarf here and there to top things off.
The boys were mostly in the traditional mandarin-style black button-up shirts and black trousers and black berets, but there was a leather jacket or dark maroon shirt every once in a while as well.
Some went without hats and some wore shoes, but most wore the yellow plastic cyclo-sandals. The boys’ and girls’ faces were like Small Change or The 400 Blows.
After we passed the outpost and rode into more rocky corn fields we passed a happy bearded dude trailed by two righteous hippie babes with magic smiles driving back to Meo Vac on motorbikes... Winning it! They’d been to the love market and made out like bandits…
…We arrived at the love market and it was so late in the afternoon that the place had all but shutdown. We saw an old man with pants Olof wanted to buy but when I went to inquire, the old man disappeared.
A group of people hanging out by a building invited us for pho and we accepted. Fresh chicken pho. We had a beer and one guy got curious:
“How come you’re American but you have white skin?” he asked.
“Lots of people in America have white skin,” I said.
“I saw Americans on TV with black skin…” he said and before I could get into all that his friend interrupted him.
“America is just like Vietnam—we have 54 different ethnic groups, America has many—“
“Yeah,” said the guy interrupting his friend, “but here we all have yellow skin—“
And the friend interrupted again--“No, some of us have white skin, some of us have black skin,” he said, pointing to his companion’s darker skin.
And it was left there.
After the pho and beer Olof was no longer disappointed with having missed the Love Market (because I’d been late in waking up and had taken a super-long spliff-shower) and we went to the Love Shrine where thousands of people had been going for the last three days, lining up for hours to pray for a lover they could not love (due to family/economic/anything restrictions)…and we sat and looked.
I can’t say we really prayed, but we kind of did. On a small mountain rice terrace above the shrine was a young H’Mong girl who listened to music through ear buds as she hoed.
She caught a glimpse of us as we drove off and winked. The solitary reaper with ear buds! And a sick rainbow-colored hemp skirt.
We arrived soulless in Meo Vac after doing the two-hour drive back (a splendid drive with Olof picking up pine cones to add to his collection that contained Palestine and the Townships)…we’d heard that we could stay in a local Nha San (stilt house) for VND80k (three-fifty!) a night per person, including dinner and wine and breakfast.
It took us forever to find the Lo Lo community house, where a stunning single mother named Dong had been put in charge of housing vagabonds. The village had raised some money to build the place so the profits could go to schools and medical stations.
We stumbled on the house by turning down the wrong road according to directions given by another heavenly nuoc mia girl down the way.
When I wandered into the downstairs, it was more like Dong’s older cousin, Ol’ Chi, had stumbled on us. She was drunk as a skunk already, just after sunset, admiring the pictures in the hall of Dong playing the 3-string hill tribe guitar, apparently waiting for us…or something like us.
It was a bit confusing to work out prices because they seemed to want to invite us for free, but it ended up being 150k for two, no breakfast, but an incredibly-spread feast unplanned and already waiting for us and the wandering wayfarers we found in our midst…it was good company and we knew we were really in our element when we saw one of the Lo Lo kids’ shirts: “Reggae On My Radio”.
We sat down with a group of 10 people to a feast too immense to fully recount here: boiled chicken, fried pork, boiled pork, sweet roast pork spare ribs, steamed clams with lemongrass, steamed snails with lemongrass, tofu soup, stir-fried greens, sour vegetable-water soup, etc etc.
Ol’ Chi was forcing everyone to take shots of rice wine, and we faked most of them, but still got a little loose.
Ky and Thanh were the two ethnic Kinh in the group. They were from out of town working on a project expanding a road to cut through the only side of the mountains surrounding Meo Vac that hadn’t been cut through yet.
As we ate and ate (and drank and drank), the group of 10 twinkled out and twinkled in: Dong’s daughter went to sleep, Reggae on the Radio’s friend did the same, but a man they all called “teacher” and his friend rambled in, shocked (shocked!) that we were refusing the rice wine.
I thought maybe Ky had a thing for Dong and Thanh was the mutual friend that knew the story from both sides. Ky smiled at Dong and made his advances more visible.
Olof eventually bowed out and so did the rest except for Ky, Dong and me. In a clumsy stupor, I took a quiet whisper moment between the two of them as an opportunity to half-drunkenly grab my guitar.
Ky was taking picture after picture of Dong, re-placing and re-posing her time and time again. Eventually it was the three of us standing in a triangle when Ol’ Ky un-awkwardly shook our hands and left.
Dong and I sat down on the floor and I started to play and sing, poorly. Midway through Angel from Montgomery, the rain started pouring like cats and dragons and fucking jackals.
It came right through the ceiling and onto my guitar and the sleeping sleepers. Our 7 new friends magically re-materialized and moved the whole operation down to the lobby/hall, complete with mosquito nets.
Before I knew it our wet bodies were dry and warm and cozy beneath blankets and the divine pulsing rhythm of the rain.

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